Anna Julia Cooper: “Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race”

(1886)

Context

Most feminists of the nineteenth century believed that men and women had different “natures” and inherent qualities that best suited each gender to “separate spheres” in society. For women, these qualities included a heightened sympathy, purity, religiosity, a capacity for moral instruction, and a devotion to child rearing. Sometimes dubbed the cult of “true womanhood,” these qualities were expected of all “true” women. This concept of “womanhood” or femininity was most influential among the northern white middle classes. Although they accepted the notions of “true womanhood,” feminists broke from mainstream views about “women’s sphere” in arguing that women’s roles in society were as important as men’s. Rejecting claims of women’s inferiority, they insisted that women were the intellectual equals of men and argued for an “expanded women’s sphere” that included a greater role in public life, higher education for women, greater professional roles in “feminine” fields...