Chapter Six: Too Much Useless Male Timber: The Nadir, the Woman’s Era, and the Question of Women’s Ordination
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173 6 Too Much Useless Male Timber The Nadir, the Woman’s Era, and the Question of Women’s Ordination Heads bowed for the opening benediction at the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America. The voice of Eliza Ann Gardner, the meeting’s chaplain, filled the hall. Seventy-three delegates from African American women’s clubs in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia had come to Boston in 1895. Their purpose was to discuss ‘‘vital questions concerning our moral, mental, physical and financial growth and well-being.’’ After spending three days deliberating an ambitious array of topics, including higher education, industrial training, justice, mental elevation , race literature, political equality, social purity, and temperance, the women resolved to meet again. This gathering laid the foundation for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.∞ A female chaplain likely gave some delegates pause. Although preaching women were not unknown in black Christian circles, they rarely adopted such honorific titles as chaplain. Gardner’s assumption of religious authority signaled the emergence of a cadre of assertive women at the highest levels of African American institutional life. Her own story chronicles the emergence of black women into public culture. Before the Civil War, Eliza Gardner learned female activism by example. Her mother was a committed church member, and the whole Gardner family joined the antislavery movement, opening their Boston home to fugitives and hosting many notable leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass. Gardner’s political sensibilities matured at the intersection of abolitionism and women’s rights. A working woman, she supported herself as a dressmaker and later kept a boardinghouse.≤ Although Gardner worked for temperance reform, she made her mark in the church. As a young member of ame Zion’s Daughters of Conference, she learned to navigate church politics under the tutelage of women of her mother’s generation. In the post–Civil 174 Too Much Useless Male Timber War years, she garnered respect and admiration for her fund-raising abilities . Gardner spearheaded the movement that demanded licenses for female preachers, female leadership of missionary societies, the creation of the o≈ce of stewardess, and the ordination of women to the ministry. Eliza Gardner directly contributed to the transformation of black women’s place in public culture. Her service as chaplain was a fitting culmination.≥ Many and varied paths had led the women to Boston. Josephine St. Pierre Ru≈n, who issued the meeting’s call, entered public life during the Civil War, recruiting African American soldiers and working with the Contraband Relief Association out of her local Baptist church.∂ Ru≈n embraced the movement for women’s su√rage in the postwar decades as a member of the American Woman Su√rage Association and the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association. In the 1890s, she edited the Woman’s Era, a monthly magazine .∑ Victoria Earle Matthews, church activist and delegate from Brooklyn, New York, was born a slave and had little formal education. Matthews initially worked as a domestic, but in the 1880s she embarked on a literary career as a freelance journalist.∏ Margaret Murray Washington was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1861, the daughter of a washerwoman (possibly an exslave ) and an Irish immigrant whose name is unknown.π She attended Fisk University, where she edited the school paper and presided over more than one literary society. She became the lady principal at Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, a position she held both before and after her marriage to the founding president, Booker T. Washington.∫ These were the stories of black women’s public culture. African American women came into their own in public life through active participation in reform movements, including antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights. Education, be it in New England’s public schools or the colleges of the Reconstruction-era South, was one of their key stepping stones. Through leadership roles in such institutions as churches, fraternal orders, and literary societies, they gained skills and earned the authority that their contributions demanded. Eliza Gardner might have been reluctant to admit how deeply these journeys were marked by hardship. Few black women entered public life free from the demands of work and family. They endured pointed ridicule , risked mob violence, and struggled to defend their respectability. Both the ‘‘nadir’’ of race relations and the ‘‘woman’s era’’ frame the outlines of this chapter. The tensions between these companion points of view on the 1890s led to new confrontations over gender and power...