This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born into one of Boston’s leading families on Aug. 31, 1842.
St. Pierre’s mother was an English-born white woman, and her father was from the island of Martinique, and founder of the Boston Zion Church, according to BlackPast.org.
The St. Pierres sent their young daughter to Salem, where the schools were integrated due mainly to the work of John Lenox Remond.
At the age of 15, St. Pierre married George Lewis Ruffin, the first African American to graduate from Harvard Law School and who later served on the Boston City Council, the state legislature, and became the first Black municipal judge in Boston.
After marriage, St. Pierre Ruffin graduated from a Boston finishing school and completed two years of private tutoring in New York.
During the Civil War, the Ruffins were involved in various charity works and civil rights causes, and St. Pierre Ruffin especially was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, working with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, BlackPast.org noted.
From 1890 through 1897, Ruffin edited Women’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for African American women, and she also founded, with her daughter Florida Ridely and Boston school principal Maria Baldwin, the Women’s Era Club.
“Believing that a national organization for Black women was needed, she convened the first annual convention in 1895 which drew 100 women from 20 clubs across the United States,” the BlackPast.org editors wrote.
She named the organization the National Federation of Afro-Am Women, which a year later united with the Colored Women’s League to become the National Association of Colored Women. Mary Church Terrell was the organization’s president while Ruffin and several others served as vice presidents.
Although the Women’s Era Club later disbanded, Ruffin remained active and became one of the founding members of the Boston NAACP in 1910.
“Working side by side with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s right to vote, only to have the rights of efforts sidelined, is typical of Black women’s experiences throughout history,” Marcela Howell, president of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, said in an email this week. “Ms. Ruffin, like other Black women in her time, fought for passage of the 19th Amendment only to have her vote bargained away and her role in the women’s suffrage movement written out of history.
“While we see sexism and racism inextricably intertwined, not everyone does,” she said. “A victory for white women — whether it is the right to vote, the right to higher education, the right to better pay — does not mean that we will share in that victory. The fight for Black women’s rights, in all areas of our lives, must be intersectional — addressing racism, sexism, and classism – is we are to achieve real power. Ms. Ruffin knew this.”
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin died in Boston on March 13, 1924.