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Paisley Jane Harris - Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism - Journal of Women's History 15:1 Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 212-220

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

Paisley Harris

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. [End Page 212]

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. 1

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. 2

Since the publication of Righteous Discontent, exploring the politics of respectability has enriched scholars' understandings of black reformism and intraracial class politics. 3 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. 4 Yet much of the best work on this topic has complicated this prevailing view by exploring the ways respectability is contested and malleable. Many African Americans challenged the very assumptions of respectability politics, while others had their own uses for, and understandings of, respectability.

Wolcott pieces together a particularly nuanced picture of African American politics and culture in Detroit by focusing on the concept of respectability as it was expressed over the course of approximately thirty years in the Progressive and interwar eras. She draws upon an impressive array of evidence, including blues songs; the records of churches, clubs, and welfare agencies; ethnographies and transcripts of interviews; and reminiscences and secondary sources regarding blues performances and [End Page 213] blues singers to paint a rich picture of the contours of African American politics and social life as they were expressed in a variety of social institutions. Wolcott looks at the development of what she calls "bourgeois respectability," the various ways this respectability was used and reshaped, and the shift toward a more masculinist discourse of manhood rights, nationalism, and economic self-help.

Wolcott's study first establishes the contours and influence of reformers' bourgeois respectability at its height. From about the 1890s to the 1920s, a "focus on respectability—cleanliness, restrained religiosity, and sexual morality—pervaded the language of black reformers" (48). In the early twentieth century, female-centered bourgeois respectability was a "public transcript" (13), a resistant discourse, crafted by bourgeois reformers to appeal to white people, yet having deep roots in African American reform thought. This discourse challenged dangerous stereotypes of promiscuous, "uncouth" African Americans that white people used to justify lynching, rape, and segregation. It was also directed at the African American community, particularly the migrants of the early Great Migration, who were urged to uphold standards of temperance, sexual restraint, and neat appearance in their attire and living space in order to ensure access to jobs, housing, and, eventually, equal rights. Her early chapters are particularly enlightening regarding the extent to which bourgeois respectability was communicated and defined visually and relationally through public display. Many aspects of this ideology also resonated with migrants' own behavioral standards of sexual propriety, which were aimed at the even more basic matter of self-protection. Wolcott uses the term "bourgeois respectability" to distinguish reformers' public transcript—the specific class-based sort of respectability Higginbotham described. This careful use of language allows her to suggest that reformers' definition of respectability was not universally accepted.

Wolcott's middle chapters consider remakings and transgressions of respectability that new migrants expressed in the outwardly disreputable, informal economy they established. In this thriving informal economy, African Americans defined respectabilityquite differently. As Wolcott suggets, "The thousands of women who worked in illicit entrepreneurial activities . . . also made judgments about respectability and self-worth" (102). They engaged in a range of activities which "transgressed bourgeois notions of respectability . . . but did not necessarily transgress working class notions of respectability that foregrounded economic survival and racial pride" (9-10). Many women involved with Spiritualist churches, for example, embraced ecstatic religious practice that African Methodist Episcopal and Black Baptist churches frowned upon, yet took great pride in their piousness and clean living. Some women who worked in illicit [End Page 214] enterprises such as prostitution or gambling also went to church and participated in "respectable" community activities. For these women, "individual self-worth and economic survival took precedence over presenting a public face of decorum and self-restraint"(94). Wolcott's interpretation of such attitudes as remakings, rather than rejections, of respectability makes sense. The women of Wolcott's informal economy still distinguished between those worthy and unworthy of respect based on moral distinctions, and many were still concerned about the opinions of others, but they were most concerned with the opinions of members of their own African American community.

The last chapters of Wolcott's book trace a decline in the influence of bourgeois respectability. The informal economy, the diverse ideologies it fostered, and the leaders it spawned lessened the influence of bourgeois respectability within the African American community. At the same time, it was becoming clear that the tactic of bourgeois respectability was not effective in changing white people's racial attitudes. Particularly as the African American population of Detroit swelled and dispersed across the city in the 1920s, the strategy of policing the appearance and respectability of black neighborhoods became less important and less effective. More masculinist strategies that Garveyism and the Nation of Islam embraced focused on economic nationalism, equal rights, self-defense, and self- determination. These tactics finally overshadowed bourgeois respectability with the onset of the Great Depression. African Americans began to tolerate the informal economy, including the practice of prostitution. New Deal agencies and trade unions displaced the primary purveyors of bourgeois respectability, black women's clubs, and mainline black denominations as the most influential sources of aid for the African Americans. With economic crisis, "working class notions of respectability as self-respect became articulated more fully"(182).

Schechter'sstudy also covers the formative late nineteenth and early twentieth century, although it begins with the 1870s, significantly earlier than Wolcott's work. Whereas Wolcott studies a whole community, Schechter examines the intellectual and activist career of one leader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, as she pursued reform in Memphis and then in Chicago. Schechter's work focuses on Wells-Barnett's ideas and the way they shaped her activism, providing useful insights into this activist's role in African American reform, and American reform in general, during this time period.

Schechter identifies the philosophy that animates Wells-Barnett's activism as "visionary pragmatism." She writes that, "visionary pragmatism entailed a distinctive view of self and service designed for personal survival and social contestation, for God and for community, and for rights and responsibilities for all U.S. citizens" (3). Schechter traces this philosophy [End Page 215] in Wells-Barnett's autobiography and then examines how it weaves through her rhetoric and activism at various stages of her life.

Schechter does not use the term "politics of respectability" and uses the term "respectability" infrequently. While I hesitate to overemphasize these terms when the author does not, Schechter is clearly looking at many of the same developments in reform thought, and these concepts are helpful in showing connections with Wolcott's work. Wells-Barnett's career began in the 1880s, before the limiting of African American rights, the in-crease in racial violence, and the consequent rise of bourgeois respectability politics which marked the 1890s. Her career continued through the years of consolidation of respectability politics through its loss of influe-nce in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, this concept sheds light on Wells-Barnett's ideas and work, which, in turn, illuminates respectability politics.

In Schechter's hands, Wells-Barnett's early life provides a vivid demonstration of the focus on black women's sexuality and bodies which gave rise to bourgeois respectability politics. During the immediate post-Reconstruction period of the 1870s and 1880s, Wells—a young, unmarried woman supporting her four siblings after the death of her parents—frequently had to defend her sexual purity and moral values. Her reputation—and her body itself—were constantly "in question," 5 a subject of very public and sometimes painful discussion. The most dramatic example of this was when a Memphis newspaper editor, mistaking her for a man, suggested that she should be castrated because of her famous and scathing editorial suggesting the possibility of consensual sex between white women and black men. Her decision to pursue her public speaking career was, among other things, a brave decision not to shrink from such deeply personal attacks on her virtue and her body.

Despite these types of deeply personal challenges to women's participation in the public sphere, Schechter sees the political climate of the 1880s as relatively open, allowing social space for African American women to raise issues of particular concern to women(41). 6 In this shifting atmosphere, Wells-Barnett was able to shape her "dynamitic" critique of lynching (13). That critique addressed African Americans' equal humanity and called white values—and white bodies—into question. It challenged white men's morality in carrying out lynchings and white women's in instigating them by engaging in consensual sex and then lying about it.

In contrast, Wells-Barnett had difficulties in the political climate of the 1890s. Her visionary pragmatism was marked by a keen attention to the need for survival, and was thus more insistent regarding equality and rights than the petitioning public transcript of bourgeois respectability. African American women banded together for "mutual support" and drew "more tightly defined reliable standards of feminine behavior under the [End Page 216] rubric of racial uplift, middle-class respectability, and dignified ladyhood" (118-19). 7 Wells-Barnett's assertion of rights and her refusal to be silent on matters of sexuality did not mesh well with these new cultural restraints on female expression.

Wells-Barnett remained active in politics but because her worldview did not mesh well with these dominant trends, she met many obstacles and found it difficult to achieve long-term success or national recognition for her efforts. If the feminine respectability politics of the 1890s and early 1900s was constraining for Wells-Barnett, the more masculinist concern for manhood rights and equal rights which largely replaced it was even more inhospitable. Though Wells-Barnett consciously focused on black masculinity and manhood rights in this later period, she was given little credit for her pioneering anti-lynching work. The public saw male academics and the NAACP as the new experts on lynching. These experts used her statistics and her basic argument that rape was only a "threadbare" excuse for lynching, but seldom gave her credit.

Both Wolcott and Schechter explore the gendered shift in ideology away from a feminine concern for bourgeois respectability towards a more masculinist nationalist discourse after World War I.Their interpretations of the implications of respectability politics for women's agency are more complex than a brief discussion here can indicate. Schechter compares respectability politics to the cult of true womanhood, suggesting its expressive constraints, but she also acknowledges that, in comparison to the subsequent post-World War I masculinist discourse, it entailed a vision that "African American women's particular needs and struggles were central to race progress and that womanhood might represent 'the race' in the public sphere" (121). Wolcott also sees bourgeois respectability as both a constraining and a useful discourse for many women. It sometimes placed such an emphasis on impressing whites that it excluded and even blamed, working-class African American migrants. Yet it gave expressive space and influence to women and even many new migrant women found aspects of it useful. Its core message of self-respect tied bourgeois respectability to its remakings and gave women a clear role in racial pride and racial progress.

E. Frances White uses the politics of respectability in a manner that is related to, but markedly more expansive than the other authors. White employs the concept in a less historically specific sense to refer to a concern for appearances and reputation throughout the twentieth century, particularly among African American scholars. Her collection of essays critically examines a range of African American scholarship. She sees respectability serving a dangerous kind of gatekeeping function which potentially limits the impact and effectiveness of black antiracist scholarship [End Page 217] and activism. White takes many historical and contemporary African American scholars and black feminists to task for crafting antiracist counterdiscourses which silence difference in an effort to present a united, sanitized, and, therefore, respectable front. Crucial issues that have been avoided include class, sexism within the African and African American community, and a variety of issues surrounding sexuality and the body. Throughout the collection, White argues that the African American community must be defined in an inclusive manner that recognizes debates and differences around these topics and, most importantly, includes people on both sides of these potential divides. Along the way, she criticizes bell hooks and Angela Davis for focusing too exclusively on racism to the exclusion of sexism; Patricia Hill Collins and Paul Gilroy for imposing a "false unity" on black feminist voices and black nationalism, respectively; Afrocentrism and black nationalism for excusing or justifying sexism within the African America community; and many black feminist scholars for ignoring their own class positions. Yet in each case she acknowledges the intellectual contributions of those she criticizes, describing her work as a friendly and supportive exercise, aimed at fostering growth within black feminism (16).

Two of these essays have been previously published, while two are new for this collection. The first previously published essay, "Black Feminist Interventions," traces black feminists' intellectual critiques through the Progressive Era, civil rights movement, black nationalism, and contemporary debates on African American history. The second, "Africa on My Mind," criticizes a tendency among many scholars to idealize African and African American history by ignoring sexist traditions. The new essays offer insights on African American history and racial theory. "The Dark Continent of Our Bodies" looks at the construction of race and gender categories in the nineteenth century, particularly in Darwin's theories of evolution. This essay makes a brief but pointed contribution to the study of Progressive-Era respectability politics by illuminating the stereotypes it was created to debunk. Likely to be most controversial is the final essay, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen," in which White identifies ways in which literary giants Toni Morrison and James Baldwin reacted to racism. She urges African American scholars and activists today to respond differently. White argues that Morrison ignored the possibilities of consensual male homosexuality under slavery in Beloved and the realities of homosexuality and lesbianism in Jazz-age Harlem in Jazz. White makes similar comments about James Baldwin's near-obsession with manhood and masculinity, arguing that this was a defensive move to counter attacks on his homosexuality. White suggests that these concerns led to, among other things, the exclusion of women from his inner circle and [End Page 218] from his circle of intellectual interests. Although all of these essays were written at different times, they work well together because they make the claim that differences, and those who are "different," must be acknowledged in intellectual work and welcomed in activist circles.

These three books all make significant contributions to our understanding of African American women's history. Wolcott explicitly and carefully studies respectability in its myriad forms. Schechter offers insights about the politics of bourgeois respectability in the process of studying a reformist worldview which could not be contained within its bounds. Finally, White uses the concept as a framework for understanding a number of connected issues in African American theory and activism. While all three books offer worthwhile scholarship, Wolcott's community study is of particularly far-reaching significance. Her approach adds complexity to our understanding of the politics of respectability as it was lived and negotiated in the early twentieth century. Her discursive approach to respectability recognizes multiple reasons for embracing respectability's dictates and examines multiple understandings, or remakings, of the concept. Wolcott's approach can serve as a useful model for nuanced exploration of the inner workings of respectability politics, in particular, and other aspects of intra-racial identity politics, in general. Like Glenda Gilmore's Gender and Jim Crow on North Carolina racial politics and Tera Hunter's To 'Joy My Freedom on working women's culture in Atlanta, Wolcott's book offers a complex view of African American community, culture, and resistance in a particular time and place, but with a broader significance for reshaping our understanding of post-Reconstruction and early twentieth century African American culture, reform, and counter-discourses. 8

Respectability was one of the primary bases upon which African Americans claimed equal status and citizenship during the Progressive era. Defined more expansively, it continued to be an influential basis for claiming rights through the civil rights era and beyond. All three of these studies make the reasons for such strategies abundantly clear. But all three also suggest the potentially exclusionary gatekeeping entailed by linking claims of right to certain behaviors.

The study of respectability as a strategy reveals the deeply entwined nature of culture and politics and the personal and political. The same linkage of "private" or personal behavior to public status that made respectability a potentially problematic political strategy renders it a remarkably rich analytical tool, as these three books demonstrate.


Paisley Harris is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac. Her dissertation, "Taking the Stage: Traveling Shows, Traveling Performers, and Competing Narratives of Respectability in the Public Sphere, 1905-1935," examines traveling shows as social, cultural, and political arenas that were particularly crucial in shaping ideas about class, race, and gender and which offered expressive space to women, the working class, and racial minorities. She is currently revising her dissertation into a book manuscript. Her current research involves laws, regulations, and legal cases involving traveling shows and show troupes.


1. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement [End Page 219] in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 187.

2. Notions of proper behavior and respectability tied to public/private tensions were influential in Progressive-Era white discourse as well. They helped legitimate imperialism, white middle-class identity, and white women's claims for greater political and public power. Broadly speaking, the white middle class attempted to define itself by defining respectability for all, but African American reformers' politics of respectability was an explicit challenge to their right to do so.

3. For example, many of the papers at University of Houston Black History Workshop on "Women in the Making of the Black World," University of Houston, March 2001, built upon or employed Higginbotham's concept of respectability politics.

4. Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent, 204.

5. Schechter uses "the body in question", a phrase that Wells-Barnett uses to discuss lynching victims bodies, in the title of chapter three on Wells-Barnett's early life. She also analyzes critics' verbal attacks on Wells-Barnett's reputation and their discussion of her body in chapters one and two.

6. See also Elsa Barkley Brown, "Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom," Public Culture 7 (fall 1994): 107-46; and Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

7. Higginbotham's quote is from Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "African American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race," Signs 17 (winter 1992): 251-76, esp. 271.

8. Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow; and Tera Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997).

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