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Life Story: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842–1924)

Editor, Writer, Activist

The story of the founder of the first newspaper for Black women and a leader in the Black women’s club movement.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Prominent Woman of Boston, Leader of the Club Movement Among Colored Women, 1900. New York Public Library.

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Josephine St. Pierre was born on August 31, 1842 into a wealthy Boston family. Her mother was a white woman from England and her father was a Black man born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, which is part of France. Josephine’s father earned fame and wealth in Boston society through his clothing business.

Josephine attended a private elementary school in Boston. Initially, her classmates’ parents did not know about her racial background and assumed she was white because of her light skin. When they discovered she was Black, they successfully pressured the school’s leaders to remove Josephine. Public schools in Boston were segregated at the time. Josephine was not allowed to attend school with white students. Her parents enrolled Josephine in an integrated school in the nearby town of Salem.

Josephine married George Lewis Ruffin when she was 15 years old. In the past, it was common for daughters of wealthy families to marry this young. The Ruffins were another wealthy Black family in Boston. 

Immediately after getting married in 1857, Josephine and George moved to England. They married shortly after the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which ruled that Black Americans were not citizens of the United States. Josephine and George wanted to start a family in a country where Black people received equal treatment under the law. 

Josephine and George returned to Boston during the Civil War to support the fight to end slavery in the United States. She helped recruit Black soldiers to fight in the Union Army. Josephine also volunteered for the Sanitary Commission, which assisted sick and wounded Union soldiers. She also became a mother during the Civil War and took care of her five children in addition to her activist work.

George started building a successful career in the United States. He was the first Black American to graduate from Harvard Law School and was elected to local office in Massachusetts. In 1883, he was appointed as the first Black judge in Massachusetts.

Josephine also continued her career as an activist after the end of the Civil War. In 1870, she joined the Massachusetts Suffrage Association. This organization fought to give women the right to vote. Josephine befriended many influential activists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Booker T. Washington.

In 1879, Josephine founded the Kansas Relief Association. Many formerly enslaved Black Americans migrated out West to states like Kansas and faced financial difficulties in their new homes. Josephine raised money for the Association with contributions from wealthy Bostonians. These funds were used to provide migrants with money, clothing, and other necessities.

George died unexpectedly in 1886. Josephine decided to devote her time and money to fighting for the rights of Black women. In 1890, she launched The Woman’s Era, a newspaper for Black women. The newspaper included stories written by Black women from all over the country. It was the first national newspaper published by and for Black women.

“If laws are unjust, they must be continually broken until they are altered.”

Josephine published articles in The Woman’s Era to broaden the meaning of Black womanhood. Each issue featured stories about major achievements by Black women. She believed that Black women should not just identify as wives and mothers. They should have a life outside of their family commitments. Josephine encouraged Black women to inform themselves about politics, particularly issues regarding race.

The Woman’s Era was a newspaper for Black women, but it was written specifically for wealthy and educated Black women. Articles in the newspaper often reflected an elitist view on the experiences of working-class Black women.

The fight against racial inequality was a common subject in The Woman’s Era. As the newspaper’s editor, Josephine often added personal commentary in her articles. Journalists are expected to remain neutral, which made Josephine’s approach unique. She was particularly outspoken about her views on racial segregation. After the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold racial segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, she encouraged readers to break the law because it was unjust.

Josephine funded the launch of The Woman’s Era herself but struggled to keep the business financially successful. She took another job as the editor-in-chief of the Boston Courant in 1891. Managing both publications, however, had a major impact on her health and she left the Boston Courant the next year.

Josephine continued to be an active member of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1894, she founded the Woman’s Era Club. It was the first Black women’s organization in Boston. The club discussed topics like politics and literature, provided scholarships to Black women, and helped Boston’s Black residents live better. Josephine was the president of the Woman’s Era Club until 1903.

Women’s clubs were organizations run by women to pursue community services and educational opportunities. During the second half of the 19th century, these clubs became important gathering places for women. Most club members were white and wealthy.

In 1895, Josephine organized the first national meeting of Black women. She wanted to show support for Ida B. Wells, who had received criticism for her anti-lynching writing. During the convention, the attendees established the National Federation of Afro-American Women. In 1896, they joined the Colored Women’s League and formed the National Association of Colored Women. Josephine was elected to serve as the organization’s first vice-president.

By the mid-1890s, Josephine changed The Woman’s Era in order to stay in business. She doubled the advertisements and published the paper twice a month. She tried to increase readership by distributing the paper for free. She also encouraged Black women to stop subscribing to the Ladies’ Home Journal, the most popular women’s publication at the time, because it did not print articles written by Black women. Despite all of Josephine’s creative business decisions, she was not able to make enough money. She published the last issue of The Woman’s Era in 1897.

Josephine did not stop fighting for racial justice after she stopped publishing her newspaper. In 1900, she tried to desegregate the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. She asked the federation to accept the Women’s Era Club and did not mention that most of its members were Black. The federation approved her application, and Josephine traveled to their national convention. When they discovered she was Black, her club’s application was denied.

For the next two decades, Josephine traveled across the country to give speeches about women’s rights and racial equality. She also continued to volunteer for organizations that helped Black communities.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin died from kidney disease on March 13, 1924.

Vocabulary

  • elitist: Supporting the idea that the wealthy should be in charge of society.
  • federation: Group of organizations that have come together, usually with similar goals.
  • segregated: Separated based on race.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood inform her activism and her perspective on Black womanhood? 
  • How did Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin fight for the causes she believed in?
  • What made Women’s Era a unique publication? Why was it important for Black women?
  • Why were clubs important to Black women’s activism, and how did Josephine shape this movement?
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Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

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