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The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period 1865-1885

Carl Greenfeld

Gender Identity

The gender identity of southern black women was also important in the post-bellum period. The voting movement among freedwomen will be used as an example of how women fought for their rights as females, and as African Americans, as well as showing their proclivity for doing what they believed was best for them and their family. In this period, black women believed that the right to vote, whether it was for them or for black men, was the key to their continued freedom. They looked at suffrage as a means to an end . Much of the importance of suffrage after the Civil War was polarized around the newly proposed fifteenth amendment.

The battle for the right to vote was a good example of the gender identity of black women after the Civil War. In this time period, the battle for the black woman’s right to vote revolved around the fifteenth amendment. The fifteenth amendment, first proposed in 1868, was to guarantee black men the right to vote. There were two camps, however, that disagreed upon the proposed wording and effect of this amendment. There were those women who fought for the right of black men to vote, with black woman waiting their turn. There were also those women who believed that they deserved the right to vote without delay. Those who wanted to wait believed that “women should step back and wait their turn, lest they jeopardize the fare of men who so desperately needed political power.” In fact, Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University states, “most black women seem to have agreed that the enfranchisement of black men would represent a major step forward for the entire black community.” These women believed that their interests could best be provided for by first making sure that black men achieved the right to vote. The other group of women believed that the right to vote for black women, as well as for black men, should be included within the fifteenth amendment and should be immediate. Many of these women attended rallies or tried to register to vote. They were not content with allowing black men to acquire the right to vote first, as they believed they were equal citizens and therefore should have equal privileges.

Although there were different views on whether women should fight for the immediate right to vote, there was an important similarity between views. Each group believed that they were doing what was in the best interests of the black woman in this time period. The question of the rightness or wrongness of these groups is immaterial. Both groups showed their strength of character and belief in doing what was most advantageous for their race and gender, regardless of the position that they took on this issue. The women who wanted to wait believed it was more important to make sure that black men got suffrage so that they would have a political base of power for their family. Those who wanted immediate suffrage believed that the only way to guarantee their freedom was through instantaneous suffrage for all, whether white or black, male or female. Either way one observed it, the issue involved was one of continued freedom and long term prosperity. Ultimately, in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was passed and only black men were given the right to vote. The important issue, however, was that “black women had not been granted the vote along with their husbands and fathers. But they did manage to make their presence known.” They showed that they would fight for what they believed was important in their lives, even if it included disagreeing with other members of the same race or sex.

There is one more point to be made on the gender identity of these black women. Only one specific example, the women’s suffrage movement, has been given in this essay to show the gender identity of the freedwomen in this time period. The gender identity of these women, however, is also composed of the three identities, (work, sexual, and family) that have been discussed previously in this essay. The examples such as lower pay at work, sexual abuse, and being expected to take care of the home, are all experiences and responsibilities that were forced upon the African American woman and which contributed to her gender identity. This concept is important because it shows that not all the identities that were representative of black women in this era were mutually exclusive, but worked together and in combination with each other. Although it might appear in this essay that each of the identities presented only exist apart from one another, they are indeed connected.

The southern black woman went through many hardships with the conclusion of the Civil War. At the outset of this time period, the freedwoman learned “that emancipation was only the first step on the road to freedom, not the last, and the obstacles along the way would be formidable.” These women were forced to work for little pay, sexually abused, forced to recreate and support their families, and were exposed to a multitude of other degradations and insulting practices in their lives. The constant throughout these experiences, however, was the strength and grace that these African American women displayed through these living conditions. If she was compensated less than she deserved or was showed disrespect on the job, she either quit or went on strike until she secured what was rightfully hers. If her family had been sold away during the age of slavery, she would go wherever necessary in order to reclaim them. These women had the strength of character that was necessary to toil in the fields or in an employer’s home all day, but would then allow them to journey home and care for their husbands and children.

One would most likely describe these women and their identity as both strong and persistent. The result of their experiences, their responsibilities, and ultimately their identity was their ability to accept the difficulties in their lives, knowing that this acceptance was the key to living the kind of life they coveted. These women learned to fight the battles that they could and postpone the battles that would harm their future prospects for happiness. The identity of these women was not one of subservience to the more powerful white establishment, but one of attaining the necessary freedom in life that made the African American woman content. Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson put it best when they said, “they [southern black women] were willing to pay a high price for these things, so crucial to the sense of freedom.” The southern black woman worked unmercifully and accepted the burden of being an African-American woman in the South in order to acquire the freedom that was so important to her.

Sexual Identity
Family Identity

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Last Updated: 8/12/16