WPES: Keisha Lindsay
Discussant: Rebecca Wanzo
In her black feminist treatise, A Voice from the South (1892), sociologist Anna Julia Cooper cites herself and other “well-bred” black women as evidence that the “supercilious caste spirit in America which cynically assumes ‘A Negro woman cannot be a lady,’” is thoroughly misguided. Cooper further argues that black ladies’ status, as such, makes them uniquely qualified to demand and exercise their right to self-determination in the voting booth, the labor market, and elsewhere. What do Cooper’s assertions tell us about the norms, prohibitions, and socio-economic conditions that have historically informed black women’s self-defined status as “ladies”? Does describing oneself a black lady challenge or reproduce intersecting racial and gendered inequalities of power? What, more broadly, does black ladyhood tell us about the liberatory potential, if any, of right-based politics?
Part of the answer is that, contrary to what many feminist theorists suggest, “lady” is neither an unattainable social marker for blacks nor one that necessarily inculcates them into an oppressive model of femininity. The more complex reality is that black women have long defined themselves as ladies in ways that reproduce patriarchal racism and legitimate what they describe as their right to self-determination in the public sphere. In asserting this right, black ladies also do something else - they challenge recent feminist theorizing which suggests that examining white women is the only means of assessing how, when, and why ladyhood functions as a site of resistance.
The rest of the essay posits that self-defined black ladies shed new light on the debate, among feminists and other political theorists, regarding the merits of rights-based politics. Put more specifically, past and present black ladies guide us to consider that laying claim to one’s “rights” is not a foolproof means of obtaining racial, gendered, and other kinds of political equality. Nor is it a misguided, individualistic act that undermines marginalized groups’ collective political claims. Instead, we should read such rights-based assertions as normatively complex, strategic acts that gain resonance during particular moments in time, including post-emancipation systems of intersecting racist and patriarchal governance.