Like many of her contemporaries in other northern cities, Ruth Bennett understood that solving Chester’s issues with Black migration, employment, education and housing meant linking local activism to larger state and national struggles and the organizations tasked with promoting racial justice. In her early years in Chester, she founded the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its first president. At the state level, Bennett was most active with the Pennsylvania State Federation of Colored Women’s Club, where she served as president from 1915 to 1927.
By the early 1920s Pennsylvania had 102 federated Black women’s clubs; two city federations, in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with approximately 40 clubs each, 26 departments and an estimated 13,000 Black women. These Black women founded nine different types of clubs: literary, charity, social, welfare, suffrage, self-improvement, sewing circles, and mutual-aid societies. Club organizing and affiliation was essential to race progress and social change among Black women.Pamela Smoot, 1998 Smoot, Pamela Annette. 1998. ““Self Help and Institution Building In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1830-1945: Volume I” PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University: 168.
The Federation of Women’s Clubs functioned as a network for activists to share practical ideas and philosophical principles for advancing the status and conditions of Black women and families. The Federation embraced and adapted the ideology of “racial uplift” prevalent at the time, based on the idea that Black economic, material, and moral “progress” would work to diminish white racism.
As president of the state federation, Bennett worked with like-minded peers from across the state, coupling her reform ideals with actual practices at the local, state and national levels. She took what she learned ‘on-the-ground’ in Chester to help devise a statewide reform platform for skills training and education for women and girls. She increased the number of local chapters and club membership, using dues revenue and charity events to establish employment training programs and a Scholarship Loan Fund to provide financial aid to attend college.Miller, Khadijah Olivia Turner. 2001. “Everyday Victories: The Pennsylvania State Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs Inc. 1900-1930, Paradigms of Survival and Empowerment” PhD Dissertation, … Continue reading And she exposed Chester to ideas about community betterment and self-improvement that circulated in her statewide and national networks of Black women leaders.Newspaper-Clipping-Scrapbook
Club affiliation provided a support system for Black women leaders to strengthen local efforts to combat racial -and gender-based injustice. Drawing from a vast array of archival sources, Professor Khadijah O. Miller has written on the political and social significance of Black women’s clubs in early 20th century Pennsylvania. Local clubs, state meetings, lectures, organized fundraisers, and social events served as the primary means for the sharing of ideas, learning of each other’s work, and supporting each other. This solidarity, rooted in resistance to common experiences of discrimination based on race and gender, sustained Black women’s activism and allowed for progressive actions in cities such as Chester.
Networking among activists has long been recognized as a core principle for successful social movement organization. But it is worth noting that during an era of sanctioned, de jure racial segregation and prevailing social norms governing gender (especially in regard to women as public actors), forming networks, building solidarity, and acting collaboratively required tremendous resources, discipline and planning. Black women’s clubs, such as the Federation, provided support and means to sustain activism, legitimize efforts, and provide an important social identity to members across the state and the nation. During her tenure as president, Ruth Bennett took full advantage of and furthered the Federation’s organized network of chapters and their members. Her leadership attracted the attention of national Black women leaders, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, who led the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Ida B. Wells and Daisy Elizabeth Lampkin.
NEXT SECTION: Bennett’s Legacy of Everyday Activism
|↑1||Smoot, Pamela Annette. 1998. ““Self Help and Institution Building In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1830-1945: Volume I” PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University: 168.|
|↑2||Miller, Khadijah Olivia Turner. 2001. “Everyday Victories: The Pennsylvania State Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs Inc. 1900-1930, Paradigms of Survival and Empowerment” PhD Dissertation, Temple University, p. 119.|