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What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black…

What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers…

by Stephanie J. Shaw

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In a work that is seemingly quite different from Trouble in Mind, Stephanie Shaw plumbed another aspect of African American life in the Jim Crow Era. She argued in What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era that within the African American community there existed a construction of gender that was deliberately designed to enable women as they were prompted by family, community, and education to transcend the disabling factors of race, class, and gender, allowing these women to become professionals and work, publicly and privately, paid and unpaid, for the betterment of themselves and their community through the notion of socially responsible individualism. While compellingly making this claim, Shaw also presented yet another way in which religion helped foster the development of a distinctly African American culture.
The first subject Shaw engaged with in What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do was how women were prepared to act as socially responsible individuals. In her opinion, there were primarily three enabling institutions for black professional women. First, women were prepared by their families. African American families made a collective effort to raise their daughters so that they would be equipped to escape the traditional gender bounds of their society, by emphasizing “appropriate behavior, dedicated preparation, hard work, and community consciousness.€? Through these strategies of child rearing, African American females were instructed to pay attention to the needs of the community. Despite how successful some families likely were in rearing their children, most of their daughters still required training their families could not give. Thus, African American communities also assumed a vital responsibility in creating socially responsible individuals. According to Shaw, the black community was “a social institution or an arrangement of people who possessed a common understanding of history, mutual interests in the present, and shared visions of the future for the group and all its members.â€? The collective consciousness of this community existed in local black high schools, church congregations, fraternal organizations, women’s social clubs, and black newspapers. Educational institutions were another organization that contributed to the rearing of female African American leaders. According to Shaw, most of the schools between the 1870s and the 1930s were influenced by Christian principles. Even though many, if not most, Christian missions organizations of the era were influenced by paternalistic and racist assumptions, they still taught that social responsibility was a Christian “duty.â€? “Altogether,â€? Shaw asserted, “the schooling process provided especially effective reinforcement for family and community values regarding what a woman ought to be and to do.â€?
After explaining what women “ought to be,â€? Shaw proceeded to limn in what light black professional women saw their responsibilities as active members of society. First, most of the women in this class continued to have domestic responsibilities. Even as they transcended traditional gender boundaries, they remained inside of them. Second, female African American professionals were expected to put their educational training into practice. Many of them did this by working as nurses. As they entered the public work force, these women made professional contributions to society at large. Such contributions, however, were not always immediately visible. Thus, female African American professionals often had to engage in unpaid public work as well. As they did such unpaid public work, these women, Shaw maintained, were working for the sake of the black community, as well as for all of American society. In short, these black professional women “had to be whatever the community needed them to be and do whatever the community needed them to doâ€? as they acted as leaders of the race, providing an opportunity of racial uplift.
Religion played a minimal role in the African American culture explored by Stephanie Shaw. The only place she saw religion participating in the world of black professional women was in the ways it at least nominally influenced the educations they received. Again, she clearly felt that even this effect was tainted by paternalism and racism.
Rather than focus on religion as a significant theme for this period, Shaw concentrated on several other issues. Perhaps the most important issue of her book is the question of gender. Much like Glenda Gilmore, Shaw illustrated that African American women were often active agents of social change. Another theme she stressed was that of class structure. The women she analyzed were all members of the black middle class, educated women who eagerly grasped the new stations offered them in life. Finally, Shaw’s professional women were often working in the shadows of Jim Crow. Even though she did not spend a great deal of time explaining the violence of the period, the concern for uplift, which she claimed these women intended, was a reaction to the threat of racial violence. Thus, these women are living out the paradigm proposed in Trouble in Mind.
On the whole, while Shaw admirably described one of the possible roles black women assumed in the age of Jim Crow, she failed to do much more. One may wonder whether these women actually intended to uplift the race. Shaw maintained that they did, but she never proved this claim. Another problem with Shaw’s thesis is that she seems to have assumed that these women were always successful. What happened when they failed, which some almost certainly did? A glimpse at their failures would likely say much about their many successes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for this essay, Shaw neglected the role of the African American church in the black community. While noticing the role of religion in the schools many of these professional women attended, she failed to see it at work in any other realm of their society. It seems likely that religion came up more than only in the education process. In the end, though, Shaw’s portrait of black professional women certainly filled a gap in the literature.
1 vote rbailey | Oct 7, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226751201, Paperback)

Stephanie J. Shaw takes us into the inner world of American black professional women during the Jim Crow era. This is a story of struggle and empowerment, of the strength of a group of women who worked against daunting odds to improve the world for themselves and their people. Shaw's remarkable research into the lives of social workers, librarians, nurses, and teachers from the 1870s through the 1950s allows us to hear these women's voices for the first time. The women tell us, in their own words, about their families, their values, their expectations. We learn of the forces and factors that made them exceptional, and of the choices and commitments that made them leaders in their communities.

What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do brings to life a world in which African-American families, communities, and schools worked to encourage the self-confidence, individual initiative, and social responsibility of girls. Shaw shows us how, in a society that denied black women full professional status, these girls embraced and in turn defined an ideal of "socially responsible individualism" that balanced private and public sphere responsibilities. A collective portrait of character shaped in the toughest circumstances, this book is more than a study of the socialization of these women as children and the organization of their work as adults. It is also a study of leadership—of how African American communities gave their daughters the power to succeed in and change a hostile world.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:58 -0400)

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