Gender, Race, and Rights

The Radcliffe Institute celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Schlesinger Library with a conference on African American women's history
Gender, Race, and Rights
By Julia Hanna

When Maud Wood Park gave her papers, books, and memorabilia to Radcliffe College in 1943, the suffrage-movement leader couldn't have imagined the enormous growth and change that would occur in the nascent field of women's history, or that her gift would serve as the seed for what would become the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

On October 2, 2003, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study recognized the library's contributions to scholarship and looked to the future with a 60th anniversary conference, "Gender, Race, and Rights in African American Women's History." The gathering followed the success of last year's "Women, Money, and Power" conference, which also focused on gender issues, and is now an annual tradition at the Radcliffe Institute.

"Today we commit ourselves to the next sixty years of revolution by focusing on an area of women's history that has experienced especially rapid growth and transformation," said Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger, noted that the subject for the conference "leapt out" after she and Faust looked back at a conference celebrating the library's 40th anniversary. In 1983, criticism was growing that history had overlooked women of color. "What could be more interesting and worthwhile," said Cott, "than to look at how those criticisms had been responded to and consider what the current and future agendas for study should be?"

Deborah Gray White, Nell Irvin Painter BI '77, and Darlene Clark Hine RI '04. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard News OfficeDeborah Gray White, Nell Irvin Painter BI '77, and Darlene Clark Hine RI '04. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard News Office

Judging from the buzz of excitement in Agassiz Theatre as the conference got under way (an overflow crowd in Askwith Hall watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television), conference participants were more than ready to take on those very issues. Audience members, often responding to presentations with spontaneous laughter and murmurs of agreement, engaged in spirited question-and-answer sessions at the conclusion of each panel.

"I can still remember a time when the idea of publishing a volume on the history of African American women was greeted by ridicule," said Gerda Lerner, the Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin. "Experts agreed that unfortunately such a project was impossible, because black women had left no record of their history." Often referred to as the "founding mother" of African American women's history, Lerner moderated the morning panel, "Gender and Race: Together at Last?"

Faust, a leading historian of the Civil War, opened with a quote from Harriet Jacob's 1861 autobiography: "Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women." The study of women and slavery provides a telling example of what history has and has not seen, Faust said, noting that it took some time for scholars to embrace Jacob's insights and acknowledge the role of gender in shaping a variety of slavery experiences.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard, discussed the interconnection between racial and gender-based understandings of nations, citing historical iconography of America as "fair Colonia" and "the white man's country." For women of African descent who come to the United States from the Caribbean, the conception of race is far more fluid than the white-black binary that has dominated so much of this country's history, she said.

Darlene Clark Hine RI '04, the John A. Hannah Professor of American History at Michigan State University, cited "interiority" as an area that requires further exploration. Getting to the heart of black consciousness and culture will be "exceedingly difficult," she noted, "because black women are reluctant to reveal secrets and let go of the symbolic power of invisibility."

Nell Irvin Painter BI '77 considered the challenges that African American women in academia face. "The field of black women's history is doing well, but I worry deeply about the toilers," said Painter, the Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University. Conditions such as discrimination, sexual harassment, and a conservative political climate are taking their toll on the health of black women scholars, she said, calling for more extensive recognition of their teaching and scholarship. "There are not enough of us to do what needs to be done," she said simply.

The trials of a first-year graduate student provide a good snapshot of the state of the academy for African American women, suggested Deborah Gray White, Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She recalled a conversation with a young woman who was dismayed to discover that her peers only assumed she would know "the black stuff." It was an experience White knew all too well. "I've sometimes thought that my colleagues in the academy believe I came to my knowledge through osmosis," she commented, "as if being black made it easier for me." Moving toward more positive conversations will require the same high levels of energy and creativity that have distinguished the field's development to date, she said.

Being Black at Radcliffe

A lunchtime panel on "Being Black at Radcliffe" included Adele Logan Alexander '59, Gail Snowden '67, Susan McHenry '72, A'Lelia Bundles '74, and Angela Romans '92. Bundles, director of talent development for ABC News, moderated the conversation, which explored a variety of academic and social experiences across the generations.

Two of the panelists have family ties to the College; Alexander noted that her connection to Radcliffe goes back to an aunt who received her degree from the College in 1919; in a class of one hundred graduates, her aunt was one of two black women (neither was allowed to live in the dormitories). Snowden, whose mother attended Radcliffe, remembered her own years at the College as an "exciting, exhilarating time." She and her friends were activists, founding the Association of African American Students and protesting the war in Vietnam.

McHenry recalled continuing that tradition by staging a sit-in at Fay House in 1968 to encourage Radcliffe's administration to expand its recruitment of African American women. Their efforts resulted in a significant jump in enrollment, from twelve students in the class of '72 to an all-time high of thirty the following year.

Although Romans' class included three times that many African American women, she didn't have much company in her chosen field of engineering. The question of whether or not to stay and write a thesis was quickly resolved when she asked the only other black woman in the department what she should do. "Don't leave me," her friend replied, and the decision was made.

Race Women

After lunch the conference reconvened at Agassiz Theatre, where Ann Firor Scott PhD '58 and author of The Southern Lady moderated "Race Women: From the Political to the Personal in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries." Crystal Feimster of Boston College spoke on the largely ignored history of black women and lynching and presented a biographical snapshot of Muriel Snowden '38, founder of Freedom House. Feimster noted that the community center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, played a unifying role during racially charged events such as the 1967 Boston riots.

Tera Hunter of Carnegie Mellon observed that her topic of African American marriage in the 19th century went to the heart of the conference's themes of gender, race, and rights. "God made marriage, but the white man made the law," she said. For slaves, marriage was only binding "until death—or distance—do you part."

Slave women's war stories present an alternative to the traditional Civil War narrative of black men winning emancipation through military service, said Stephanie McCurry of the University of Pennsylvania. Planters plagued by insurrection frankly acknowledged the role of women in escapes and rebellions, and were astonished by their complete indifference to and betrayal of their former masters.

Through Women's Eyes

In the conference's concluding panel, "The Black Atlantic in the 20th Century: Through Women's Eyes," Harvard's Evelynn Hammonds traced the role gender and politics play in the treatment of African American women wilh HIV/AIDS. Disease, she said, can be used as a lens through which to view political and cultural issues of the black diaspora. Despite the global nature of AIDS, early references linked it primarily to Africa. "All of the racist stereotypes about promiscuous African sexuality came to the fore and shaped outreach efforts in Africa and in African American communities," Hammonds said.

Kimberly Phillips' talk about African American women's writings on the Vietnam War was a fitting conclusion to a richly varied day of scholarship and exchange between panelists and conference participants. Referring to an antiwar broadside by June Jordan, Phillips concluded by drawing a clear line between the act of creation and the shape of history. "Art is a political act with material consequences," she said. "Jordan was asking, 'Where do you stand?'"

A reception following the conference gave attendees the opportunity to continue their discussions and reflect on the day's events. Susan McHenry '72 recalled organizing the first conference at Radcliffe on African American women. "It was the first time Alice Walker Bl '73 read in public from In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," said McHenry, an editor-at-large for Essence magazine. "We could not have imagined that we would be celebrating such a rich harvest of scholarship thirty years later." The presence of so many younger scholars was encouraging, McHenry added. "The pieces of the future are there," she said, "but it's important to remain vigilant and make sure the resources and support are there to do the work."

Lizabeth Cohen RI '02, a professor of American studies at Harvard, called the conference "extremely stimulating on many levels" and was pleased to see such a varied audience of students, scholars, and the interested public. "That's just what great libraries are supposed to do—bring together people and resources to advance ideas," she commented.

"The event convened, for the first time, three generations of scholars who created the field of African American women's history," said Faust, noting that the support of Morgan Stanley was essential to the event's success. "We were honored to host such an extraordinary moment."


Julia Hanna is a freelance writer and associate editor of the Harvard Business School Bulletin.

Photos by Martha Stewart

Challenges of Collecting

In advance of the Schlesinger Library's 60th anniversary conference, the library organized an event for archivists and library professionals on October 2 titled "Currents in Collecting: Documenting Underrepresented Communities." Chaired by Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, the library's deputy director and librarian, the panel identified the challenges of collecting records of African Americans and members of other minority communities.

The first collection of an African American woman arrived at the Schlesinger in 1955, Sniffin-Marinoff said. Two other collections arrived in 1964, and the library began paying serious attention to African American women in 1970, she said. "There is no doubt that the library has acquired an astounding array of materials. However, there is much more we want to do to document African Americans and other communities of American women," she said.

Four panelists who work in a variety of settings addressed the challenges they face in documenting underrepresented communities: Brenda S. Banks, deputy director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History; Joan D. Krizack, university archivist and head of the Special Collections Department at Northeastern University; Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College; and Susan McElrath, archivist in the National Anthropological Archives, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Schlesinger Acquires June Jordan Papers

June Jordan. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryJune Jordan. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDuring the Schlesinger Library's two-day 60th anniversary celebration, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study announced the library's acquisition of the papers of June Jordan, the late poet, essayist, critic, and activist. Generous assistance from the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University helped make possible the acquisition.

Called the most published African American writer in history, Jordan was the author of more than twenty-five works, including Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991–1997 (1997) and Things That I Do in the Dark (1981). She earned numerous honors and awards, including a 1969–1970 Rockefeller grant for creative writing and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1982.

"This is a major addition to our collection and to the record of the experience of women in America," said Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute. "I am deeply grateful to Skip Gates and the Du Bois Institute for their partnership in acquiring Jordan's papers."

Adrienne Rich '51 has called Jordan "one of the most musically and lyrically gifted poets of the late 20th century."

 

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