Paula Giddings’s “Enter”, Black Women’s Club Movement, And Social Reformism

As I wrote last week about Black Women’s Clubs in St. Louis, I decided to revisit a chapter from Paula Giddings’s must-read tome, “When And Where I Enter: The Impact Of Black Women On Race And Sex In America”. There is a chapter in this fairly exhaustive text entitled,'”To Be a Woman, Sublime”: The Ideas of the National Black Women’s Club Movement (to 1917)” that I turned my attention to. While I truly plan on providing my analysis of this entire chapter, and hopefully this entire book, there are a few passages early on in it that I wish to parse in this writing.


As I covered in my reading of Lang’s book, there was always a class-based component of not only US Black Women’s work, but Women’s work in large. Here Paula Giddings explains throughout this chapter various battles fought by Black Women’s Clubs, including their departure from a wider feminism due to Whyte Women embracing racist postures, as well as addressing historic appeals made by Black Women to Black men that sought to employ those same stereotypes of US Black Women as espoused by their Whyte counterparts.


In her own words from her extensive research, Paula Giddings writes:


The Black women’s club movement did have a number of things in common with the White club movement that preceded it. In some ways, as Fannie Barrier Williams noted, Black women were indeed inspired by the success of the White movement. The two groups were organized in much the same way; the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was the White equivalent to the NACW; the membership of both organizations consisted mostly of middle-class educated women who were steeped in the Protestant ethic. Neither group questioned the superiority of middle-class values or way of life, or had any romantic notions of the inherent nobility of the poor, uneducated masses; education and material progress were values that Black and White women shared.

“When And Where I Enter: The Impact Of Black Women On Race And Sex In America”, Paula Giddings, pg 94


One of the earliest White women’s clubs was founded in response to the exclusion of women journalists from the New York Press Club in 1868. After helping to organize a dinner honoring Charles Dickens, the women were put out when they were denied tickets to attend the affair. The consequent founding of the Sorosis Women’s Club set a general pattern for these organizations. They were created by women who were frustrated by their exclusion from occupations and other activities for which their education and background had prepared them. They had little concern for women who were forced to work, with the exception of “the middle-class spinster, widow, or woman whose marriage had failed, or was doing teaching, doing office work, or in some instances training herself for a profession,” as a feminist historian noted.


It was not that these groups entirely ignored the plight of the poor. There were salutary efforts toward improving living and working conditions for the less fortunate. However those efforts were often motivated by upper-class frustration. For women, helping the poor was one of the few socially sanctioned activities that could be performed outside the home.

“When And Where I Enter: The Impact Of Black Women On Race And Sex In America”, Paula Giddings, pg 97


Continuing along to describe this ideological base of Black Women’s Clubs, she writes:


The philosophy of the clubwomen concerning motherhood reflected the new realities they faced in the late nineteenth century. In the 1830’s, Maria Stewart told Black mothers it was their duty to “cultivate a pure heart” and the “thirst for knowledge” in their children. By nurturing these noble qualities, Stewart believed, “the hissing and reproach” toward the race would cease. More than half a century later, Black women leaders believed that those same qualities were to be taught so that children could endure that inevitable reproach. “We believe,” said Terrell, “we can build the foundation of the next generation upon such a rock of morality, intelligence and strength, that the floods of proscription, prejudice and persecution may descend upon it in torrents and yet it will not be moved.” Josephine Bruce supported that view: “The Negro home,” she said, “is rapidly assuming the position designated for it. It is distinctly becoming the center of social and intellectual life; it is building up strength and righteousness in its sons and daughters, and equipping them for the inevitable battles of life which grow out of the struggle for existence.” For these Black women the home was not so much a refuge from the outside world as a bulwark to secure one’s passage through it.

“When And Where I Enter: The Impact Of Black Women On Race And Sex In America”, Paula Giddings, pg 99-100


My initial sitting with Paula Giddings’s work was about five years ago. At that time, I was totally unfamiliar with National Association of Women’s work. An introduction of their work, their influence on feminism, and more importantly, their strategies of organizing across these United States, culminating into what would be referred to as those “Black Women’s Clubs Movement”. While this history is indeed rewarding, I do feel as though there is a leniency in presenting Black Women’s Clubs’s membership motives in comparison to those of their Whyte counterparts. It would seem to me that based on even just these quotes above, that many of those US Black Women involved with these organizing efforts had extremely bourgeois notions of Negro uplift.


This is one of those times where I want to make sure of my intentions with Asylum. These are exceedingly illustrious figures of US Black History we are discussing here. It has to be understood that although I do find it bias for Paula Giddings to frame this membership’s relations to lower class US Black Women as anything more noble than elitist liberal patronizing and paternalism, these luminaries do have my utmost respect. I just question their ideals and visions of Black progress because they are socialized to define using standards more capable of forming slave masters than slave rebellions or slave escapes. This particular influence on their social politics should not cause alarm or cause a researcher pause; these ladies were social reformers, not revolutionaries or radicals.