Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Marian D. Butler, 1884-1942

By Evan Elizabeth Hart
Assistant Professor, Missouri Western State University

Marian D. Butler was born in South Carolina in 1884, becoming an important activist and socialite in her adopted home, Washington, D.C. From a young age, Butler personally experienced the horrors of racial violence and the pain of both racism and sexism. These experiences shaped her activism in support of woman's suffrage, equal rights for women and African Americans, and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.

Although the records are silent on Butler's youth, as an adult she lived in Washington, D.C., dedicating her energies to myriad social and political causes important to African Americans both in the nation's capital and throughout the country. She was married to William J. Butler, the son of Reverend and Mrs. J.C. Butler. Her husband died at their home on April 14, 1919 of a brief, undisclosed illness.

According to the 1910 and 1920 federal manuscript censuses for Washington, D.C., Butler was a dressmaker; her husband was a government clerk in 1910 and the couple had a live-in cook at that date. By 1920 Marian Butler was widowed, living alone.

As a married woman, Butler dedicated herself to equal rights for women and African Americans, traveling extensively as both a speaker and supporter of numerous charitable and rights organizations. In March 1913, she marched in the first National American Woman Suffrage Association march in Washington D.C., listing herself as a homemaker and suffrage supporter. In addition to her work in support of woman suffrage, Butler traveled extensively in support of racial equality. She spoke frequently in support of the American Red Cross, particularly in regards to health issues of importance to African Americans, and also supported black business owners and entrepreneurs as a member of both the National Negro Business Directory System of Washington, D.C. and the National Negro Business League (1900). Butler also supported the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (1843) – a fraternal society – going throughout the country making speeches and raising of funds. In addition, Butler was a member of the National Equal Rights League (1864-1921), attending conventions across the country. Although the content of her work is not known, newspapers described her speeches as “patriotic” and “interesting.”

Although the Butlers owned a home in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Butler traveled extensively throughout her marriage, even living in Newport News, VA during World War I. Butler performed various office duties for the War Commission on Training Camp Activities in that city from 1918 until her husband's death the next year. In addition, while residing in Virginia, Butler was appointed as one of only a handful of African American probation officers as part of the new program instituted by the state in 1917. Not much is known about her specific duties, but Butler returned home when her husband fell ill and remained in Washington.

After her husband's death, Butler continued her activist work, focusing in particular on the plight of African Americans. She served as vice president of the National Political Study Club, as well as numerous equal rights organizations throughout Washington, D.C. According to Butler, she was a “member of everything that is for the uplift of the race.” In 1926, Butler testified in front of a Senate committee in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In her testimony, Butler recalled living through a number of lynchings, including that of her brother-in-law.

Butler's activist focus shifted more toward women during the Great Depression. In 1937, Butler organized a large dinner in honor of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), the Director of the National Youth Administration at the time. Her work with Dr. Bethune continued when, in 1937, Butler presided over a charity event to raise money for Bethune-Cookman College. In addition, Butler continued attending conferences throughout the country, dedicating a great deal of her time to women's club work through the National Council of Women (1888), the Federation of Women of the District of Columbia, and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) (1935). In 1938, Butler was part of a conference with Eleanor Roosevelt and the NCNW at the White House regarding the “participation of Race women and children in Federal welfare programs.” Mrs. Butler remained an active member of her Washington, D.C. community until her death in the Freedman's Hospital in February 1942.


Federal manuscript censuses for Washington, D.C., 1910 and 1920, accessed with HeritageQuest Online.

Carrie Williams Clifford, “Suffrage Paraders,” The Crisis, Vol. 5 no. 6 (April 1913), p. 296. [LINK]

Bottom, Davis. Tenth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to the Governor of Virginia for the Year Ending September 30, 1918. Richmond, VA: Superintendent Public Printing, 1919

U.S. Congress. Senate. Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary. To Prevent and Punish the Crime of Lynching: Hearing Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, 69th Cong., 1st sess., February 16, 1926.

“Women Meet in Washington, Decry Role Offered Them in Welfare Set-Up.” The Chicago Defender, April 9, 1938.


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