Voice from the South

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A. Published during the period now known as the Woman's Era, Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South (1892) is a landmark feminist text. In this volume of essays and lectures, Cooper argues that just as white people cannot speak for African Americans, so African American men cannot “be wholly expected fully and adequately to reproduce the exact Voice of the Black Woman.”

The volume consists of two parts, the first comprised of four essays focused directly on women's issues: “Womanhood, a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race,” “The Higher Education of Woman,” “Woman vs. the Indian,” and “The Status of Woman in America.” The second half, also made up of four essays, continues this attention to women's rights while broadening the focus to discuss U.S. history as multicultural from the beginning; representations of African Americans in contemporary American literature, especially fiction by William Dean Howells and Albion W. Tourgée; discrimination against African Americans in housing; and philosophical positivism and skepticism versus Cooper's own articulated belief in Christian optimism.

Cooper's feminism in A Voice from the South springs from various sources. It combines Victorian ideologies of true womanhood (the belief that women are by divine design moral, intuitive, spiritual, and nurturing); a radical and uncompromising belief in women's intellectual equality with men; turn-of-the-century class-inflected theories of racial uplift; and Cooper's own deeply felt Christian egalitarianism and hatred of oppression. The result is an impassioned scholarly argument advocating fundamental change in the status and treatment of African American women. While Cooper's main target is white racism, she also criticizes African American men, of whom she observes, “While our men seem thoroughly abreast of the times on almost every other subject, when they strike the woman question they drop back into sixteenth century logic.” Also singled out are the hypocrisy and racism of white feminists, including leaders such as Anna Shaw and Susan B. Anthony, whose pitting of white women's goals against the rights of people of color Cooper attacks in ‘“Woman vs. the Indian.”’

Cooper expresses her core belief in the inseparability of women's issues and the struggle for racial justice in her often-quoted statement, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’” She names as basic civil rights issues: protecting African American women from sexual attacks; speaking out against racist female stereotypes; making education available to all African American women; and addressing the economic oppression that consigns the majority of black women and their families to poverty. The African American woman's situation is the race's situation, in her view. Connecting issues of gender and race is mandatory.

Today scholars regard A Voice from the South as a pioneering African American feminist text. While it is limited by its class bias, it is nevertheless highly valued for its intellectual and political arguments as well as its literary excellence, including Cooper's satiric wit.


Subjects: Literature.

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