Three Great Revolutions: Black Women and Social Change

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

Long before “intersectionality” gave us a language to analyze the interactions of race, class, and gender, W.E.B. Du Bois examined the particular experience and role of black women in American capitalism.

The Library of Congress

At the 2015 conference of the American Sociological Association, five eminent scholars of W.E.B. Du Bois came together to discuss his works and his contributions to sociology. This essay has been adapted from the ASA panel discussion.   


“In law and in custom, our women have no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, 1914

“What is today the message of these black women to America and to the world? The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When now, two of these movements—women and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, 1920

In 1915, sociologist and mathematician Kelly Miller submitted an essay to The Crisis that argued against woman suffrage. A contemporary of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Miller sought a middle ground between the educational and political philosophies of the two leaders. A scholar committed to the growth and expansion of Howard University, Miller had also worked with Du Bois at The Crisis. As a committed intellectual, Du Bois could thus not simply ignore Miller. Miller was a powerful peer who was sometimes an ally on matters of education and uplift. Du Bois, the editor of The Crisis, decided to publish the essay. But he also decided to utilize his editorial authority to counter his colleague’s arguments in support of woman suffrage.

Woman suffrage was something that Du Bois passionately supported. Introducing Miller’s essay as editor, Du Bois insisted on answering and opposing every point that Miller made.[1] Giving black women the vote, as far as Du Bois was concerned, would be a more powerful benefit to black people overall than white women’s votes would empower white people (who were oppressors with too much power already). As far as Du Bois was concerned, the role of women in black America was so vital that there was, in effect, a multiplier at work when women got involved. That multiplier effect would benefit the entire “small nation of people”, in the words of David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis, within the nation of the United States.[2] It was tied to what Du Bois called black women’s “three great revolutions.”

This essay points to the early role of W. E. B. Du Bois in developing the perspective that we now call intersectional—analyses that account for the interactions among gender, race, and class, especially when evaluating and understanding black women’s experiences and the experiences of women of color.[3] While I am tempted to call him the pioneer of such analysis, one colleague suggests that Frederick Douglass and Anna Julia Cooper may have beat him to the starting line. However, Du Bois’s sociological approach to black women not only embraced a holistic understanding of black women’s experience, but he also saw black women’s agency as a central constitutive component of black culture, consciousness, and social organization. While contemporary feminist and womanist analyses seek to identify the double jeopardy or, taking into consideration the interaction effects among the multiple dimensions of African American women’s experience, what Deborah King identified as black women’s “multiple jeopardy,”[4] Du Bois could have used a phrase like “multiple threat” to describe black women’s multiple capacities for agency and social change. Writing early in the twentieth century, however, Du Bois used the term revolution.

Black women embodied, according to Du Bois, the “three great revolutions” that defined the age: labor, black people, and women. The rise of capitalism and industrial economies engendered a range of social upheavals, especially involving labor and the dynamics of political economies. Before the end of the civil war, there were women’s rights conventions that argued for woman suffrage. Black women, especially and most famously Sojourner Truth, were a part of these conventions although they had to press their way in against white opposition. At the end of the Civil War, during Reconstruction, black men acquired the vote. Rather than resent black men’s gaining the vote, black women insisted upon participating in the political meetings to make black men accountable to their entire community. In some cases, where violence was threatened, black women provided the security for political meetings. For example, in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, black women insisted that black men confront the threat of violence and vote; the women threatened to label black men as cowards if they did not attempt to go to the polls.[5]

Black women embodied, according to Du Bois, the “three great revolutions” that defined the age: labor, black people, and women

Du Bois viewed the political participation of black people as the critical renewal and expansion of democracy in the United States. The role of women in this process, without the vote, was already considerable; with the vote, this struggle for progressive change would be far more effective. He thus evaluated the public impact of women and men differently, and viewed women as more politically trustworthy. But this was not simply an argument that cast women as morally superior, as was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In countering Kelly Miller, Du Bois argued that black women could not be bought, and that therefore their votes would have a greater collective effect. Had Du Bois lived to see the last two elections in the United States, he would have observed the fruits of his trust: black women had the highest voter participation of any group, white or black.

Beyond his arguments for woman suffrage, Du Bois saw black women’s experiences, their community activities, and their labor experiences as an integral part of the powerful material, cultural, and political contribution to the making of America that Du Bois called The Gift of Black Folk.[6] In the book, Du Bois expanded upon a question he asked and began to answer in his earlier 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. In the book’s final essay, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois asked: “This country, how came it yours?” He began to answer by pointing to the “gifts” that black people brought to America—their labor, their songs, and their “spirit.” In The Gift of Black Folk, Du Bois expanded his answer to the question by extending his analysis of the role of black people in “the making of America.” Instead of three gifts, Du Bois identified nine. Before the labor of slavery (2), labor that Du Bois believed shortened the development process by two hundred years, there was the role of the black explorers (1) and black soldiers (3). Along with the creation of the folk song (4), Du Bois pointed to the importance of folklore, art, and literature (5). The “gift of the spirit” (6) represented the African and African American impact on American religion, an aspect of Du Bois’s analysis that begs for what Peter Coclanis calls “thickening description.”[7] Two highly linked additional gifts acting as forces in shaping America were represented in the challenges that Black people brought that expanded democracy, what Du Bois calls the emancipation of democracy (7), and the role black people played in reconstructing democracy after the civil war (8). The list constituted a rehearsal of ideas that later blossomed into Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois’s 1935 book that Anna Julia Cooper had passionately urged him to write.[8]

But the most important of the nine gifts, for our purposes, was Du Bois’s setting apart the role of women as a distinct gift or cultural and social force in the making of America. That chapter Du Bois problematically titled, “The Freedom of Womanhood.” In it, he offers a comprehensive understanding of the importance of black women to the “making of America.”[9] In their roles as laborers, as community activists, and, ironically and problematically and in ways that would be considered highly “politically incorrect” today, in the exploitation of their sexuality and reproductive labor skills, black women are a significant cultural and social force. Du Bois argues that black women’s roles as workers serve to emancipate all women by contradicting the ideology that excludes women from the labor force. It is an argument that anticipates Angela Davis’s later analysis of the role of black women during slavery[10] and Paula Giddings’s assessment of black women’s work roles as a vanguard for white women in the labor force in the late twentieth century.[11]

Du Bois attempted to redeem the horrors of black women’s history by pointing to the role of black women as pioneers in cross-cultural relations. Ironically, this included black women who worked as domestic workers. It is quite possible that he was influenced by the work of women such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, who saw the occupational role of the majority of black women at that time as an opportunity to do missionary work in obliterating race prejudice and white supremacy. A major project of African American agency, in the face of American racism, has been asserting and establishing the full humanity of black people, a project echoed currently, I think, in #BlackLivesMatter. Du Bois tried to argue that the dialectics of certain aspects of black women’s suffering provided painful opportunities for what today we might call euphemistically “intercultural understanding.”

Black women’s roles as workers served to emancipate all women by contradicting the ideology that excluded women from the labor force

For me, the most important part of Du Bois’s 1924 analysis is his assessment of black women’s club and community work. He pointed out that black women did not have the economic resources that white women enjoyed. But although black women lacked money, they managed through their missionary societies and their clubs—through church participation and civic engagement—to bind together the black community and to engage in social uplift. My reading of Du Bois is to feel comfortable in arguing that black women are responsible for the organizational integrity of the black community and in shaping its infrastructure of black liberation. Du Bois’s analysis of black women’s community work provides an angle of vision that makes one actually see black women’s agency in labor struggles, women’s issues, and black liberation. The “three revolutions” that black women embody may also account for the particular viciousness of the stereotypes that serve as weapons in enforcing the subordination of black women and their communities, something that Patricia Hill Collins identifies as controlling images.[12]

During the period of Du Bois’s most intense observations and analyses of the black experience, black people were in the process of forming distinctive public spheres, largely through the national conventions of their denominations. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham demonstrated that between 1880 and 1920, black Baptist women established one of the most significant of these spheres: the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention.[13] The growth and development of this sphere coincided with the emergence, in 1896, of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization of organizations that drew together the leaders and members of two national organizations: the Colored Women’s League and the National Federation of Afro-American Women. Those two organizations encompassed at least 400 local and state organizations and federations of black women. A few of these black women, most notably Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, also participated in federations, clubs, and suffrage organizations of white women—sometimes only if the black women were light enough to “pass.” The formation of the National Association of Colored Women (which would later become the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs) represented the emergence of black church women as national leaders in a sphere that was independent of the control of clergymen and their conventions. Du Bois was especially critical of Baptist men for their fractiousness—their willingness to divide and split churches and conventions over doctrinal issues and in competition for power. This was especially prevalent among Baptists, a problem that was exacerbated by the lack of a connectional hierarchy that could bring nationally organized resources to support and defend small rural congregations, especially during the period known as the nadir of American race relations. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin made it clear that black women were not separating or alienating but were simply moving to the front to join with anyone, women or men, willing to do the work of racial uplift.

Du Bois assessed the value of women’s organizations as vital to the development of the black community. Because of their ability to organize and transcend differences through multiple organizational memberships, Du Bois viewed women as responsible for what I like to call the infrastructure of black liberation. He regarded women and their organizations as the fundamental organizational infrastructure of the black community.

Higginbotham also noted that the politics of black Christian women evince what she called “the politics of respectability.” That concept, I think, has been frequently mischaracterized and used dismissively in pop ideology and academia; the way it is dismissed and denigrated represents another subtle attack on the viability of black women’s politics. As part of their political activities, black women sought to demonstrate their fitness and capability for participation in the public affairs of their churches, their communities, and the nation. While these practices have been labeled “middle class”, and some of the most prominent women leaders were clearly elite—for instance, Mary Church Terrell and Margaret Murray Washington—the majority of women in churches and clubs were working class or, to utilize the language of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), “women in industry.”

Du Bois regarded women and their organizations as the fundamental organizational infrastructure of the black community

Black women and their work reflected a cultural contradiction that black people address with difficulty, if at all. Noting the response of black people to the fictional works of Barbara Neely and Kathryn Stockett about black women household domestics, it is clear that the dialectics and unintended consequences of black female domestic labor have not been integrated into our analysis of black women’s labor, political, and cultural histories. For many African American women, however, that occupational heritage fuels their consciousness and commitment to the black community. Once when doing fieldwork at a 1983 convention of sanctified church women, I observed the closing remarks provided by the daughter of the denomination’s founder. She reminded the women—whose various class positions were evident and sometimes masked by their dress and other status characteristics, but who were united in their roles as evangelists, missionaries, supervisors, and deaconesses—to be sure to leave a tip for housekeeping by saying, “Remember when we had those jobs!” The speaker who was saying “we” had never had such a job but considered herself as part of the “we.”

Du Bois recognized the platforms on which black women gathered to deliberate across class and status lines as the spaces in which the “three great revolutions” received their energy. When organizations mobilized to produce what we now appreciate as the civil rights movement, many of the platforms that were mobilized were shaped and peopled by women, especially the churches. A famous male civil rights leader is reputed to have stated that, “If women ever leave the movement, I’m going where the women are going because nothing’s going to happen without the women.” Du Bois, if he were alive to hear this, would probably express relief that one of the representatives of those male leaders he criticized for their fractiousness has finally grasped the importance of black women to the total wellbeing of the entire black community, of society, and of the world. We need to take seriously Du Bois’s understanding of these “three great revolutions,” thicken our descriptions of black women’s communities, culture, and consciousness, and harness the power of this interaction among revolutions.[14] In times like these we need this kind of intersectionality at work.

Rev. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies at Colby College. Her work focuses on the roles and experiences of black Christian women in 20th century America.

References and Footnotes

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B. 1972[1915]. "Votes for Women." In: Daniel Walden (ed.), The Crisis Writings. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications. Also see: Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. 1898. “The Study of Negro Problems.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. January, 1898. | Du Bois, W.E.B. 1972[1912]. "The Black Mother." In Daniel Walden, Editor, The Crisis Writings. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications. | Du Bois, W.E.B. 1969[1920]. "The Damnation of Women." Pp. 163‑192 in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Schocken Books.
  2. Lewis, David Levering, and Deborah Willis. 2003. A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois & African American Portraits of Progress. New York: HarperCollins (Amistad) Publishers.
  3. It is important to remember that in a racialized, stratified society, everyone’s experiences reflect the intersection of gender, race, and class; my focus on black women reflects the highly problematic and adverse consequences of this interaction.
  4. King, Deborah. 1988. "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14(1) 265-295.
  5. See “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” Episode 2.
  6. Du Bois, W.E.B. 1975 [1924]. The Gift of Black Folk. Millwood, New York: Kraus‑Thomson Organization Limited.
  7. Coclanis, Peter. 1990. “Thickening Description: William Washington’s Queries on Rice.” Agricultural History. Vol. 64. No. 3 (Summer), pp. 9-16.
  8. Du Bois, W.E.B. 1979 (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Atheneum Publishers. Also see: Lewis, David Levering. 2000. W.E.B. Du Bois‑‑The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963.
  9. It is important to remember that what can be considered Du Bois’s mission statement, his 1898 article in The Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science focused on the role of sociology in understanding the United States—a society whose unique circumstances provided a tremendous opportunity for the growth of sociology. For Du Bois, the black story was essential to the whole story and it made him conscious of the ways that others in the “whole story” were excluded and erased. Such an example can be found in his critical essay at the end of Black Reconstruction in America where he reminds us that the way southern history is approached excluded not only free black people but also the majority of white people by only focusing on the enslaved and their enslavers.
  10. Davis, Angela. 1971. "The Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves." The Black Scholar 3 (4).
  11. Giddings, Paula. 1984. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: William Morrow and Company.
  12. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Unwin Hyman, Inc.
  13. Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. 1993. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880‑1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  14. See: Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. 1996. "The Margin as the Center of a Theory of History: African‑American Women, Social Change, and the Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois." Pp. 111-139 in Bernard W. Bell, Emily R. Grosholz, and James B. Stewart, Editors. 1996. W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge.