What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era

By de Jong, Greta | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era


de Jong, Greta, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era. By Stephanie J. Shaw. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Pp. xvi, 347. Foreword, preface, acknowledgment, introduction, conclusion, sources, appendices, notes, index. $47.50, cloth; $16.95, paper.)

Stephanie Shaw's What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era makes a significant contribution to the study of African American and women's history. Focusing her research on approximately eighty black women who pursued careers in teaching, nursing, social work, and other professions, Shaw shows how African American communities empowered their daughters (and themselves) through child-rearing and educational practices designed to develop "socially responsible individualism" (p. 3). Women like Mary Church Terrell, Janie Porter Barrett, Angelina Grimke, Layle Lane, and Septima Poinsette Clark were encouraged to strive for individual achievement not just for its own sake, but so that they might reach positions of wealth or influence that would enable them to help others. Because assistance in gaining access to education and other advantages was often provided by people outside their immediate families, black professional women were imbued with a sense of their "duties to [their] race" (p. 69).

They knew they were expected to use the knowledge and skills they acquired to become community leaders and work to improve the lives of others who had not been so fortunate. As Clara Jones's grandfather told her before she left for college, "You're going to get your education, and its [sic] not yours; you're doing it for your people" (p. 38).

Shaw's sample group encompasses three generations of women born between the 1850s and 1930s. The first two generations, she suggests, viewed their role within the traditional framework of the Progressive Era: shaping working-class and poor people into more acceptable members of society by encouraging them to adopt mainstream American values such as hard work, thrift, and sobriety. At the same time they often provided useful resources for black communities and helped establish institutions like schools, hospitals, and libraries where none had existed before. In the third generation Shaw perceives a shift toward a more militant attitude and a reconceptualization of the problems facing African Americans. In the 1930s and 1940s black professional women turned their attention away from "uplifting the race" to uplifting white society.

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