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What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do

Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era

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.

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Catharine R. Stimpson
Part 1: What a Woman Ought to Be
1. "Aim always to attain excellence in character and culture": Child-rearing strategies
2. "The daughters of our community coming up": Developing community consciousness
3. "We are not educating individuals but manufacturing levers": Schooling reinforcements
Epilogue to Part 1
Part 2: What a Woman Ought to Do
Prologue to Part 2
4. "I am teaching school here . . . [but] I find it rather hard . . . with my housekeeping": Private sphere work
5. "It was time . . . that we should be members": Personal professional work
6. "Working for my race in one way or another ever since I was a grown woman.": Public sphere work
Appendix: Biographical sketches
Abbreviations and Sources


Gustavus Myers Ctr/Study of Human Rights: Gustavus Myers Center Outstanding Book Award

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