The ties that bind: Mary McLeod Bethune and the political mobilization of African-American women

Date of Completion

January 1997


Biography|History, Black|History, United States|Women's Studies




Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most important black activists of her time. Her life was a metaphor for black women's struggle for personal autonomy, dignity, and education as well as racial, social, economic, and political justice. Bethune employed a multifaceted approach in her pursuit of racial advancement, social, economic, and political equality, and women's rights through her work in education, black women's organizations, and government. She had a unique ability to draw women together, inspire them with her ideas, give them a sense of purpose, and a vision of the future. Bethune's work within separate female-led associations encouraged African-American women to create effective intraracial relationships, develop female leadership, and promote women's political activism. Her work inside and outside the political system allowed her to develop viable strategies to ameliorate conditions in the short-term while working to effect long-term change. She led African-American women in transforming social movements into political movements and in the process became a political leader who spoke for nearly one million black women. Bethune's insight, determination, and persuasive powers moved African-American women from ambiguity to visible and important positions in the social, economic, and political spheres of American life. Bethune was a prominent member of a transitional generation that linked black women's informal political participation of the post-Reconstruction era with women's formal political participation in the post-World War II era.^ This dissertation examines the foundations of African-American women's political activism and the development of female-centered political infrastructures through a case study of Mary McLeod Bethune. I emphasize the evolution of Bethune's political thought and her views on race, gender, and class through her work in education and women's organizations, as well as in her role as a government appointee and as founder of the National Council of Negro Women. This study moves us further toward understanding the evolution of African-American women's politics in the twentieth century and the centrality of African-American women to the development of a politics of social, economic, political, and racial justice. ^