Lizzie Gill

Editor's Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

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. In it, Cooper wrote:

Paradoxically enough, the very period of the world that witnesses the most widespread activity in uplift movements and intensest devotion to social service finds in America the hard wall of race prejudice against Negroes most emphatically bolted and barred. This is perhaps because the transfer in narrow minds from individual selfishness to group selfishness covers with the glamor of religious consecration the sordid meanness of one race toward another. Let a man convince himself that natural selection and survival of the fittest in some way involve responsibility for the uplift of his entire group, and if he is mean anyhow, it will not be hard for him to conclude that he is doing God’s service by excluding hated groups or races from all enjoyments and advantages sought for his own.

Cooper then immediately married that moral assessment to an observation about educational spaces: “A white woman said to me: ‘I cannot hold mothers’ meetings in connection with my school, or in any way touch the social life of its people,’” she wrote. “This woman is, and has been for years, principal of a colored school in the south.” In revealing this principal’s refusal to engage the mothers of her students, Cooper made a two-part critique: She called into question the legitimacy of white-led educational spaces for black students and took direct aim at the putative benevolence of the white people who lead them. How, Cooper seemed to wonder, can someone who wouldn’t grant black mothers access to her home be trusted to shape their children’s views of the world?

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. More than a century later, Cooper’s frustration with white religious and educational figures has numerous modern parallels: Racism remains deeply embedded in many evangelical institutions, health centers, and schools.

Cooper’s seminal text, A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South, addressed issues including educational disparities, women’s suffrage, representations of black women in literature, and the pernicious effects of segregation. Published in 1892, A Voice From the South remains strikingly resonant today. Cooper, who sometimes characterized her life’s work as “the education of neglected people,” advocated intensely for black women to pursue schooling. A career educator who was widowed at only 21 years old and went on to raise two foster children and her deceased brother’s five grandchildren on a modest teacher’s salary, Cooper emphasized the power of interpersonal and communal care as a method of addressing larger structural ills.

Though much of her writing focused on the public world, this keen attention to the domestic space extended into Cooper’s own life. She converted her home at 201 T Street NW—where she raised the young people in her care—into an intellectual and community hub. In addition to caring for children, Cooper also tended to the concerns of the working poor around her. The area surrounding her home in the city’s LeDroit Park is now named for her, a testament to Cooper’s loyalty to her local community even as she wrote about issues that plagued the nation. “Washington has the largest colored population of any city in the world. Whatever obtains here will stand as a model of the best or a symptom of the worst in American life,” she wrote. “It is to the interest of every man, woman, and child in Washington that each child here, the least important in our reckoning as well as the most important, shall have the chance to develop into serviceable citizenship.”

It is, on its face, a remarkably simple proposition: Actions taken on a local level, positive or otherwise, can reverberate on a national scale. Cooper viewed institutions such as schools, churches, and settlements as some of the most important places for that work to occur. Indeed, her texts consistently posit that there is nothing shameful about viewing the domestic sphere, femininely coded though it may be, with a reverent eye. Even so, she took great care to distinguish between the exclusive clubs white women created and the communal spaces she deemed most useful. One of the oft-referenced quotes from her famous work “Woman Versus the Indian” includes another reference to the dangers of white women’s domestic gatekeeping. Speaking to white suffragettes, Cooper made a deliberate exhortation: “Is not woman’s cause broader, and deeper, and grander than a blue stocking debate or an aristocratic pink tea?”

Cooper then contrasted those highfalutin images with the questions she deemed more urgent: “Why should woman become plaintiff in a suit versus the Indian, or the Negro or any other race or class who have been crushed under the iron heel of Anglo-Saxon power and selfishness?” The sudden pivot to violent imagery implicated white women, even those who saw themselves as being limited by the constraints of domesticity, in the imperiling of black women. Cooper’s ability to convey the elasticity and potential of the domestic space in her rhetoric made for energetic, persuasive prose.

It was never just a rhetorical exercise, though. Cooper’s words stemmed directly from life as she experienced it. She emphasized the connectedness of the social movements she witnessed: white women’s fight for suffrage; the long (and ongoing) struggle for racial justice; and concerted efforts to remove the barriers that poor people of all backgrounds face. In marrying these sometimes dueling efforts, Cooper both critiqued the white women who considered her beneath them and charted a different way forward for all Americans.

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