That the African American clubwoman movement was the motive force of social and cultural progress in the late 19th and early 20th century is now well documented and beyond dispute. In the late nineteenth century, blacks were faced with poverty, illiteracy, and racism-as expressed in white terrorism and violence, and pseudo scientific assertions of black inferiority- on a massive scale. In light of the indifference shown by the local and national governments, tens of thousands of black women organized themselves into a club movement and became virtually the sole provider of social services to African Americans. While caring for the impoverished and the aged and building hospitals and schools, the clubs also became the training grounds and incubator for the rise of the black woman leadership and intellectual class.
The guiding principles which would inform and instruct the black women’s movement are most often overlooked. Yet these principles, which paralleled and sometimes predated those of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, were the glue and philosophy which held the clubs and movement together, and equally important, laid the foundation for the rise of the leadership of Washington, DuBois, and Garvey.
Context Which Gave Rise to the Guiding Principles
The black women clubs became the primary vehicle for the articulation of women’s issues and “race work”. The clubs, to be sure, were the organized expression of the black women’s movement. This movement paralleled the “white women’s movement”, but differed in origin, scope and focus. The “black women’s movement” grew out of the post-reconstruction period and was a vital response to the push back by white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation. Thus, with the advent of Jim Crow segregation, which was a caste system that relegated blacks outside of the protection of the law and the constitution, and the ascendancy of white supremacy and its attendant violence and terrorism blacks, in particular black men, vulnerable to the worst exploitation and were legally blocked from taking advantage of the growing opportunities which of the period of the industrial revolution.
The “black women’s movement” grew out of this context, a context in which the African Americans as a people were at great risk of being defined outside of the human race- a menace to “white civilization”- and thus unworthy of American democracy and citizenship. The movement for black women then was not limited to the narrow confines of the rights of women. Rather, the black cub women saw themselves as “the best hope” for the race. They talked about their work as “race work” and their problems as “race problems”. Uplifting women was the means of uplifting the race. In short, the problem of race evolved around the problem of women. The focus on race would be a significant factor in the principles which would guide the movement and the race.
Critique of Male Leadership
The black women’s movement offered a severe critique of male leadership, both white and black. Francis Ellen Wakins Harper, for example, insisted that women had to be companions of men, but sharper in the social and moral development of the race. Harper criticized men for their “greed for gold and lust for power and for being warmongers.” Anna Julia Cooper, the leading black female intellectual and architect of black feminism stated that it was up to women to mold “strength, the wit, the statesmanship, the morality all the psychic force the social and economic intercourse” of the era.
More specifically, the women’s movement was critical of black male leadership, arguing that it was ineffectual and incapable of advancing a robust social and cultural agenda which would “uplift the race.” Anna Julia Cooper seeing the possibilities of women during the later part of the 18th century asserted that it was the “colored woman’s office to stamp the weal or woe on the history her people.
Gertrude Culvert, president of Iowa State Federation of Colored Women’s club, echoed Cooper’s sentiments proclaiming that “it is to the Afro-American women that the world looks for the solution of the race problem. The first step has been banding of ourselves together, putting our head together, and taking counsel of one another.” Further, the women in the movement argued that black male leadership had been “sidetracked by the Democrats and Republicans, to the detriment of the race. One of the Movement’s leaders, Fannie Williams asked: “Must we begin our political duties with not better or higher conception of our citizenship than shown by our men when they were first enfranchised.” Williams went on to issue a blistering moral criticisms and commentary on what had gone before the women’s movement. “Are we,” she asked, “to bring any refinement of individuality the ballot box? Shall we learn our politics from the spoilsmen and bigoted partisans or shall we learn it from the school of patriotism and an enlighten self-interest?” Thus, the examination and critique of male leadership and domination would inform the thinking of the leadership of the black women’s movement. Unlike their male counterparts, black women in the movement proclaimed the superiority of women in matters concerning the moral welfare of black people, and the equality of black men and women in everything else.
Guiding Principles of the Black Women’s Movement
The black women’s movement like all other movement was guided by its most gifted members and a set of overarching principles which focused and instructed the work of the movement and the worldview of its members. These principles would prefigure the philosophical principles of the New Negro Movement in the 1920s and the 1960s Black Power Movement.
Centrality of race in thought and practice and work Central to the philosophical underpinning of the black women’s movement was the issue of race. Race, moreover, was the organizing principle for the black women in the movement. For black clubwomen, race and women’s issues were one. They saw race, gender and economic as a set of interlocking problems which could not be dealt with independently.
Nation-building through work and service Women in the movement believed that if they worked for poor blacks, they worked for black women, and if they worked for black women, they worked for the race. Mary Church Terrell saw work and service as an obligation. She said: “We have to do more than other women. Those of us fortunate to have education must share it with the less fortunate of our race. Their feminist and race consciousness were inseparable so that their race work advanced their cause as women and their achievement as women advanced the cause of the race.
African American would rise no higher than its women The status of black women was a measure of the progress of the race. Black women in the movement believed that when they improved the condition of black women, they necessarily improved the condition of the race. They saw and talked about their work as “race work”, and viewed their problems as “race problems”. Uplifting women was the means of uplifting the race. For them the problem of race evolved around the problem of women. Their feminist and race consciousness were inseparable so that their race work advanced their cause as women and their achievement as women advanced the cause of the race.
Complementarity of men and women in the domains of life Black clubwomen saw Men and women as defined by their differences. These differences complete and make the other gender whole and complete. Anna Julia Cooper summed up the strengths and difference of women and men, stating: All I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side to truth; that these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements-complements in one necessary and symmetric whole.”