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Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2003
pp. 212-220 | 10.1353/jowh.2003.0025

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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 212-220

Victoria W. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xiii + 335 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8078-2637-5 (cl); 0-8078-4966-9 (pb)
Patricia Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform 1880-1930. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xviii + 386 pp. il. ISBN 0-8078-2633-2 (cl) 0-8078-4965-0 (pb)
E. Frances White, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. x + 194 pp. ISBN 1-56639-879-7 (cl); 1-56639-888-0 (pb)

One generally agreed-upon task of women's history is to see what happens when we place women at the center, rather than the margins, of history. In the past ten years, an abundance of useful and fascinating studies of African American women have done just that. By recognizing that women played a crucial role in African American institutions, social life, politics, and reform, this growing body of scholarship has reshaped the dominant historical narrative of twentieth-century African American history. A greater understanding of respectability politics, particularly in the Progressive Era, and an appreciation for the pervasiveness of debates about respectability within the African American community are two important insights regarding African American politics and reform to come out of this recent scholarship. Three newly published books expand upon this topic. Two of the works in this review explicitly use respectability as an explanatory focus. Victoria Wolcott delves deeply into the historically specific meanings of respectability in interwar Detroit, while E. Frances White uses respectability in a chronologically and definitionally expansive sense as an ongoing issue affecting not only Progressive-Era activism, but also contemporary scholarship. The third work, Patricia Schechter's intellectual biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, does not use the concept as explicitly, but, because Wells-Barnett's activism spanned the rise of respectability politics and its period of greatest influence, Schecter's study demonstrates the sometimes devastating personal and political impact of the concerns and obsessions which lie at the heart of respectability politics. Together, these three works suggest a range of ways respectability can illuminate African American life and history.

In Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first coined the term "politics of respectability" to describe the work of the Women's Convention of the Black Baptist Church during the Progressive Era. She specifically referred to African American's promotion of temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity. The politics of respectability entailed "reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform." Respectability was part of "uplift politics," and had two audiences: African Americans, who were encouraged to be respectable, and white people, who needed to be shown that African Americans could be respectable.

African American women were particularly likely to use respectability and to be judged by it. Moreover, African American women symbolized, even embodied, this concept. Respectability became an issue at the juncture of public and private. It thus became increasingly important as both black and white women entered public spaces.

Since the publication of Righteous Discontent, exploring the politics of respectability has enriched scholars' understandings of black reformism and intraracial class politics. The prevailing interpretation suggests that the politics of respectability undermined the rigidly scientific nature of racial categories, but generally tended to reinforce status distinctions within the African American community. These distinctions were about class, but they were defined primarily in behavioral, not economic, terms. By linking worthiness for respect to sexual propriety, behavioral decorum, and neatness, respectability served a gatekeeping function, establishing a behavioral "entrance fee," to the right to respect and the right to full citizenship. It is clear that many women who embraced the rules of respectability, including the rank-and-file membership of the Women's Convention, were working class. Nonetheless, respectability marked "differences of social status within the working class," leaving some out of the circle of worthy, respectable citizens. Yet much of the best work on this topic has...