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Journal of Women's History 11.1 (1999) 203-209
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African-American and Afro-Caribbean Women's Political Struggles:
Navigating Courses through White Male Supremacist Societies
A. Lynn Bolles. We Paid Our Dues: Women Trade Union Leaders of the Caribbean. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996. xxxviii + 250 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-88258-086-8 (cl); 0-88258-087-6 (pb).
Glenda Elizabeth 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. xxii + 384 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8078-2287-6 (cl); 0-8078-4596-5 (pb).
Stephanie J. Shaw. What a Woman Ought To Be and To Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. xvi + 347 pp. ISBN 0-226-75119-8 (cl); 0-226-75120-1 (pb).
In recent years, feminist writers have begun to rewrite history, placing women at the center of their analyses. Still, few books provide historical accounts of black women's activities. These three books provide richly detailed examinations of the political struggles of African-American and Afro-Caribbean women beginning in the 1800s and continuing into the next century. This is a remarkable set of books; each gives voice to black women, providing readers with new insights into the complexities of their daily struggles to survive. The authors paint vivid pictures of black women's strength and courage and in doing so redefine the meanings of political activism.
However, the books are unique and, in some ways, contradictory. Gender and Jim Crow provides a wonderful analysis of the roles of race, class, and gender in Southern politics prior to the 1900s, but also includes African-American disenfranchisement and the woman suffrage movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While other accounts of disenfranchisement focus on African-American and white men, Gilmore skillfully infuses the important roles both African-American and white women played. In chapter 1, the author traces through biography the trials, tribulations, and successes of generations of the affluent Dudley-Pettey family. Through this analysis, we grasp the importance and complexity of interracial relationships among African Americans and whites in Southern politics. [End Page 203]
Gilmore's next two chapters focus on the civic and political activities of the African-American middle class, illustrating the often weak but sometimes politically useful connections between black and white organizations. In chapter 2, her primary focus is on the relationships among African-American and white chapters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and she argues that both groups sought political alliances with one another to strengthen support for their agendas.
Chapters 4 and 5 provide new and important evidence regarding the disenfranchisement of African-American men. Gilmore persuasively argues that in an effort to regain power from the Republican Party, which forged a coalition with elite African Americans, Southern Democrats sought ways to expel black politicians. To achieve this goal, they centered their white supremacist rhetoric on the stereotypical image of the African-American male rapist, striking fear into their white constituents' hearts. Southern Democrats began focusing on the protection of white women's sexuality and the demonization of African-American men, and, ultimately, succeeded in their supremacist campaign with the disenfranchisement of African-American men.
The last three chapters of Gender and Jim Crow offer a thorough examination of the coalitions among African-American and white women in such organizations as the Young Women's Christian Association and the National American Woman's Suffrage Organization. Gilmore's analysis refutes many accounts of such organizations in the South which argue that they were highly segregated, illustrating instead that, at least in North Carolina, they were active and interracial. Central to her argument is that African-American women's participation in the woman suffrage movement, along with their connections to white women activists, provided a space for the reentry of African-American men into Southern politics.
Although Gilmore claims to place African-American women at...