The themes in the articles about and by Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell and Sojourner Truth present a complicated image of the early stages of debate and activism regarding the rights of black women in America. Some surprising threads and themes are the discriminatory attitudes that are displayed regarding the perceptions of these women regarding the sexism of black men in the case of Cooper and Truth, and bias against those of unfortunate circumstances in the case of Terrell. While the big issue identified by each is the rights of women, these arguments come with many of the judgements and beliefs of the time that certainly do not approach the equal rights that is considered the standard moral approach today.
In learning more about the life of Mary Church Terrell there are many surprises, in particular the fact that such achievements were possible for a Black woman at a time when discrimination was rampant against not only African Americans but also women. Apparently it was also a surprise to people at the turn of the 19th century, as Terrell describes at the opening of her article titled “The Progress of Colored Women”. Terrell outlines the many achievements of Black women in her article, but she also displays a rather judgmental attitude towards those who have not been accorded the privileges that Terrell has. In referring to the school in Mt. Meigs Alabama she informs the reader that the instructions that is provided is of the type suited for the people, namely home economics for women and farming for the men. Terrell describes as well the importance of setting up schools that teach domestic work as a means of alleviating the poverty of Black women. It becomes clear that she is not advocating for African American to have the same opportunities that she herself has had, but rather a minimal achievement that allows for a slightly better survival of her fellow Black women. A point of relevance today is the importance of social determinants in the ability to have positive and successful outcomes. Terrell was born into wealth, and was able to get an education and become articulate and respected among a diverse audience. There continue to be dismal statistics today regarding poverty, education and employment achievements among African Americans, but what part stems from discrimination against race and gender and what part stems from discrimination against the poor and the systematic barriers that are faced by them? In comparing what Terrell was able to do with what she was proposing for African Americans, it is clear that Terrell suffered from this pervasive mentality regarding what the poor did, and did not, deserve.
Anna Julia Cooper, like Terrell, was able to benefit from an education that requires privilege and wealth. Also like Terrell, she displays some interesting biases in her work “The Status of Woman in America”, in particular the belief that women were morally superior to men.
Sojourner Truth presents a very different perspective from Terrell and Cooper. Born a slave, she does not have the same level of education or detailed understanding of more sophisticated issues, however she is quite passionate in putting forward the reasons why black women need rights, and much of these reasons center on the problems presented by black men.
The information and debate which is presented by these women continues to resonate in many ways today with regard to the need for the equality of all regardless of gender or race, but in the details of their presentation it is clear that this does not in fact reflect their values. It does however speak to the pervasiveness of discrimination, even in the pursuit of seeming equality, and perhaps that is the most important reflection after reading the insights of these women.