Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones made me rethink Black women’s activism. Most importantly, that activism started a full century sooner than I realized. And it happened through four primary avenues: the pulpit, publishing, schools, and women’s clubs.

If you’ve heard of Diane Nash, Ida B. Wells, or Sojourner Truth, you already know part of the story. But Vanguard adds many more women’s experiences to that story. Jones introduces journalists Jane Swisshelm and Mary Ann Shadd Cary. She also explains how orators like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper stood in front of crowds hostile to women and still exclaimed their beliefs with skill and ferocity. And there are so many more heroic women.

Jones structures Vanguard as a series of mini-biographies, traversing the decades of the late 19th century until recent times. Some women received acclaim in their times, and others’ history is more hidden. But Jones shines a light on them all and shows how the activist movement built in stages throughout this time.

Black women’s focus differed from that of both Black men and white women. The other two achieved equality earlier and with a different path. Yes, they all benefited from Constitutional Amendments, but that was a process in fits and starts.

And of course, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 continued the progress. But let’s be clear, Jones also reminds us how far we have to go despite the successes of Shirley Chisholm, Loretta Lynch, Stacey Abrams, and more recent activists.

My conclusions

Vanguard is vital to realizing the whole arc of human rights activism by Black women. All of the women whose names come to mind quickly owe a debt of gratitude to the women before them. And Jones gathers information about these players into one volume, singing well-earned praises of the unsung.

For me, the book was professorial in tone, tending towards a drier style. Yet, every time Jones quoted the words of these brave pioneers, I heard my heart sing. The wisdom, courage, and perseverance contained in these pages are mightily inspiring.

I recommend Vanguard to social justice and feminism readers, especially if you like history as well.

Pair with the groundbreaking fiction of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and the current-day reflections of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall.