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
Gilmore wrote her book after uncovering records of historically-unrepresented
minority females in
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
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.
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
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
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