My friend Stephanie was born and raised in South Africa by her American missionary parents. She works for iThemba Projects and writes about race, missions, and social justice at her blog Bridging Hope. We met at a summer camp several years ago — co-counselors for a cabin-full of girls. We went separate paths globally, but we keep reconnecting as our spiritual and social justice journeys cross paths. Here’s Steph.
Since it’s Black History Month, I’ve been learning a lot about black women in American history and the contributions they’ve made to the feminist movement. I thought I’d share my mini-history lesson (which mostly came from Paula Giddings’ book Where and When I Enter).
Maria Stewart: The first “Jesus feminist” was black
Sarah Bessey’s popular book Jesus Feminist makes the argument that we should primarily be looking at the way Jesus treated women when forming views on the role of women today. Well, flashback to 1832, when twenty-nine year-old Maria Stewart from Connecticut — who was the first American-born woman to give public speeches and leave extant texts of her addresses—stepped into the public sphere to talk about women’s rights and the abolitionist movement. Stewart had experienced a religious conversion; today we’d probably call her an evangelical, or “born again,” person, not just a culturally religious person like so many in that time period.
At the time, there was strong cultural and religious pressure for women to refrain from speaking in public. But that didn’t stop Stewart. “What if I am a woman?” Stewart declared. “Did [God] not raise up Deborah to be a mother, and a judge in Israel? Did not Queen Esther save the lives of the Jews? And Mary Magdalene first to declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?”
Paula Giddings, in her book Where and When I Enter says, “Stewart was confident enough to challenge the exhortations of Saint Paul, whose words had long been used to justify slavery and sexism.”
Stewart, well, simply went over his head: “Saint Paul declared that it was a shame for a woman to speak in public,” she noted, “yet our great High Priest and Advocate did not condemn the woman for a more notorious offense than this….”
In any case, Paul’s words were of another time, and Stewart was convinced that if he had understood the urgency of these times, his attitude would have been different. “Did Saint Paul but know four songs and deprivations,” she said confidently, “I presume he would make no objection to our pleading in public for our rights.”
Ida B. Wells: Who says you have to choose between kids and career?
While white women (who had the economic privilege of not having to work) have throughout the centuries seen a dichotomy between having children and working, black women (by sheer necessity) have not. They’ve always balanced work and family, and their contributions to the greater society have been massive.
Even highly educated white women have throughout history shown a reluctance to engage in the larger workforce because marriage and family were seen as exclusive (and highly prized) occupations. A study of an Ivy League women’s university in the late 50’s concluded that women were “convinced that the wrongs of society will gradually right themselves with little or no intervention on the part of women college students.” A study in 1956 revealed “that 60 percent of all women college dropouts left school to marry or because they were afraid too much education would be a bar to marriage” (Giddings).
It wasn’t until the “Women’s Lib” movement of the 1970’s that white women “got woke” to the problems embedded in this idea.
But black women?
In the 1890’s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett single-handedly led an anti-lynching crusade, owned her own paper, and began investigative journalism into lynchings, which forced her exile to the North. She had her first child just before the founding meeting of the NACW (National Association of Colored Women).
But 1896 was an election year, and soon after the meeting, Wells-Barnett was asked to campaign through Illinois for the Women’s State Central Committee, a Republican political organization. She accepted the invitation on the condition that arrangements be made for a nurse for her six-month-old son, Charles. The committee agreed to provide someone to take care of him in all the cities where she was scheduled to lecture. “I honestly believe,” Wells-Barnett recalled, “that I am the only woman in the United States who ever traveled through the country with a nursing baby to make political speeches.”
She said a year later, when she was pregnant again, that she was retiring from public life. But this lasted about five months. “A brutal lynching in South Carolina compelled her to lobby the President and Congress in Washington, D.C. Again she took a nursing infant along. This was followed by her work for the Black soldiers in the Spanish-American war, activities in the Afro-American Council, her continued anti-lynching campaign, and the birth of two more children in 1901 and 1904″ (Giddings).
Unlike the white women of the 1950’s who thought social problems would go away on their own, Ida B. Wells did something about social injustice. She loved her kids— but she realized there were other families out there besides just her own, and her contributions were needed to bring justice and safety to them as well.