Napson-Williams, Theresa D., fl. 2007. "Review of Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal". In Collected Book and Web Reviews (Alexander Street Press, Alexandria, VA, 2005) pp. [N pag] [Bibliographic details]


Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal

[pp. [NA]]

Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women's Activism from World War I to the New Deal

By Nikki Brown (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. 194 pp. Cloth $29.95, ISBN 0253348048).

Reviewed by Theresa Napson-Williams, Richard Stockton College

Brown's objective is to tell the story of African American middle class women's political development between the two world wars. Brown eloquently argues that African American women's private concerns of child welfare, education, and community development combined with their public support for America's involvement in World War I, and their support of African American troops in particular. Faced with the constant thrust of Jim Crow practices, African American women worked within the strictures of that system, struggling to find a place of support, dignity and equality, for soldiers and civilians alike. As a result of their experiences during World War I, Brown contends African American women, now organized, empowered and determined, directly challenged racial discrimination in American life and institutions.

Brown situates the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), founded in 1896, at the center of this narrative. She reiterates a familiar story about the NACW as a source of race pride and social uplift for middle class women. It is not surprising that she also includes activists such as Mary Church Terrell, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Mary McLeod Bethune as central figures in this narrative. But Brown includes source material not fully utilized by historians of African American women, including records of Dunbar-Nelson's war work and the journals of YWCA workers in the European theater.

[pp. [NA]]

Although Brown includes familiar names and organizations, she adds to the historical scholarship on this subject since much of the literature on African American women's activism stops at or around 1920, picking up again in the 1950s. Private Politics and Public Voices is also part of an emerging scholarship that examines the gendered dimension of the Jim Crow years. According to Brown these are critical years for African American women's political development even though much of the historical scholarship for this period focuses on African American men and male-dominated organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Brown makes a strong case for the importance of women's activism and organizing efforts in addressing the concerns of the race and advancing its political agenda.

Yet Brown's singular focus on middle class African American women and their organizations is problematic. Although she introduces working class women's activism, Brown does not give their efforts the attention it deserves. Poor and working class women's strategies and tactics tended to be dissimilar to those of the middle class but their public protests significantly impacted the social and economic opportunities of African Americans as well as the race's political agenda. The public activism of such women deserves a prominent place in this book.

In the first two chapters, Brown outlines how the NACW sought to demonstrate its support of World War I through patriotic community work: "By situating war work at the intersection of community service and homemaking, the NACW empowered black clubwomen to express their political beliefs in broader political movements and debates" (10). The NACW encouraged women to support the war and black men despite the discrimination that subverted their efforts.

Chapter three examines women's work in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the Red Cross. Brown finds that despite the awareness of these charities that Jim Crow practices hampered efforts to organize African Americans, discrimination persisted. Brown depicts the YWCA and Red Cross as resistant to change but eventually bending to the realization of the power and importance of African American women's organizing efforts and the national reputation of the NACW.

[pp. [NA]]

Chapter four provides a much needed look at life for African American soldiers and the handful of women chosen to tend to their emotional and social needs on military bases in Europe. Journals kept by Adele Hunton and Kathryn Johnson provide detailed accounts of their struggles to improve the morale of African American soldiers.

Brown examines the transformation of African American women's leadership and political development in the last two chapters. Brown maintains that the summer of 1919 radically altered power relations, with women moving to secondary, less public positions and men assuming control of the race's cultural and political destiny. This aspect of her narrative is troubling because it does not provide a nuanced view of gender relations within the African American community prior to or after this shift. Outside of her assertions that the men essentially took over the reins of leadership in the 1920s, Brown provides no context for the historical issue of sexism within the African American community. Nor does she discuss the conflict that inevitably emerged from this major shift in leadership. Such conflicts stretch back to nineteenth century reform and abolitionist organizations. Her discussion of this issue would have been greatly enhanced by the work of Deborah Gray White, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Paula Giddings and Michele Mitchell who examine the gender issues and the gender discrimination that confronted African Americans and their organizations.

Middle class women's forays into national party politics inform the final chapter. African American women's public service in conjunction with the passage of the 19th amendment provided them with a national platform for political empowerment. According to Brown, the Republican Party in the 1920s provided a space for political appointments for black women, allowing them to become chief architects in the formulation of a national civil rights platform that later activists would draw on in the 1950s. Although Brown's assertion that black women's political influence assisted in easing Jim Crow practices is a bit presumptuous, the efforts of African American women's networks and the legacy of the NACW "created an institutional foundation for the unfolding narrative of twentieth-century black consciousness and civic advancement" (160).

Brown's Private Politics and Public Voices provides a much needed analysis of African American women's political contributions and development during the interwar years.. Brown utilizes a plethora of source material to disclose an era of African American women's history that has existed in the shadows for far too long.

Theresa Napson-Williams is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Atlantic History at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. She received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 2007.


Copyright © 1997-2006 by Thomas Dublin, Kathryn Kish Sklar and Alexander Street Press, L.L.C.  All rights reserved.
Send mail to Editor@AlexanderStreet.com with questions or comments about this web site.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.