The history of women’s activism over the past 200 years is the story of countless, courageous individual women—collective action begins when just one person confronts injustice, and then another joins her, and then another. Some of these women’s names may be familiar to us, but many Black women’s stories were deliberately left out of a narrative that prioritized the feats of white women who wrote the first draft of their story. To celebrate Black History Month and the closing of Women March on February 7, 2021, the Center for Women’s History dives into some of the often overlooked but critical contributions of a group of Black women: Maria W. Stewart, the Rollin sisters, and Dorothy Bolden.
Maria W. Stewart
Orphaned at age five, the Connecticut-born Maria W. Stewart grew up as the domestic laborer for a minister’s family. Even without a formal education, she became an ardent abolitionist and advocate for racial equality. In 1832, she became the first American-born woman to lecture publicly to mixed audiences on political themes of emancipation, racial prejudice, and women’s rights. In one such speech delivered in Boston, she declared, “Whites have so long and so loudly proclaimed the theme of equal rights and privileges, that our souls have caught the flame also, ragged as we are.” Her speeches were printed in the abolitionist William Garrison Lloyd’s newspaper, The Liberator. Stewart’s public speaking career was short-lived, however, as opposition escalated into violence after the 1830s with over 150 incidents of white rioters targeting African American and white abolitionists. She wrote, “I have made myself contemptible in the eyes of many that I might win some. But it has been like labor in vain.”
Following this career shift, she became an educator and remained active in Black literary societies and activist circles for the remainder of her life. She taught in public schools in New York, and after the Civil War worked at a hospital managed by the Freedman’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. Just before she died in 1879, she published a compilation of her speeches, essays, and poems in Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart Presented to the First African Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston.
The Rollin Sisters
Charlotte, Frances, Katherine, Marie Louise, and Florence Rollin were part of an elite, free Black family in Charleston, SC, that held considerable political influence despite the white supremacy of the antebellum era. Their father, William Rollin, was a merchant, and all five sisters were educated in private schools, including Northern boarding schools. The sisters became staunch activists for equal rights across race and gender during the Reconstruction period. After the Civil War, Charlotte and Katherine both taught in Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Columbia, SC, and all of the sisters launched careers as advocates for women’s and human rights.
Frances won one of the nation’s earliest civil rights suits in 1867, successfully suing a ferry captain for refusing her a first class seat because of her race; the captain was fined $250. She authored a biography of Martin R. Delany, the highest-ranking officer of color in the army, which was published under her nickname “Frank.” In 1868, she married William James Whipper, a lawyer and politician who shared her beliefs in women’s suffrage. He served as a state representative between 1868 and 1872, forming a link between the sisters’ and formal politics. As a reporter for the New York Sun wrote during this period, the Rollins’ home was “a kind of a Republican headquarters. They entertain very handsomely, and they are, as I said before, leaders of the ton here—that is, among a certain class. The Government meets at the Rollin house almost nightly, and in the parlors of that mansion much of the wisdom which controls our affairs is generated.”
Charlotte’s activism made a splash both in state politics and the national suffrage movement. By 1869, both she and Katherine worked as clerks in the State House. That year, she made a speech on the floor of South Carolina’s statehouse advocating for women’s suffrage. The Woman’s Journal, the official journal of the American Woman Suffrage Association, took note of an 1871 meeting in which Charlotte reflected on the “ridicule and merriment” that the idea of women’s suffrage “universally” faced among male politicians. Countering this dismissive perspective, she asserted, “We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the ground that we are human brings, and as much entitled to all human rights.”
As white planters began to regain power in the South, the Rollin sisters’ political and activist careers in South Carolina came to an end. The sisters fled north, fearing the growing power of the Ku Klux Klan. (Except for Katherine, who died of consumption in 1876 at the age of 25.) Frances moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked with Frederick Douglass and the U.S. Department of Lands, and continued to be active among literary, church, and political society. Charlotte, Louise, and Florence moved to Brooklyn, where the former worked as a high school principal.
Born in Atlanta, Dorothy Bolden began working as a domestic laborer at age nine, first helping her mother, and later taking on clients of her own. Bolden became active in the civil rights movement after watching media coverage of Rosa Parks and the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. As she revealed in an oral history interview, “I remember when Parks wouldn’t get off the bus…I was telling her to sit there. I know she couldn’t hear me, but I said, ‘Sit on down honey, don’t move. You tired, I know you is.’ And, uh, because I knew how it was.” Bolden soon took on her local school board over the lack of neighborhood school facilities, and eventually became a well-known activist. In her words, “I went to rallies, I was the most vocal person there. I stayed that way and Dr. King sent SNCC and all the rest of them: [saying] ‘Look Bolden up down there, she’ll help you.’”
Frustrated with the unprotected labor status of domestic workers, Bolden asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to help her organize workers. He responded by telling her, “You do it.” Indeed, she did, using the long bus rides Black women took into white Atlanta neighborhoods as an opportunity to organize as workers. In 1968, she co-founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America, and served as its head for almost thirty years. Over time, she organized more than 10,000 domestic workers in ten cities. In the city of Atlanta alone, Bolden’s activism helped increase the wages of domestic workers by a third and secured social security rights for domestic workers. Domestic workers continue to organize today for workplace protections.
While Women March closes this weekend, our digital interactive, based on our work with the Teen Leaders program, and featuring these stories alongside the biographies of 51 other activists, remains online, representing a non-exhaustive portrait of the many instrumental figures in women’s activism who sparked change through their leadership and example.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History