So many black women have been mere footnotes in histories of blacks and women in America: Ella Baker, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Adella Hunt Logan, Gertrude Mossell and so on, in a long list of names that made a difference, but got little credit.
Enter Paula Giddings, 37, a journalist and editor who has written a popular history of black female activism in America. And, in its first months of publication, "When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America" has stirred considerable reaction.
"It validates, substantiates and confirms what we privately boast about," says Jewell Jackson McCabe, president of the Coalition of 100 Black Women. In her review for The New York Times, novelist Gloria Naylor said Giddings has produced "a jarringly fresh and challenging interpretation."
With that tide of support, Giddings, a free-lance writer who lives in New York, is now in demand for speeches and forums. At a Washington luncheon for her, nearly 400 women and a few men showed up and cheered her tales of an overlooked history.
On the other hand, some black women historians have acknowledged that Giddings might be paving the way for a broader acceptance of their own work, but they criticize some of her methods and the book's marketing.
"I think it is a very good lay history," says Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, the director of the African-American Studies program at Morgan State University. "Her reliance on secondary sources makes it a popular history. We did the primary work, we were in the trenches doing the digging. She borrows the analysis and puts it in a very readable way. Then it is marketed as a definitive history." Betty Collier Thomas, executive director of the Bethune Museum-Archives, agrees with some of the historians' reservations but also thinks Giddings should be congratulated for opening doors: "She has given greater visibility through the book to black women's history."
Giddings is firm about her purpose. "My main aim was to show how multifaceted we are. We are not monolithic. But we do have a central core with a history that is uniquely our own, based on our own world view, our own particular needs, our own status as black women in this country. In most books you don't find that point of view at all. We are always looked at as a marginal group. In fact we belong at the center of both the struggle for black rights and women's rights. You can document that without the participation of black women, when they begin to be excluded from either of those movements, those movements fall down."
"When and Where" is a detailed panorama of history from Isabell Williams, who is believed to have had the first black child born in America, to Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman to be elected to Congress and the first black woman to run for a major party's nomination for the U.S. presidency. The common theme is that these women, no matter what their occupations, politics or class, have fought the handicaps of racism and sexism and the strong undercurrents of black chauvinism and white women's condescension.
They used their financial and management skills from decades of work and their political knowledge from pre-emancipation causes and created a series of organizations that became centers for social change. One of the points Giddings makes is that these women become the models for modern womanhood.
"One reason men gave that women shouldn't have had their rights is because they were too frail and weak. Certainly black women, from Sojourner Truth on, proved that physical strength didn't make one less of a woman. In fact they believed that made them more of a woman. We worked to redefine womanhood," she says.
The writer is seated on a hallway bench, giving two interviews and facing a photographer's spotlights. She has just left a roomful of descendants of her book's subjects. Tall and striking, her short, light brown hair just reaching a soft white collar, Giddings fairly bursts with passion about her book's many heroines. "I feel like they are alive," she laughs.
Giddings on Ida B. Wells-Barnett: "For all her fame as a journalist she was even called "princess of the press" it didn't pay the rent."
"My favorite was Ida Wells, I just love her," Giddings says. "She was the type who, after writing those editorials in the South about lynching, wore two pistols on her hip. She said 'If they are going to take me, they are going to be dealing with something.' She was absolutely uncompromising, absolutely radical. But very warm, she got very involved in her community."
Wells-Barnett, the owner of a weekly newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, started investigating lynching in 1892, thereby creating a civil rights campaign. She not only counted the bodies but went beyond the horrors of the hangings to find out if the men were really guilty. For her efforts, she was run out of Memphis.
It's her gumption and savvy that make Giddings smile. When Wells-Barnett joined the New York Age as a paid contributor, she worked out a deal to buy a quarter interest in the paper in exchange for the subscription list from her own paper.
Giddings spent five years on research, trudging through the Mary Church Terrell papers and the NAACP records at the Library of Congress, the Anna J. Cooper papers at Howard University, the Black Women's Project at Radcliffe College and the Bethune Archives here.
But it was a more personal image that started the quest. In her mother's bedroom is a portrait of Giddings' great-grandmother, Virginia Rux. Giddings knew little about her, except that her mother had been a slave, but the picture shows a woman of tranquility and determination.
The inheritor of that determination, Giddings grew up in New York City. Her mother is a retired school administrator and her father is a retired teacher. Her maternal grandmother had moved from Meherrin, Va., at the turn of the century to Yonkers, N.Y., and supported her family by doing domestic work and taking in foster children. Her paternal grandfather was a civil engineer who graduated from New York University at age 20 with a Phi Beta Kappa key.
Like those of many of the women in her book, Giddings' life has moved in and out of Washington. She graduated from Howard University in 1969 with a degree in English, then worked at Random House for three years and Howard University Press for three years. Her journalism career includes a two-year stint as Paris bureau chief for the defunct Encore American and Worldwide News. She interviewed, among others, former president of Senegal Leopold Senghor, former Ugandan leader Idi Amin and South African black leaders Robert Sobukwe and Winnie Mandela.
"I interviewed Winnie Mandela in 1975 and she had been imprisoned and under banning orders for years. What was so courageous is that the banning orders were lifted and that day she went right out and made a public speech and the banning orders were reinforced," Giddings recalls.
"But Black women may have been the only group in America able to see not only the degradation but the triumph of transcending what the system would make of them. In their minds, the experience of slavery provided evidence of the Black woman's moral strength and resiliency."
There were inspirers, such as editor Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, the daughter of a millionaire, the first black woman to be on the citywide board of education in Washington and an early champion of organizing domestic workers.
There were builders: Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the National Council of Negro Women, who put the issue of race and women on the national agenda through her participation in Franklin Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet." In this category were Lucy C. Laney, who founded the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Ga., in 1886; Washington-born Nannie Helen Burroughs, founder of The National Training School for Girls; and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute.
There were definers, such as Anna J. Cooper, principal of Washington's old M Street school, whose book, "Voices of the South," was a call to arms. When Cooper retired at the age of 67, she went to the Sorbonne to earn a PhD in Latin. Another definer, turn-of-the-century Chicago writer Fannie Barrier Williams, helped define the agenda of club women, attacked the stereotype of black female promiscuity and said that white women should help protect black women against white men.
There were entrepreneurs such as Madame C.J. Walker, a St. Louis washerwoman who invented a system of hair care that revolutionized the way black women approached beauty care. At one time, she employed 5,000 black women, and eventually became the first black woman millionaire.
There were survivors. Harriet Tubman, who led 300 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, was denied a veterans pension after she worked as a spy for the Union army. So she sold fruit and wrote a book to establish a home for the aged.
There were resisters. Women slaves often refused to bear children. They abstained from sex, used contraceptives and practiced abortion. "Think about the passion involved in that. We know that black motherhood is something special and to think about mothers going through these acts of abortion, to think about them killing their children, to think about what that meant, to think about the depth of their rebellion . . ." says Giddings. "It goes against so much of the data that says we were free and loose, we dropped babies like bales of cotton, had no concern about it."
And when Giddings read this passage at a lunch attended by black women here, they cheered. "This was certainly true of Rose Williams, the slave who had earlier tried to refuse the mate, Rufus, whom her master foisted on her for childbearing purposes. After the emancipation, Rose left Rufus. 'I never marries,' she explained, 'cause one 'sperience am 'nough for this nigger. After what I done for de massa, I's never wants to truck with any man. De Lawd forgive dis cullud woman, but he have to 'scuse me and look for some others for to 'plenish the earth.' "
"Historically, racial necessity has made black women redefine the notion of womanhood to integrate the concepts of work, achievement, and independence into their role as women."
Black women have continued to fight stereotyping and opposed the 1965 Department of Labor report on black families by Daniel P. Moynihan that described the black family as a debilitating matriarchal system. This was the first time, Giddings says, that the progress of black women was blamed for problems within the black community.
Seated in the hotel, she says that period of the 1960s, which also included some very hostile reaction from black men as black women began to debate the validity of the women's movement, put the brakes on psychic development. "We began to draw back, be wary and that's the truth. Black women, women in general, began to internalize that criticism. This was an insult to black men that they were so threatened that they began to walk away from their families. We began to relinquish some of our leadership roles," she says.
Today's activists can take some lessons from their turn-of-the-century counterparts, she says. "The external conditions were almost the same. It was a political administration, federal aid was being cut off. Black leadership was in somewhat of a disarray because this was after the period when blacks got elected to office for the first time and then suddenly they were gone," says Giddings.
"Black women felt frustrated, there was no one defending the race. Violence was increasing. This is when lynchings reached their peak. Black women themselves were emerging, they were going to college in greater numbers, they were entering the professions. Yet no one was taking them into account."
Now Giddings has written an account of her own.