W. E. B. DU BOIS
A staunch defender of women’s rights—particularly those of Black women—Du Bois proclaimed that the uplift of women, next to the problem of the colorline and peace, was the greatest modern social issue.14 He did not mean by this, however, that the issue of women’s rights is of secondary significance to or is completely isolated from the issues of race. However, he did believe that if the issue of race were solved, the solution would go a long way toward solving the issue of gender.
Du Bois did not hesitate to credit Black women for their contributions to their race and to American society in general. He pointed out, for example, that it was strong Black women who laid the foundation for the Black church.15 For him, part of the tragedy of what he characterized as "the damnation of women" was the belief that women exist not for themselves but for men.16 Du Bois was adamant in his belief that the decision to mother children was a woman’s decision. Like Douglass, Du Bois rejected the popular male practice of "benevolent guardianship," which was based on the notion that men know what is best for women.17 Central to Du Bois’s political commitment was the idea that it was important for women to get the ballot so that they could represent themselves.
Du Bois, like Douglass, was concerned about the rights of all women in all classes, but, in practice, he too may have had more contact with middle-class feminists than working-class women of either race. Yet, as with Douglass, he did not hesitate to critique the class and race bias of White feminists of his day. He raised just such a criticism in 1912:
The advocates of woman suffrage have continually been in great danger of asking the ballot not because they are citizens, but because they occupy a certain social position, are of a certain grade of intelligence, or are "white." Continually it has been said in America, "If paupers and Negroes vote why not college-bred women of wealth and position?" The assumption is that such a woman has superior right to have her interests represented in the nation and that Negroes and paupers have few rights which society leaders are bound to respect.18
Du Bois’s writing is especially sensitive to the interests of Black women. He made it clear that he would forgive the White South for many of its sins against his people at "the judgment" but that he did not intend to forgive the South, in this world or the next, for its brutal, disrespectful treatment of Black women.19 Du Bois insisted that all women have been abused in the United States, but none so brutally as the Black woman. He writes:
I most sincerely doubt if any other race of woman could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire. . . . For this, their promise, and for their hard past, I honor the women of my race. Their beauty,—their dark and mysterious beauty of midnight eyes, crumpled hair, and soft, full-featured faces—is perhaps more to me than to you, because I was born to its warm and subtle spell; but their worth is yours as well as mine. No other woman on earth could have emerged from the hell of force and temptation which once engulfed and still surrounds black women in America with half the modesty and womanliness that they retain. I have always felt like bowing myself before them in all abasement, searching to bring some tribute to these long-suffering victims, these burdened sisters of mine, whom the world, the wise, white world, loves to affront and ridicule and wantonly to insult. I have known the women of many lands and nations—I have known and seen and lived beside them, but none have I known more sweetly feminine, more unswervingly loyal, more desperately earnest, and more instinctively pure in body and in soul than the daughters of my black mothers. This, then—a little thing—to their memory and inspiration.20
In some ways, Du Bois’s activism on behalf of women went even further than Douglass’s; Du Bois publicly challenged Black male chauvinism and recognized and affirmed the activities of Black women.21 For example, Du Bois published Black women’s social, political, and leadership activities in the Crisis "Men of the Month" column.22