Gender and race shared the stage at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study conference marking the 60th anniversary of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America Friday (Oct. 2), a nod to the Schlesinger’s considerable holdings of African-American women’s papers. The daylong event, “Gender, Race, and Rights in African American Women’s History,” convened some of the nation’s most prominent scholars to present their work and discuss the ways that the study of U.S. women’s history overall has been shaped by the conjunction of gender and race.
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And while the opening panel, “Gender and Race: Together at Last?” did address some compelling scholarly issues, they were largely overshadowed by an issue perhaps more dear to the audience’s heart: the worrisome state of African-American female historians in the academy.
“The field is doing well. I worry deeply about the toilers,” pronounced Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history at Princeton University and former director of the Program in African American Studies there. “Although black women’s studies and black women scholarship are in very good shape, black women scholars are in danger.”
Deborah Gray White, distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the seminal book “Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Antebellum South” (Norton, 1985, 1999), echoed Painter’s alarm, sparking a passionate question-and-answer session between the panelists and the scholars in the audience.
Progress past, progress future
Painter, describing herself as just one year older than the Schlesinger, acknowledged that as a member of the first large cohort of female academics, she couldn’t deny the progress that her generation had made. They had gained prominence, had published important works, and had worked to bridge the chasm between African-American studies, “which was about men,” she said, and women’s studies, “which was about white women.”
Yet conditions like overwork, ongoing discrimination, the prejudice of white men and sexual harassment by black men, and lack of appreciation for work well done temper the successes of her colleagues. “In terms of bodily and psychological health, black women scholars are in trouble,” she said, citing ills like strokes, cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes that have felled some of her colleagues.
Painter called for more recognition of African-American women’s teaching as well as scholarship and for an easing of the guilt that comes from the necessary refusal of excessive service.
White picked up Painter’s charge. Returning to Rutgers after a yearlong leave, she met with an African-American woman who was a new graduate student there. “All I could think about was that as much as things had changed, they still had stayed the same,” she said, detailing the student’s alienation, loneliness, and anxiety. Despite Rutgers’ robust program in African-American studies, the student was often the only black student in her classes. Professors expected her to represent her race and fellow students assumed she only knew “the black stuff.”
“Things have changed, yes, but some things have only been altered,” she said. “Af-Am has come in from the margins, and African-American women’s history is taken more seriously than before. But from where I sit, I’m not so sure African-American historians are taken as seriously as white historians.”
From slavery to the global black woman
The panel, moderated by prominent historian Gerda Lerner, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, did focus on scholarship as well as the scholars themselves.
Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust, a leading historian of the Civil War and the American South, opened the panel with a historical perspective on the day’s subject by speaking about gender and slavery. “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” she said, quoting the 1861 biography of former slave Harriet Jacobs. Long in coming, the perspective of slavery through a gendered lens did not emerge until the 1980s, but when it did, it enriched the field of study.
“We began to see that America had had slaveries, not one slavery, and a key component in these differences of experience was gender,” said Faust.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard, discussed the interconnection between the social and the spatial, exploring racialized meanings and space. New scholarship, she said, is emerging on women of African descent who come to the United States from the Caribbean, where the conception of race is far more fluid than this nation’s binary concept of race.
The future of black women’s history, according to Darlene Clark Hine, will focus on what she called “interiority and internationalization.”
“Our challenging future task will be to explore the interior culture or consciousness of black women,” said Hine, professor of American history at Michigan State University. “We need to hear their voices, to see their bodies, to appreciate their struggles, victorious and otherwise.” Developing a postnationalistic framework in which to study black women of the African Diaspora globally is the international challenge, she said.
In her opening remarks, Faust said Radcliffe hit upon African-American women’s history as an organizing theme for the conference because it is “an area of especially rapid growth and transformation.” It clearly resonated with scholars, as a lunchtime panel was filled to capacity and Faust claimed that organizers sometimes “thought they were running a rock concert.”
Welcoming the participants, Nancy Cott, Pforzheimer Foundation director of the Schlesinger Library, added that African-American women have significant holdings in the library. Joining the papers of Shirley Graham Du Bois, Pauli Murray, and Dorothy West in the collection, she announced to applause, will be the papers of African-American poet and activist June Jordan.