How Shall We Make
The Women of Our Race Stronger?
April 21, 1886 — Alabama State Teachers’ Association, Selma AL
I feel the honor as well as the responsibility of this opportunity of appearing before this audience to-day. Public speaking is not to my taste. For years past my life has been full of work, but generally in a different direction — at least by different methods, and if I consulted my inclinations I would not be before you to-day, but in view of the vast amount that may be said and done in the direction of the subject, I have chosen, to a convention of teachers who are inquiring for ideas for any source, I may be able to say something at least suggestive.
How shall we make the women of our race stronger physically, morally and intellectually? Many of the ideas that I shall bring before you in my endeavor to find a few answers to this question are not really new, but as far as their application to every day life among our people goes, they are new, in the main. Several years of work in positions that have brought me in close contact with many of the women and girls of the race have bought a deep conviction of the need for r them of physical, mental and moral development.
It is true there is no people or class of people whose development in all these directions is perfectly symmetrical, or what it should be in any one of them, but among all people except uncivilized ones, more prominence is given all these phases of development than we are giving them.
First, let us consider how the physical development of one woman can be accomplished: James Freeman Clarke, in his inimitable essay on the training and care of the bod, says, “Good health is the basis of all physical, intellectual and moral development. We glorify God with our bodies by keeping them in good health.” Mainly because I believe this is true, I have put this part of my subject first.
I think most people would be surprised at the result if a test were in some way given with a view to finding a few perfectly healthy women in any of our communities. Diogenes’s search after an honest man was more fruitful of results than this one would be. Why is this? Why are there so many of us miserable invalids either utterly incapable of rendering services in any station or to whom life is a burden, because of the effort of will necessary to be put forth constantly if any thing is accomplished? Nervous and organic diseases have laid tyrannous hands upon us and are lading us helpless captives away from the highest avenues of usefulness into the darker ways of suffering and too often of selfish narrowness, for though a strong, earnest spirit may rise above, and inspire a weak body, generally the weakness of the body will crop the wings and keep the soul from soaring. To answer specifically why this is true is, of course, impossible, but when great and universal evils exit there are usually general causes that can be formulated. First in the list of causes of our physical weakness I would put the use of stimulants and of tobacco. A large part of the suffering from diseases of various kinds among us comes directly from the use of alcoholic drinks, and all our united influence should be given to deliver ourselves and our afflicted sisters from this frightful wellspring of suffering. The evils that come to us from the use of these drinks are of two kinds — those inherited from intemperate parents and those brought upon ourselves by our own intemperance.
I do not mean to speak in general of the evils of intemperance, but only of its evil results upon our bodies.
First let us speak of inherited evils. That the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children is no more true anywhere than it is here. The drunken parent destroys or weakens not along the body God gave him for the temple of his own soul, but transmits to the child a heritage of suffering perhaps observable in general organic weakness or in fearful deformities or painful diseases. Perhaps the commonest form the inherited evils take is the first — inherited weakness. This is especially true of women whose more delicate organizations are more easily affected. As the child grows to womanhood the weaknesses are developed into diseases by the hardships and exposures incident to such a life as is an outgrowth of the intemperance of the father or the mother.
Teachers, especially you who are in the country, can do much towards mitigating this evil by exerting a strong and aggressive influence against the use of whiskey. By precept and example help the people to the conviction that its use is sapping away their own and their children’s strength. Take no part it, and frown upon, the tendency to enter into shameful excesses at the holidays when the farmers have “settled” their accounts, which is often but another way of saying they have gone more deeply in debt for a jug of whiskey.
I have put the use of whiskey first in my list of causes, but now that I begin to think and write of another fruitful source of suffering, I am almost persuaded that it should come first. I refer to the use of tobacco. How sad that any one, least of all, a woman, should defile the beautiful temple, all clean and pure and undefiled when received from God’s hands by making it reek with the foul fumes of tobacco! “My father’s house is a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Your soul’s house is the rightful temple of God, but ye have mad it a den of filth. I can not speak too strongly against one of the commonest forms of the use of tobacco among Southern colored women, and indeed among all classes of Southern women — the use of snuff. Aside from the fact that the habit it a disgusting one, its influence upon the health is most pernicious. No human body can be vigorous and healthy when part of its daily food is tobacco.
Another source of suffering less serious only because less universal, is the use of morphine and similar drugs. This is a surer destroyer of every power of body, mind and soul than any mentioned, and though its victims are now fewer, it is to be feared their number is on the increase. One way of working against this evil is by resisting the administration of morphine in any form by physicians except in cases of extremist suffering, for more harm than good is done the entire system, especially the nervous system, by giving it. The taste formed this way often becomes a confirmed habit impossible to be gotten rid of.
Aside from these particulars, the general manner of living in the homes where most of the colored girls’ and women’s lives are spent is productive of disease. Go into the miserable shanties and hovels in town or country in which the majority of them live and you have all about you germinators of disease. Insufficiency, if not actual want, is plainly written every where on fire, food, and raiment, while the cracks in floor and walls tell their own tale of suffering and exposure. Here mothers and daughters toil from Monday morning till Sunday morning over the wash tub or ironing table or at the sewing machine, as often as necessary benumbing the brain and straining the back by carrying huge baskets of clothes on their heads longer or shorter distances. Added to all this is their general carelessness in the care of themselves arising from their complete ignorance of the laws of health. Some one has said, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” but I would say that cleanliness is godliness. No soul can be a godly one that willingly inhabits an unclean body or submits to unclean outer surroundings. We can help here by using every opportunity for inspiring in those with whom we come in contact, an ambition to have better homes, and by teaching them in every way possible how to care for their bodies. Here, my sister teachers, is a wide and special field for you. By your own example in dress and daily habits as well as by precepts show them how to clothe and care for themselves according to hygienic laws. In the schoolroom teach physiology and hygiene by general lessons if you don’t have the regular text-book work in them.
It is safe to say that three-fourths of the colored women are overworked and under-fed, and are suffering to a greater or less degree from sheer physical exhaustion. The overworking is generally a result of underfeeding, and this is a result of their ignorance of the art of cooking. If ever in their possession, good cooking is a lost art now among the colored women in general of the South. The rations of sodden, unappetizing food that are served three times a day in most families are so many outrages upon those faithful but much abused servants, the digestive organs.
Any school that succeeds in arousing in one of our young women an ambition to become a good cook does God and humanity a noble service.
Seeds of disease and suffering are sown in infancy, childhood and girlhood by mothers, at first, through ignorance of proper methods of caring for their little ones from the time of their birth, and later through carelessness and ignorance in allowing them to go blindly on, ignorant of the laws of life, leaving them to come unshielded by any word of advice or caution to the possession of knowledge, whose possession is vicious in its influence upon health and character only, because its acquirement is made a thing of chance, or which the child feels she must obtain surreptitiously.
I beg the women of this convention to be earnest in their endeavors to shield the young girls in their districts from the fearful sins of ignorance in this direction. Try to make the mothers feel the serious responsibility that rests upon them. Show them in every way you can how to shield their girls from wrong and suffering brought on by pernicious habits.
Let us now turn to the consideration of that part of the question which asks how can we make the women of our race stronger intellectually. I would not have you think, especially you my brother teachers, that we are seeking to find out how we can produce more “strong minded” women as that term is used in its most objectionable sense. Indeed, it would require stronger evolutionary fore than even Prof. Huxley would dare to advocate to evolve strong-minded women out of [the] mass of intellectually deformed beings who compos the female portion of our race.
Slavery with its offsprings of misery in the form of physical, mental and moral deformity has left its impress upon us, and its influence will e seen in us, for generations to come. It must be [the] work of the earnest reformers among us in each generation to make this influence weaker and to hasten the day when slavery with all its entail will be a thing of the past indeed.
The school room must mainly be the place in which, and the teacher’s hand the one by which, the intellectual emancipation of the women of our race is accomplished. It is our privilege to have in hand a large part of the mental development of the colored women of the generations to come directly after us.
Let us see to it that nothing on our part is left undone toward bringing them back to the estate of mental vigor in which God placed them.
We cannot indeed expect them to spring Minerva-like into his estate from the very grasp of the monster, slavery, but by careful and patient training, they can be brought to it.
In the school room the teacher should aim to make the work such as will best train the girls’ mental powers in their fourfold nature. IN order to do this, he must himself know what these powers are, and be able to inquire wisely in his study of his pupil what they are capable of, in each individual. In case his previous preparation for his work has not given him this knowledge his first endeavor should be, to fit himself for it by study. John Locke, Froebel, Pestalozzi and many others here in their writings made the way so plain that no earnest seeker can greatly err in finding it.
And here, thought it is not exactly within the province of my paper, I want to urge upon the younger teachers in this association the importance of fitting themselves by constant study and reading for their work.
We glorify God with our bodies, by keeping them in good health. We glorify Him in a higher degree by s training and strengthening our mental powers that they will be capable of clear and protracted thought and the direction of wise actions, but above all this we can glorify God by permitting our moral natures to attain their full growth. This is true of all humanity, and it is equally true that all humanity fail to reach full moral growth, but it is especially true of our race, and most especially true of the women among us.
Two hundred years of such training was given in the school of slavery, was calculated to dwarf the moral nature of its pupils. The disregard of family relations, of personal rights, of the property of others, and hundreds of other outrages upon human rights, from which the slaves were sufferers, or in which they were participants, or of which they were daily witnesses, were not without their influence upon character, and that influence is still strong upon us. This influence is seen in the looseness with which our family relations are regarded to-day, in the weak cry, if any, of the outraged virtue and purity that goes up from among us, when immorality in the form of sins against social or moral laws is found in our midst, in the number of our women who are daily brought before the police courts in our large cities, and [in the] low moral tone that is almost a second nature in the majority of us and gives color to the commonest transactions of our every daily life.
Much that has been suggested in this paper as a means to bring about physical and mental health will also obtain here. You cannot succeed in getting a woman to see that she is injuring her health by the use of tobacco or whiskey, or by keeping herself and surroundings in filth, and to be willing to reform in these matters without raising the tone of that woman’s moral nature. There are action and reaction here that are equal, and in the case of many doubtless the desire for physical good is the only motive of action you can appeal to successfully. Thought something can be done by us patient and wise effort for the moral uplifting of the more mature women, the young women and girls are the hope of the race, and fortunately it is over them that with wise and Christian effort we can gain our strongest influence. The forces we have to work against are inherent tendencies, home influences, evil associations and in some cases the tendency to devour low literature. Here again their lives are against them. Take the life of the average country girls, in their homes they huddle at night in sleeping rooms with fathers, brothers and often the hired hands; day by day they work beside men in the fields, often untidily and often indecently dressed. All this through the week. Saturday, they come streaming into town to stand about on the streets or in stores and saloons, dip snuff, beg for treats, gossip and listen to, and pass jokes that ought to be insults to any girl or woman in whom there is a spark of womanly modesty. Over all this is thrown an atmosphere of looseness in thought, language and action. Little there to cultivate moral sentiment, but much to blunt it. That we should make any thing but comparatively rapid progress against all this is not to be expected under any circumstances, and if we go into a community and be mere school teachers in the narrowest use of that term, we shall not make any headway against it. It is in this respect — the routine work of the schoolroom forms so small is a part of the work of the earnest teacher — that the colored school teachers’ lives are peculiar.
We must work outside the school-room, we must see the girls in their homes, make friends with them, be interested in them if we would help them. I have in mind a teacher who went into one of the worst communities. The very atmosphere of the place was immoral. The result of two years’ earnest patient work there on her part was, that in every home in the community, the spirit of improvement was noticeable; and she did it mainly through the girls. She made friends of them, she visited their homes, she organized them into self and home improvement clubs, got them to give up taking snuff, to lay aside the old white cotton wraps and arrange their hair neatly, to wear collars, cuffs and aprons to school, encourage them to plant flowers in their yards, gave them pictures and papers (supplied by friends whom she had interested them) for their walls, and so appealed to their pride, and modesty, and self-respect that there was no longer the Saturday Hegira to town, and in [the] majority of the families, separate sleeping apartments were provided. Among the more thoughtful and intelligent she formed a reading club, and read to them or told them about the lives of noble women and other things that would still further arouse their ambition to become good women. What this teacher did we can do and perhaps some of us are doing.
We cannot too seriously consider this question of the moral uplifting of our women for it is of national importance to us. It is with our women that the purity and safety of our families rest, and what our families are the races will be.
Source: Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Session of the Alabama State Teachers’ Association Held at Selma Alabama, April 21-24, 1886 (Tuskegee, 1887), pp. 3-8.
Also: The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 2, Ed. Louis R. Harlan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press) 1972, pp. 298-305.