Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born in Boston, the daughter of a white English woman and an African tailor. She was largely educated in Salem, where the schools had already been desegregated. At a very young age, she was married George Lewis Ruffin, one of the first black men to graduate from Harvard Law School. During the Civil War, the two engaged in charitable works and advocated for abolition. It was not until her husband’s death in 1888, however, that Ruffin began the career in activism for which she’s known today.
In the early 1890s, Ruffin started the Women’s Era Club and shortly thereafter—with the help of her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley—launched a magazine of the same name. It was the first newspaper staffed and published by female African Americans, and the first to target an audience of black women. It was headquartered at 103 Charles Street, operating out of Ruffin’s home. In the late 1890s, the Women’s Era Club, along with several other organizations in which Ruffin was involved, merged to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. The NACWC labored to improve education, living conditions, work, and civil liberties for black women and children in particular, as well as to “promote interracial understanding so that justice may prevail among all people.” Ruffin, in addition, advocated for the integration of other Boston women’s clubs.
During her life, Ruffin was personal friends with figures such as Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Booker T. Washington, though she had a falling out with Washington after he failed to support her when she was barred from attending the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1900. The incident was covered in several papers and Ruffin garnered national support, but the Women’s Era Club suggested in a statement that “colored women should confine themselves to their clubs.” In 1903, they disbanded.
Ruffin continued her advocacy, however, organizing community service for women of color and helping to found the Boston chapter of the NAACP. She died in 1924.