Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

A black and white portrait of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

Courtesy of New York Public Library

Quick Facts

Activist, Clubwoman, and Suffragist
Place of Birth:
Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
Place of Death:
Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Death:
Place of Burial:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cemetery Name:
Mount Auburn Cemetery

A plaque, inconspicuously attached to 103 Charles Street, recognizes the work of a significant Beacon Hill activist from the turn of the 20th century, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Mainly a list of accomplishments, its words do not fully capture Josephine’s “fighting spirit.”[1] An activist at heart, Josephine assumed many public roles throughout her life, from publisher and clubwoman to community leader and national organizer. Called “a woman of rare force of character, mental alertness and of generous impulses” by Booker T. Washington, Josephine dedicated her life to bettering the lives of women and African Americans both locally and nationally.[2] 

Born in the small Black community of Beacon Hill in 1842, Josephine grew up surrounded by the abolitionist ideals of justice, equality, and political representation. Her earliest public service dates to the Civil War, during which Josephine recruited African American men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts infantry regiments.[3] After the war, Josephine served on several charities that helped Southern Blacks.[4] In the following decades, Josephine participated in numerous clubs and service organizations in the Boston area, often skillfully maneuvering between White and Black communities to do so.

The Woman’s Era Club, a club primarily for African American women, was one of Josephine’s greatest achievements. Established in 1893, the Woman’s Era Club had two purposes: to offer its members opportunities for self-improvement and to address issues that directly affected the African American community, from local politics and education to the debilitating discrimination and terrorism against Blacks in the South. The club’s corresponding publication, The Woman’s Era, quickly became the nationally recognized voice of Black clubwomen across the country. Josephine used this publication to bring Black clubwomen to Boston in 1895 for the first National Conference of Colored Women in America.[5]  In her address, Josephine announced the launch of a new movement, one in which women of color were “coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us.”[6] She hoped this conference would encourage Black women to unify under a single organization and “in truth bring a new era to the colored women of America.”[7] Josephine’s dream came true; on the final day of the conference, these clubwomen formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which served as a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women.[8]

While women’s suffrage was not the only cause that caught Josephine’s eye, she undoubtedly saw suffrage as a step towards greater equality. Josephine looked up to the Boston abolitionists and women’s rights activists Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Abby Morton Diaz, and Ednah Dowe Cheney, who welcomed her into the movement because they “were broad enough to include ‘no distinction because of race’ with ‘no distinction because of sex.’”[9] Through their encouragement, Josephine joined and accepted leadership positions in local and national suffrage organizations, many of which were dominated by White women, including the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA), and the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association (MSSA).[10] In these roles, she unflinchingly criticized New England for its hypocritical claims of celebrating liberty and equality: “It is my belief that the sentiment of New England favors ‘all rights for all,’ except the ballot for women.”[11] For Josephine, granting women the right to vote would ultimately lead to additional political and social rights that had long been in men’s hands, such as the right to serve on a jury and parental

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin particularly encouraged suffrage in Boston’s African American communities. Under the auspices of the MWSA, Josephine led an organized effort in 1885 to reach out to men and women in the Beacon Hill and West End neighborhoods, which were home to Boston’s African American community. In the months leading to the election, Josephine helped organize meetings at churches and private homes on Beacon Hill, during which local leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, Archibald Grimke, Lucy Stone, and Josephine herself spoke in favor of women’s suffrage. They encouraged women to register to vote in school elections (a right Massachusetts women had won in 1879[13]), and men to vote for a Ward 9 representative who supported municipal suffrage for women.[14] In 1887, Josephine helped establish the West End Suffrage League (an affiliate of the MWSA), and served as its first president. Other local Black leaders comprised the club’s 45 founding members, including former state representative Lewis Hayden and religious activist Eliza Gardner.[15] The League’s motto, “All rights for all,” reflected the community’s belief in equality across both race and sex.[16]

Josephine’s distinct voice on the suffrage movement’s intersection with race most clearly came through in her editorial in the 1915 special suffrage edition of the NAACP journal The Crisis. Proudly announcing her dedication to “suffrage work in Massachusetts for forty years and more,” Josephine called on African Americans to support suffrage.[17] Josephine described suffragists as women with a long-standing commitment to equality, arguing, “We can afford to follow those women.”[18] Like many of her contemporary activists who had lived through abolition, Josephine saw the connections between the plight of women and that of African Americans. As a Black woman, she inherently felt the responsibility to fight against the many forms of injustice on both fronts. For her, women’s suffrage would serve as a stepping stone to more expansive civil rights: “We are justified in believing that the success of this movement for equality of the sexes means more progress toward equality of the races.”[19]

Contributed by: Kaitlin Woods, SCA Public Historian

[1] "Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin,” Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, ed. Hallie Quinn Brown (Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Publishing Company, 1926): 151-153.

[2] Booker Washington, A New Negro for a New Century: An accurate and up-to-date record of the upward struggles of the Negro Race (Chicago: American Publishing House, 1900), 390-392.

[3] Maude Jenkins, “She Issued the Call: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.” Sage 5, no. 2 (Fall 1988): 74-76; “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin,” Homespun Heroines, ed. Hallie Quinn Brown.

[4] This included the Kansas Relief Association and the Association for the Promotion of Child Training in the South. See “Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin,” Sketches of Representative Women of New England, ed. Julia Ward Howe (Boston: New England Historical Publishing Company, 1904): 335-339.

[5] See The Woman’s Era 2, no. 5 (August 1895).

[6] Address of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, President of Conference,” The Woman’s Era 2, no. 5 (August 1895).

[7] Address of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin,” The Woman’s Era 2, no. 5 (August 1895).

[8] Minutes of the First National Conference of Colored Women,” The Woman’s Era 2, no. 5 (August 1895); “To the Women of the Country,” The Woman’s Era 2, no. 5 (August 1895); Jenkins, “She Issued the Call,” 75.

[9] Teresa Blue Holden, “‘Earnest Women Can Do Anything:’ The Public Career of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, 1842-1904,” (Phd dissertation, Saint Louis University, 2005); Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, “Trust the Women!” The Crisis 10, no. 4 (August 1915).

[10] Holden, “‘Earnest Women Can Do Anything;’”112; Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[11] Mrs. George L. Ruffin,” Boston Globe, March 4, 1894.

[12] Mrs. George L. Ruffin,” Boston Globe, March 4, 1894.

[13] Barbara Berenson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2018), 74.

[14] Woman’s Journal 16, no. 37 (September 12, 1885), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$295i; “School Suffrage in Boston,” Woman’s Journal 16, no. 39 (September 26, 1885), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$314i; “Suffrage Meeting in Ward Nine,” Woman’s Journal 16, no. 40 (October 3, 1885), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$322i;
“Massachusetts Field Notes,” Woman’s Journal 16, no. 44 (October 31, 1885), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$354i.  

[15] “West End Woman Suffrage League,” Woman’s Journal 18, no. 33 (August 20, 1887), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$274i.

[16] “West End Woman Suffrage League,” Woman’s Journal 18, no. 44 (November 5, 1887), Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed January 10, 2020,$366i

[17] Ruffin, “Trust the Women!”

[18] Ruffin, “Trust the Women!”

[19] Ruffin, “Trust the Women!”

Last updated: July 31, 2020