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1 introduction TALK WITH YOU LIKE A WOMAN The “other side” has not been represented by one who “lives there.” And not many can more sensibly realize and more accurately tell the weight and the fret of the “long dull pain” than the open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America. —Anna Julia Cooper, 1892 It afford me to write to you . . . This is business I want to talk with you like a woman. —Lucy Cox, letter to superintendent of Bedford reformatory, 1924 Anna Julia Cooper and Lucy Cox both struggled to be understood as women of intelligence and vision, yet their differing positions shaped how they voiced their grievances regarding the treatment of black women in America. Cooper, born into slavery in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, exemplified racial advancement after emancipation. Influenced by the Reconstruction era and the dictates of the dominant nineteenth-century gender ideology , she was one of a handful of black women to graduate from Oberlin with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Eventually earning a Ph.D. in 1925 at the Sorbonne in Paris, she had a long career as an activist and educator in Washington, DC. Cooper consistently questioned the sexism and racism she encountered and is best known for her germinal 1892 black feminist text, A Voice from the South.1 In contrast, Lucy Cox, born in Tarboro, North Carolina , in 1898, represented a segment of the black working class that, despite myriad obstacles, sought to improve their lives through education. Although both of her parents died by the time she was fifteen, they taught Cox the value of learning. Unlike most young women in her socioeconomic position , she completed the eighth grade. However, her studies at the Colored State Normal School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which trained black 2 Introduction teachers for the segregated school system, ended after a year because of her inadequate finances. Subsequently, Cox attempted to further her education but supported herself primarily as a domestic.2 Cox, a child of the Jim Crow era who embraced the less restrictive social and sexual norms of the 1920s, joined the stream of black southerners who migrated to New York City around World War I. Although her higher education had been cut short, she envisioned a career as a skilled worker and took a typing course at one of the city’s business schools. Yet she soon found herself arrested for prostitution and imprisoned in the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford. Both Cooper and Cox faced enormous challenges in gaining a higher education, and the contrasting outcomes of their trajectories illuminate the varied struggles and strategies of black women in the early twentieth century. Both Cooper and Cox insisted that their voices be heard and demanded black women be acknowledged as legitimate examples of respectable womanhood. In her 1892 collection of essays that addressed racism, sexism , and imperialism, Cooper wanted all Americans—black and white, men and women—to recognize the injustice suffered by the “mute and voiceless” black woman, while she simultaneously contended that elite and middleclass black women’s moral superiority was imperative for racial advancement : “Only the Black Woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed, dignity of my womanhood, without violence, and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’”3 For Cooper and her contemporaries, an emphasis on black women’s virtue reinforced their unique position as respectable women as well as their mission to improve the material and moral conditions of black communities by uplifting their working-class and poor black sisters.4 We hear Cox’s voice in the three letters of protest she wrote to the prison superintendent at Bedford . Her third letter of protest emphasized her individual concerns as a parolee who wanted prison administrators to recognize her perseverance, honesty, and ambition and admit that she could be law-abiding and respectable in spite of her prior mistakes and her working-class status. Her frustrations with those officials’ dismissive attitude were crystallized at the beginning of her 1924 missive when she declared, “This is business I want to talk with you like a woman.”5 As a female offender, Cox might be taken to represent the perfect candidate for black female reformers’ mantra, expressed in the National Association of Colored Women’s motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” yet her letters belie the assumption that she needed moral reform. Comparing these two women’s ideas about...


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