'Toward a Tenderer Humani

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  Msg#: 631                                          Date: 05-26-98  18:40
  From: Grant Karpik                                 Read: Yes    Replied: No 
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  Subj: 'Toward a Tenderer Humani
@MSGID: 1:153/831.2 56b43456
@PID: timEd 1.10.y2k
Published by H-Urban@h-net.msu.edu (May, 1998)

Anne Meis Knupfer.  _Toward A Tenderer Humanity and Nobler
Womanhood:  African American Women's Clubs in Turn-of-the-Century
Chicago_.  New York and London:  New York University Press, 1996.  x
+ 209 pp.  Illustrations, appendixes, notes, bibliography, and
index.  $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8147-4671-3; $18.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Urban by Janette Thomas Greenwood
, Clark University

Grounded in exhaustive research in Chicago's black newspapers, 
manuscript collections, and association records, Anne Meis 
Knupfer's book explicates the richness, vitality, and diversity of 
African American women's clubs.  The author uncovered over 150 
black women's clubs active in Chicago between 1890 and 1920, and 
she documents the broad range of their activities and the 
significant contributions they made to community life.  
Acknowledging her debt to the path-breaking work of historians and 
sociologists of black club women, such as Darlene Clark Hine and 
Patricia Hill Collins, Knupfer attempts to build on their work 
while taking her study in new directions.  By employing "three 
interlocking frameworks" of analysis--a Weberian social 
stratification model, community ethics, and feminist 
scholarship--Knupfer successfully captures a diversity of voices, 
perspectives and agendas, not only among black club women but also 
in the rapidly expanding and differentiating communities that made 
up black Chicago at the turn of the century.  While complicating 
the story of black club women and black Chicago at large, Knupfer's 
study at times falls short, especially in its failure to critique 
more fully the middle-class agenda of club women and their 
relationship with the poor.

Knupfer convincingly demonstrates throughout her book that black 
club women are not easily categorized.  Labels such as 
"conservative," "elite", "traditional" and "radical" do not do 
justice to ideologies and discourses that were "largely resilient 
and transformative" as well as "adaptive to audience, purpose, and 
sociopolitical constraints" (p. 28).  While their rhetoric was 
often conservative, particularly with its focus on issues of home 
life, motherhood, and children, club women "drew from distinct 
African American community traditions," that connected club women 
as "other mothers" to issues of community welfare, which in turn, 
often led club women to advocate woman's suffrage and participation 
in city politics (p. 28).  The plethora of club activity that 
Knupfer documents in this book--from clubs emphasizing 
kindergartens and mothering to those engaged in municipal reform, 
health care, settlement houses and anti-lynching campaigns--attests 
to the wide range of issues and strategies that club women engaged.

Knupfer also situates the club movement within the context of the 
explosive growth of black Chicago at the beginning of the Great 
Migration.  Club women faced new and sometimes overwhelming 
challenges to provide additional social services to assist 
newcomers.  Moreover, the arrival of Southern blacks--who swelled 
black Chicago's population by 148 percent between 1910 and 1920 
alone--generated tensions among migrants and "old settlers," 
reflected in the founding of clubs, such as "The Old Settlers 

The author acknowledges both cultural and class tensions in black 
Chicago as well as the gulf that separated elite and middle-class 
club women from those they wished to help.  Club membership 
provided status, distinguishing them from the rest of the 
community, while their activities linked them to the poor.  Black 
women, she notes, selectively joined clubs based on "social class, 
neighborhoods, church affiliation, political persuasion, and common 
interests" (p.  24).  Club and church activity served to 
distinguish club women from the rest of the community.  At the same 
time, club women, Knupfer argues, through their ideology and uplift 
activities, managed to construct "various layers of sisterhood and 
allegiances to poorer race women" (p. 22) by employing a resilient 
and adaptive language that could speak across class and even 
regional lines.

While the author provides some evidence for "various layers of 
sisterhood,"  she does not explore adequately how complicated, 
tense, and even limited sisterhood might be.  Knupfer notes that 
club women could be patronizing--even disdainful--of those they 
wished to help.  She quotes club woman Fannie Barrier Williams 
referring to Chicago's "black belt"  (inhabited mostly by poor 
Southern migrants), as "darkest Africa."  Yet the author might have 
explored more fully the implications of such attitudes.  As Evelyn 
Brooks Higginbotham so effectively shows in _Righteous Discontent_ 
(Harvard University Press, 1993), a middle-class vision, with an 
emphasis on "respectability," could be forged into a double-edged 
sword:  a weapon that could attack racial injustice but at the same 
time bludgeon those African Americans "who transgressed white 
middle-class propriety."[1] Like Higginbotham's church women, 
Chicago's black club women, as Higginbotham explains, "never 
conceded that rejection of white middle-class values by poor blacks 
afforded survival strategies, in fact spaces of resistance, albeit 
different from their own."[2]

Similarly, _Toward a Tenderer Humanity_ does not give the reader a 
sense of how the objects of uplift responded to the activities and 
agenda of club women.  Knupfer carefully documents an array of 
"wholesome activities"  (p. 102) provided by black settlement 
houses to lure youths from pool halls, street corners and saloons, 
and she describes "rescue homes" and homes for working girls as 
well as "don't do" lists promulgated in black newspapers to educate 
recent Southern migrants on proper decorum and appearance.  Again, 
Knupfer accepts this agenda uncritically and without examining how 
the poor responded to these programs.  Farah Jasmine Griffin's, 
_"Who Set You Flowin'"_ powerfully demonstrates that migrants were 
anything but "passive ...  objects of black middle-class 
paternalism,"[3] and that many resisted attempts by the black 
middle-class to "discipline" them and make them "respectable."  
This, too, is part of the story of black club women.

_Toward a Tenderer Humanity and a Nobler Womanhood_ makes a number 
of important contributions, particularly in its thorough 
documentation of Chicago's black women's clubs and the wide range 
of their activities.  But this study would have been enhanced by a 
more critical analysis of the club women's values and programs that 
would take into account how that vision complicated relations with 
their poorer brothers and sisters.  Moreover, this study would have 
been deepened by addressing resistance that club women's activities 
may have engendered.  A critique of the club women's middle-class 
vision and an examination of resistance to their agenda does not 
discredit or downplay the significant contributions and 
achievements of black club women.  Instead, these inclusions serve 
to flesh out their story more fully, reminding us not only of the 
complex nature of black communities themselves but also of the 
complications inherent in nearly any reform movement intent on 
improving the lives of others.


[1].  Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, _Righteous Discontent:  The
Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920_ (Harvard
University Press, 1993), 15.

[2].  Ibid.

[3].  Farah Jasmine Griffin's, _"Who Set You Flowin'"_(Oxford
University Press, 1995), 107.

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                   Grant {Internet: karpik@sprint.ca}

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