Russell Hanson

Mar. 08, 2003

History 367 – Dirks


Towards a Concept of Personal Politics



In this essay we will explore how the personal is political for women and race activists in America in the early 20th century.  Several interesting arguments on gender and race can be explored through this exposition.  Some of these topics fit under larger headings which can be easily labeled: women as invisible workers; metalanguage of race, or how race works as a construction of class or sexuality, and interprets language; and how the personal political motivates the Sisterhood and gender identification.  We will focus on the three books Gender & Jim Crow (Gilmore), Fallen Women, Problem Girls (Kunzel), and The Wages of Motherhood (Mink).

Gilmore wrote her book after uncovering records of historically-unrepresented minority females in North Carolina.  These records indicated that women who were nominally without political power in fact wielded a great amount of power through their involvement with social organizations.  It is worthwhile to remark that many of these social organizations were inherently personal organizations and also that women had gained political influence through the personal relationship of marriage or through family connections.  For example, Sarah Dudley Petty had a professional relationship with her husband Charles Petty, an early member of the Star of Zion, in which she worked with him directly on some affairs and also worked on her own projects in activism and publication.  Charles had arrived in Charlotte after boot-strapping his way into college (Gilmore 12).  Their complementary personal relationship was so strong that they were able to act as stand-ins for one another professionally.  As Charles wrote, after bowing out of long debate in his editorial column in the Star of Zion, “Madam Pettey … will remain at my desk; … I am quite confident that she will be able to keep off all intruders” (Gilmore 17).  There was a close interrelationship between class, gender, and education to Mrs. Dudley Pettey.  The political and personal are clearly constituents of civilization.  Mrs. Pettey on civilization, “In the civilization and enlightenment of the Negro race its educated women must be the potent factors” (Gilmore 14).  Gilmore interprets this to mean that civilization represented her (Pettey’s) version of manners and morals. 

Another exemplary female figure, Anna Cooper, believed that black women were more independent and in a sense powerful than their white counterparts.  She was a graduate of Saint Augustine and wrote a book titled A Voice from the South in which she expressed her social and racial contemporaries’ resentment at their treatment in Southern schools and colleges.  Women were discriminated against in school and seldom were able to pursue the classical curriculum of Greek and Latin which was the standard for male students. Her experience in a coeducational facility led her to write that black women should have absolutely equal education. 

In addition to her take on education, she had many empowering ideas of women’s role in marriage and family life.  She believed that black women had a multitude of options and opportunities to fulfill responsibility in their professional careers and in their personal relations.  She encouraged men to live up to their full potential.  This was doubtless influenced by her experience in a coeducational facility where the students openly discussed gender roles and ideals of manhood and womanhood, for example in the school newspaper (the Living-Stone).  She argued that men and women should receive equal educations, but that men and women were different and therefore suited for different jobs and positions in their communities.  She thought that men should encourage their women in their professional aspirations, and that if women were beginning to “threaten” their men-folk, the men should move faster.  While some people traditionally felt that marriage was a means for ambitious women to advance in the world, Anna Cooper warned women against “being swallowed up into some little man” (Gilmore 43).

Religion obviously played a large part in many of these women’s lives—indeed religion in general was of much greater importance in turn-of-the-century America.  The possibilities for social relevance through religious involvement and the actual religious content were often at odds.  The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the presence of evangelicals in maternity homes.  They had a religious agenda for the reformation of women who were not “God-faring.”  A growing tension between evangelical, that is religiously-motivated workers, and men and women who had trained to some degree as “social workers” emerged towards the start of World War II.  Social workers considered themselves students of social science, if not professionals in administering social programs.

Initially patients of maternity homes were seen as sexual delinquents, but with increased attention to the problems of unwed motherhood, varied views often came into play.  For example, as social work gained professional recognition sexually-transgressive women may have been diagnosed as neurotics.  By providing a scientific label for patients who were unruly or didn’t fit conveniently within societal expectations, the condition of sexual delinquency had an explanation—and while not sanctified, was at least made safe.  This nominal distinction was not available to evangelical reformers during the early stages of the maternity rescue missions.

Given this scientific justification the social workers were given increased professional legitimacy.  And if we have learned anything over the course of our study of the social sciences it is that they always seek greater scientific justification, hence greater professional legitimacy and occupational satisfaction.  The ecclesiastical workers were no exception, nor were their social-worker counterparts.  The job of rescuing so-called sex delinquents became more clinical compared to earlier unenlightened policies (Kunzel 153).  “Neurotic” women from middle class families were separated from the disgraceful label of “willfully promiscuous woman.”

Even with the clemency that the maternity homes granted single mothers, it was apparent that escaping from the social class single-motherhood determined was an uphill struggle.  Cast away were the ideas of equal education for men and women.  Paramount on the home matrons’ minds was where to place the women after their short tenure in the homes.  It is no secret that women who had children by previous relationships or dancing hall seductions were seen as damaged goods to many potential suitors.  The immediate implication is that these women were politically and socially disenfranchised.  This was only enforced by placing the released women in homes where they were immediately at the level of domestic servant.  By opting to put their children up for adoption, women had a step up on distancing themselves from their past.  Conversely there is an argument that by entering domestic service with permission to care for their newborn child they were making a personal and social/political sacrifice, but one with the indisputable advantage of raising their own child.

Prospects for higher education for unwed mothers were similar to how they are today, except worse: that is, very hard indeed.  College education for colored women was more the exception than the norm in the South, but still there is little mention of college-educated women who were ex-maternity home patients.  There is mention of women who were college-educated, in particular a woman who had done graduate study at Columbia.  These homes’ residents ranged from young high-schoolers to women in their early thirties—it is difficult to make trenchant characterizations about them.  Kunzel mentions two points which sort of fly in the face of the scripted passive woman and domineering male thing.  For one, the evangelical women were able to reverse the idea that unwed pregnancy ruined only the women’s chances of marriage, but that it also harmed men’s chances.  The workers were siding with the men and doubting the truthfulness of the women.  One Mary Brisley wrote that there was no way a man could tell if his “offspring” were his or not but on the word of the woman, and therefore that it wasn’t just to “saddle” the man with child support if there “was no way he could be sure.”  Secondly, Kunzel observed that female sex delinquents were aggressively sexual and self-directed (Kunzel 57).  While “normal” women were still pleasantly passive creatures, unmarried mothers had lost that distinction and some were patently aggressive sex deviants!

Women who had visited homes more than once were believed to be far less likely of achieving evangelical nirvana.  A propos education and the different clients who visited maternity homes, or the methods used to solicit clients, i.e. walking on the streets in costume looking for downcast women, prostitutes were a felt presence.  Prostitution was an occupation associated with a social and economic class for which higher education was often not accessible.   Drawing on a tangential argument, women who were sexually active were usually socially active as well; since university studies generally necessitate solitary work, we can reference published studies showing that people who are discontent alone are less likely to develop talents or to complete higher degrees (Csikszentmihalyi, Talented Teenagers, 1993).  In any case, the connection between social contacts and sex is direct: women mentioned having met men at movie theaters and amusement parks, some even traded sex for dating. 

The gradual shift in some locales from accepting women who came from large working class families to accepting women of middle class status was somewhat problematic for the matrons who were running these homes.  For one, the middle class women didn’t feel at ease associating with people who they considered their social inferiors, secondly, the maternity homes were charitable institutions.  These new women could afford to take time off from work, and didn’t need to depend on charity, except in this special circumstance, equipped with the social baggage of pregnancy.  This only added to the tension between the well-meaning and religiously-guided women who ran the homes.  The new arrivals were often better educated than the evangelicals, and were therefore even less likely to accept their moralistic nudging or to attend group prayer sessions in good faith.

Another related issue is the effect of the maternity homes on the personal-political of women who had not had the misfortune of pre-marital pregnancy.  The homes were a known presence.  One could make arguments that the existence of the homes acted as a negative deterrent.

Perhaps it is too obvious to make issue of it, but there is no mention of the WCTU or a like organization in the pages of Kunzel’s book.  The institution created by the philanthropy of Charles Crittenton was far removed from the WCTU which “at last gave evangelical women an outlet to act on the ideals their mothers had embraced during the Second Great Awakening” and so on (Gilmore 45). What does exist in Kunzel is the idea that women who were able to work were more valuable to the war effort (The Great War, WWI).  Women who were trained in homemaking were instruments of the government in the battle against feeblemindedness.  Weak minds were supposed to result at least in part from bad diet and unsanitary homes, for which the remedy was education in Home Economics.  If home stability and raising children in supportive environments could be more widely encouraged/enforced then social services would have a smaller burden and workers would be healthier and more apt to be trained.  Literacy was an issue that affected everyone.  When blacks from Mississippi came to Chicago and looked for employment, the educational backwardness of rural Mississippi became the concern of urban Chicagoans. 

In Higginbotham, “African-Americans inscribed the black nation with racially laden meanings of blood ties that bespoke a lineage and culture more imagined than real” (Higginbotham 197).  I already touched upon the relationship of this idea of imagined solidarity either racial or gender based in my last essay.  In particular I mentioned that Hewitt was thinking along similar lines as Higginbotham, but focused on feminists instead of black nationalists.  Hewitt argued that “feminists who believe in a distinctive women’s culture rooted in their reaction to gender oppression are in the wrong” (Hanson1 4). 

The Sisterhood worked as a political entity.  This is essentially the early argument in Hewitt’s article.  While socially and politically active, women had in common their sex and the “difference” relationship, almost by nature of their public involvement, they were bound to be opinionated, and therefore to come into conflict with other opinionated people, either men or women.  Conflict is necessarily at odds with the Sisterhood, but its political backbone depended upon its very in-homogeneity and conflict.

We end this essay with a brief overview of some aspects of progressive maternalism.  First, women had a role in politics: not only did this mean women could participate in some external structure, but that the governmental structure had a mutual obligation to and from them.  Second, cultural diversity and the social innovations it instigated should not be threatening to a society in which the domestic sphere is traditionally conformist.  Thirdly, ideas from racial liberalism could thrive even in the presence of powerful efforts to make different cultures conform to a standard of normality. 

How does being a maternalist relate to evangelism?  What are the social motivations behind maternalism?  What were the political agendas of the maternalists?  What are the educational provisions of maternalism (Mink 98--99)?  How do maternalist ideas affect the system of welfare compensation (Mink 9)?  These are truly complicated issues which we do not have the space to go into in depth here.

There is a large but finite number of possibilities for exposing the interrelationships which form the topic of this paper.  Constitutively however, these come from just two or three general concepts.  In general, there is strong evidence for the importance of personal interests in politics, and political interests in personal issues.  These were especially keenly felt among women and racial minorities in America in the early 20th century—groups which were starting to gain a foothold in politics, and which also were developing new ways to express themselves in their families, work, and societies.