Tuesday, September 10, 2019
The Atlantic, How Black Suffragettes Subverted the Domestic Sphere
A few decades after her graduation from Oberlin College, the scholar and educator Anna Julia Cooper wrote a stern missive in the Ohio university’s alumni journal. Having relocated to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the district’s first Colored Settlement House, Cooper wrote in the early 1900s with clarity and conviction about the importance of social service. She exalted the domestic sphere as a cornerstone of broader community support—and, in doing so, also illustrated just how unevenly groups like white religious entities metered their care. Her letter, published amid the struggle against gendered discrimination at the ballot box, revealed rifts in which groups of Americans most readily earned others’ sympathy and respect. One hundred years after the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteed white women the right to vote, Cooper’s work still offers an instructive lens through which to consider social movements and interpersonal dynamics alike.
Like those made by other black suffragettes, the statement, titled “The Social Settlement: What It Is and What It Does,” was an often pithy indictment of the sociopolitical landscape—and, implicitly, a blueprint for what might be improved. ***
Sometimes referred to as the mother of black feminism, Cooper was born into slavery around 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina. She would go on to spend most of her long academic and community–oriented career living in Washington, D.C., where she helped establish the Colored Women’s League (which later became part of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, led by the likes of Mary Church Terrell, the organization’s first president). As white women across America endeavored to secure voting rights for themselves—and made calculated choices to exclude black people from those efforts—Cooper produced some of the most foundational analysis of injustice in the United States, most notably the overlaps of racism and sexism.