The story of the NAACP begins with a woman. On February 12, 1909, a white journalist and woman’s suffragist named Mary White Ovington joined with two other activists to call for a national conference on the civil and political rights of African-Americans. The ensuing conference was called the National Negro Committee, and it was soon renamed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ovington served as the third chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors from 1919-1934 – the highest position in the NAACP — and twice as Executive Secretary — then the highest position on the NAACP staff. She added a woman’s touch to NAACP leadership in its first few seminal decades, helping to build a strong field staff against seemingly insurmountable odds, protest racist depictions in the media like “Birth of a Nation”, and push for anti-lynching legislation.
Ovington was far from the last female leader in the organization. Famed suffragist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells was a founder of the NAACP. The first three Executive Secretaries of the NAACP were all women — besides Ovington, there was Francis Blascoer (1910-1911) and Mary Childs Nerney (1912-1916). All told, three women have served as Executive Secretary; 3 women served in the elected board position of President (which was merged into President/CEO in 1996); and 4 women, including myself, have served as Board Chair.
Women have had a major influence on NAACP history even outside of top leadership positions. In 1917, Assistant Secretary Martha Gruening was sent to investigate race riots in Houston and St. Louis. Her reports provided the motivation for the iconic 1917 NAACP Silent Protest down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. In 1935, a youth delegate at the NAACP Convention named Juanita Jackson made a fiery address arguing for the creation of a national youth department. One year later, the Board approved the NAACP Youth & College Division. In 1945, NAACP board member Mary McLeod Bethune joined other NAACP leaders to travel to San Francisco and help write portions of the United Nations’ founding charter. In the 1950s, NAACP Southeast Regional Director Ruby Hurley solicited memberships in southern states and organized NAACP units into the Southeast region, which still remains the largest region in the NAACP.
Today, women make up 40 percent of the Association’s 64-member Board of Directors. Many of the female leaders on the Board also serve as state conference presidents, like Hazel Dukes in New York, Gloria Jean Sweet-Love in Tennessee, Adora Obi Nweze in Florida and Alice Huffman in California. In recent years, female leadership has also expanded among the NAACP’s national staff. Women lead the Health, Development, Environmental Climate Justice, Criminal Justice, Events Planning, Legal, Membership, IT, and Voting Rights programs, as well as many support offices in the Baltimore Headquarters.
The NAACP has always been an organization that practices what it preaches. Our mission statement is to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons” — not just men. Women have always played a large role in helping us pursue that vision, and we are well positioned to continue doing so in the future.