What Anna Julia Cooper Can Teach America and the Women’s Movement

March 20, 2014

Women’ History Month

In honor of Women’s History Month, the African American Breakthrough Series will feature the writing and voice of Anna Julia Cooper.  Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. Preeminent scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the elevation of African Americans and the progress of the nation.

Cooper’s writing anticipates and prefigures liberation theology, emphasizing a “preferential option for the lowly,” offers a critique of the damaging effects of American racism,  presents an appraisal of white male patriarchal dominance, and provides a robust vision and an instructive guide for the Women’s Movement, grounded in the lived experience of black women. 

Anna Julia CooperAnna Julia Cooper 

During the past four years, we have witness an unprecedented crusade to roll back reproductive rights and choices of women, along with an effort by the political and religious right to mute and silence the voices of women in the workplace and in the political arena.  There has been a preponderance of legislation, for example, that has forced the closure of abortion clinics and attempted to criminalize abortions. This has become the signature calling card of right wing congressional and state legislative bodies.

Further, we have also seen a relentless attack by the conservative media and their political and academic allies on the poor, often singling out African Americans.  Note, for example, Representative Paul Ryan’s assessment and commentary of the high unemployment rate among inner-city (code for black) males:  “We have got this tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work and so there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

Thus, the twin issue of race and gender has once again taken center stage in American society. Given this,  the work and voice of Anna Julia Cooper is instructive and essential for understanding these two issues, and for grasping how race and gender can work in opposition to each other or as an integrated, cooperative whole, in the service of the larger project of producing a new humanity in which women and men can achieve at their fullest human potential.

The Arc of Moral Christianity

To be sure, the starting point for Cooper’s argument for equal respect, opportunity, and rights for women is grounded in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. She contends that insofar as the Christian Church has maintained its fidelity to the teaching of Jesus, it serves as an authoritative  source and guide for the development of women.  She writes, “the source of the vitalizing principle of women’s development and amelioration is the Christian Church so far as that the church is consistent with Christianity.” The key here is adherence to moral code which Jesus articulated for humanity.  She writes further, “By laying down for women, the same code of morality, the same standard of purity as for men…[Jesus] has given men a rule and guide for the estimation of woman as an equal, as a helper, as a friend, as a sacred charge to be sheltered and cared for with a brother’s love and sympathy.”

Hence, her reference of Jesus as a guide for how to view equality of women and men places Christians on notice that equality of women and men is a fundamental teaching of Jesus and thus should be present in our daily lives.  And still further, we can infer from her argument that discrimination against women or practices and policies which harm them runs counter to Christian principles as set forth by Jesus.

History as a Measure of Women’s Progress

Next, Cooer advances that the study of history shows a causal relationship between the status of women and the advancement of society.  Nations which have thwarted the advancement of women have slowed their own progress. Women, she writes, are a potent force in improving society and that the “position of women in society determines the vital elements of regeneration and progress.” Her argument here is crucial to understanding one of the principal causes of stagnation and retrogression of American society.

In addition, Cooper maintains that her assertion that women are the vital force pushing society forward is not a sexist one, but one founded on “a priori grounds.” She asserts that this is not because a “woman is better or stronger than a man, but from the nature of the case, because it is she who must first form the man by directing the earliest impulses of is character.” The maternal care and circumstances, thus, positions a woman  to provide the requisite  nurturing at the earliest developmental stages of a child’s life.  A woman’s care and well-being then is essential to fulfilling this role and central to the development of the child.

Therefore, it is beneficial not just to women, but men and society that women are able to carry out their maternal responsibilities and functions in the service of parenting children. This argument does not exclude the important and necessary role of men or fathers in parenting. It is a simple recognition by Cooper of outsized role and responsibility that women have with giving birth and parenting children.

Moreover, Cooper sees motherhood as a scared responsibility which must be given the highest priority and weight.  “Woman, Mother—Your responsibility,” she states “is one that might make angels tremble and fear to take hold!  To trifle with it, to ignore or misuse it, is to treat lightly the most sacred and solemn trust ever confided by God to humankind.”

Implications of Cooper’s Writing for Today

As mentioned earlier,  Cooper’s writing  gives us a way of measuring the progress of women and the Women’s Movement as well as the quality of American society. Measured against her writings,  the discussion and debate around women and their status is impoverished.  Being a mother, for example, was just one possibility of womanhood for Cooper.  She saw women as the necessary compliment to men, worthy of the same, if not more, social investment given their dual task as mothers and workers.

Too, suggestive in her writing is an elevated and more supportive role for both men and women. In addressing the role of men she declares: “We need men who can let their interest and gallantry extend outside the circle of their aesthetic appreciation; men who can be a father, a brother, a friend to every weak, struggling unshielded girl.”

And for women, she calls for them to be more competent, confident and committed and unafraid to lift as they climb. “We need women,” she pronounces, “who are so sure of their own social footing that they need not fear learning to lend a hand to a fallen  sister.”

And finally, she issues a call, which is very instructive for policy makers and those in positions of power.  It is a call for men and women of substance, men and women “who do not exhaust their genius splitting hairs on aristocratic distinctions and thanking God they are not as others; but earnest unselfish souls, who can go into the highways and byways, lifting up and leading, advising and encouraging with a true catholic benevolence of the Gospel of Christ.”

Hence, in brief Anna Julia Cooper informs us that a great nation requires a discussion, debate, and practice of women’s issues worthy of its greatness. In light of Cooper’s writing and insight, the qualitative decline of American society is correlates with the debasement and degradation of women. Elected officials, republicans and democrats, policy makers and decision-makers, for whatever public relations purpose, are dancing on the margins of women’s rights, and developmental issues, and are enveloped by their own make-believe world of women.  For Americans to achieve a progressive and qualitative society, their reality must take precedence over public relations, for women cannot be fooled.


Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South

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