Holding Up Three Quarters of the World

by Dr. Sarah C. Dunstan

Speaking in 2005, the celebrated African American civil rights activist and politician, Horace Julian Bond, reflected “There’s a Chinese saying, ’Women hold up half the world. In the case of the civil rights movement it’s probably three-quarters of the world.” With the exception of icons such as Rosa Parks, most of the women involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States are not well known today. Fewer still are recognised for their efforts to link their struggles for racial equality in the United States to internationalist projects, although this is beginning to change through the work of historians such as Keisha Blain, Imaobong Umoren and Jennifer Scanlon. In today’s blog post, I am going to briefly sketch out the internationalist thought and activism of five African diasporic women linked by their involvement in the United Nations and their commitment to racial and gender equality on the world stage: the African American lawyer and diplomat, Edith Sampson; the Martinican activist and journalist, Paulette Nardal, the African American educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Mary McLeod Bethune; Bethune’s colleague and fellow activist at the NCNW, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and the African-American lawyer and activist, Pauli Murray. In so doing, I will also gesture towards the way that their contributions were belittled and elided in their own times.

When Edith Sampson became the first black woman appointed to the permanent U.S. delegation to the United Nations, the sociologist and activist St Clair Drake dismissed her appointment as an act of propaganda on the part of the U.S. State Department, an effort “to offset communism” by painting the nation as racially progressive. It was not, he felt certain, a reflection of Sampson’s expertise.[i] Sampson and other African Americans who believed in the potential of American democracy were commonly labelled ‘the left wing of McCarthyism,’ and thinkers such as St Clair Drake and W.E.B. Du Bois refused to take their political work and thought seriously. Whilst historians have made strides towards recovering the political trajectories of less radical male activists, the work and careers of women such as Sampson seem to have been doubly tarnished by their relative conservatism. One such example of this can be found in the work of historian Gerald Horne, who writes that Sampson was used to “cover up racism and barbarism at home,” and describes her as both a “hired gun,” and a “stooge.”[ii]

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 6 April 1949. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Regardless of the propagandist intent behind Sampson’s UN appointment or her more conservative political inclinations, the work she did at the United Nations and her conception of the international order still needs to be taken seriously. Moreover, Sampson was hardly an apologist for American racism nor an inexperienced candidate. Although she had certainly had a scant presence in the male-dominated civil rights organizations of her local Chicago, her experience fighting for civil rights and racial justice were far from inconsequential. Born to a launderer in Pittsburgh, she had become a social worker before retraining as a lawyer in her twenties. After graduating, she established a successful private practice and by 1934 had been admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. That same year, Sampson had been one of the founding members of National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). An organization dedicated to “the complete integration of Negro women into the American commonwealth, with all normal rights and privileges,” the NCNW was active on both a domestic and international scale. [iii]

From its inception, the NCNW’s founders and leaders – women such as Sampson and Mary McLeod Bethune – had grounded the organisation’s domestic political goals in terms of the international struggle against racism. To this end, the group had sought relationships with women of colour worldwide and, particularly, put great effort into crafting links with women’s groups in India. As one of the organization’s members, a journalist called Toki Schalk, put it in the Pittsburgh Courier, “the world has closed in around us and we are only just so many hours away from every section of the globe. We may as well recognise that what effects Timbuctoo [sic], affects us and vice versa.”[iv] For Sampson, this went beyond acknowledging cause and effect to understanding racism in the United States as a local iteration of a global problem. She came to her position at the UN determined to combine her work for equality with an intellectual commitment to the international project of the institution.

Attempts to undermine Edith Sampson’s contributions to the international arena were characteristic of a broader contemporary pattern of undermining African diasporic women involved with the United Nations. One example can be found in press reactions to 1946 appointment of the Martinican intellectual Paulette Nardal as a specialist on the French West Indies Division for Non-Self-Governing territories. The Chicago Defender, one of the largest and most influential African American newspapers,ran with the headline “Martinique Girl Given High Post With UN Body.”[v] Dismissing Nardal as “a Martinique Girl” was ignorant at best and undeniably patronising. At fifty years of age, Nardal had already had a distinguished international career in journalism and political organisation.

Paulette Nardal. Unknown photographer. (Nombreux sites Internet et ouvrages divers) Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first black women to be admitted to the Sorbonne, Nardal had been one of the co-founders of the important interwar publication Revue du Monde Noir where she had published on questions of race and imperialism.[vi] In the late 1920s and early 1930s she had also been the secretary to the Martinican Deputy to the French National Assembly Joseph Lagrosilière and a key player in activist organising against fascism in France and world-wide through her work with groups such as the Comité Mondial contre la Guerre et le Fascisme and the Union des travailleurs nègres.[vii] When she had returned from Paris to Martinique during the Second World War, she launched a journal, La femme dans la cité, designed to educate Martinique women in their new role as voting citizens. Far from ‘a girl,’ she was an accomplished intellectual and activist who knew all too well the pressures of nation, race and sex in proscribing the limits of female behaviour and rights. Nonetheless, she was committed to the potential of international organisation and, particularly of the United Nations to be an instrument for “the liberation of all Mankind.”[viii]

Women of the African diaspora like Paulette Nardal and Edith Sampson were a rare sight at United Nations conferences in the organization’s early years. In 1945, for example, Mary McLeod Bethune was the sole African American woman – and one of only three African Americans – to act as a consultant to the US State Department at the U.N.Conference on International Organizations which established the United Nations Charter. Bethune had found it difficult to achieve even this position, only gaining access via her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People at the last minute. Nevertheless, she took full advantage of the role, bringing fourteen African American women along with her as observers. As far as she was concerned “Negro women, like all other women must take part in building this world, and must therefore keep informed of all world-shaping events.” [ix]

One of Bethune’s friends, and the Executive Director of the NCNW, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, took this sentiment to heart. By the mid-1940s, Hedgeman had already had a great deal of experience in political activism and community organizing on a national level and she was committed to the spirit of internationalism embodied in the organization of the United Nations. When the apartheid regime in South Africa was passed into law in 1948, however, she began to connect her efforts against segregation and racism in the United States to the struggles against racism occurring internationally.[x] Hedgeman became particularly vocal about her understanding of these links in the 1950s and 1960s as countries in Africa gained their independence from empire. In a 1959 article for the black weekly, the New York Age, she mapped out her understanding of the relationship between black Americans and Africa: “We are America’s major link with that ancient civilization, and we also have the opportunity to serve Africa as she develops continuing relationships with the West.”[xi]

Anna Arnold Hedgeman. Image Ownership: Public Domain , via Black Past

For Hedgeman, this link was primarily constituted by a shared political stance of anti-racism rather than a shared racial identity. This was particularly apparent in her keynote talk for the First Conference of the Women of Africa and of African descent held in the newly-independent Ghana in 1960. She was reluctant to affirm her solidarity with the women there on the basis of race but it seemed to her that there was great potential in an international movement grounded in a shared gender identity and shared experiences of discrimination on that basis. To an audience of over one hundred conference delegates, and over one thousand public attendees, she declared “It occurs to me that women have always been in public life, but the men have not always known it.”[xii] Hedgeman meant this both in terms of women’s contributions to international thought and national politics and in relation to more traditional women’s roles. She asked, “What is more important in the world than a housewife?” After all, such a woman “carries the major responsibility for what happens to the rest of us.”[xiii]

In many ways, this integrated understanding of the relationship between domestic and international spheres was reminiscent of the thinking Sampson had espoused a decade earlier, whilst an alternate US delegate to the United Nations. Outlining her strategy for peace in 1950, she wrote: “World security begins at home, where children who are born without racial or religious prejudice either learn it from parents and neighbors or are taught, according to the words of the United Nations’ Charter, ‘to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.’”[xiv] For both women, concerns around international security and access to rights had to connect the micro-concerns of family and community to the macro-concerns of global order. Their male colleagues, they felt, were too quick to overlook these so-called “womanly arenas” in favour of discussions revolving around weaponry and military defence. Nardal, too, had published similar opinions in the 1940s, contending that women had an important role to play in ensuring world peace because it was the “feminine vocation” to exercise “a calming influence” upon the warlike tendencies of men.[xv]

Neither Nardal, Sampson nor Hedgeman took this analysis quite so far as Pauli Murray who, in her own speech at the 1960 Ghanaian conference, argued that women of all races and nations shared common ground with Africans because they had all known a history of enslavement. “From these beginnings,” she declared, they could move together “towards equality.”[xvi] Murray dedicated her life to achieving this vision of an internationalist movement united by shared experiences of discrimination on the basis of gender and race. When she returned to the United States in 1962 to play an active role in the Civil Rights movement she loudly criticised the African American male leadership for not acknowledging women’s contributions. In one particularly scathing letter to A. Philip Randolph, a leading organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, she lambasted him for failing to include “a single woman leader.”[xvii] This kind of exclusion was typical of the period despite the large number of black women at the forefront of the struggle.

In the aftermath of World War Two, women like Edith Sampson, Paulette Nardal, Mary McLeod Bethune, Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Pauli Murray sought to make sense of their struggles for against racism within an international framework. In different ways, all five women believed that their identities as women, and women of colour gave their understanding of the world a unique depth crucial to the world-wide fight for equality. Although their expertise and efforts to put their ideas into practice through institutions such as the United Nations were often met undermined by their contemporaries, it is imperative that we take their thought and contributions seriously. It is only then that we will gain a fuller picture of the ways that gender and race operated to shape international thinking in this period.


[i] St Clair Drake, ‘The International Implications of Race and Race Relations,’ Journal of Negro Education 20, 3 (1951): 267.

[ii] Gerald Horne, Who Lost the Cold War? Africans and African Americans, 20 Diplomatic History (1996): 613; 623. For commentary on the way ‘mainstream’ African Americans were characterised see: Manning Marable. Race, Reform, and Rebellion, 33; Helen Laville Scott Lucas, ‘The American Way: Edith Sampson, the NAACP, and African American Identity in the Cold War,’ Diplomatic History, 20: 4, (1 October 1996): 565–590.

[iii] Edith Sampson, Council History 1, Edith Sampson Papers, Box 9, Folder 188.

[iv] “Toki Types,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 21, 1945, 10.

[v] Chicago Defender, December 21, 1946.

[vi] See for example Paulette Nardal, ‘L’Eveil de la conscience de race chez les étudiants noirs,’ La Revue du monde noir, 6 (April 1932): 26.

[vii] A pacifist organisation with international reach, the Comité was dedicated to protesting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia from 1935 through 1939.

[viii] Paulette Nardal, ‘United Nations/Nations Unies,’ La Femme dans la cité, 26, (January 1947), 4.

[ix] “Mrs Bethune Added to Frisco Advisors,” Chicago Defender, April 28, 1945, Mary McLeod Bethune Vertical File, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[x] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “One Woman’s Opinion,” New York Age, April 25,1959.

[xi] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “One Woman’s Opinion,” New York Age, April 25,1959.

[xii] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “Women in Public Life: Keynote Address in Ghana,” July 18, 1960, Box 127, as cited in Jennifer Scanlon, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, (Oxford, 2016), 131.

[xiii] Anna Arnold Hedgeman, “Women in Public Life: Keynote Address in Ghana,” July 18, 1960.

[xiv] Edith Sampson, World Security Begins at Home 5 (Oct 19, 1950) Edith Sampson Papers, Box 5, Folder 109, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard.

[xv] Paulette Nardal, ‘From An Electoral Point of View/Optique électorale,’ La Femme dans la cite, 5 (March 1 1945), 3.

[xvi] Pauli Murray, “Speech, Conference of Women of Africa and of African Descent,’” July 18, 1960, Box 40, as cited in Jennifer Scanlon, Until There is Justice: The Life of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, (Oxford, 2016), 132.

[xvii] Pauli Murray, ‘Letter to A. Philip Randolph, 1963’ as cited in Johnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African-American Communities (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 89.

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2 comments on “Holding Up Three Quarters of the World
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