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What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.

Article

Black internationalism describes the political culture and intellectual practice forged in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. It is a historical and ongoing collective struggle against racial oppression rooted in global consciousness. While the expression of black internationalism has certainly changed across time and place, black liberation through collaboration has been and remains its ultimate goal. Since the emergence of black internationalism as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and during the Age of Revolutions, black women such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and evangelist Rebecca Protten have been at its forefront. Their writings and activism espoused an Afro-diasporic, global consciousness and promoted the cause of universal emancipation. During the 19th century, black women internationalists included abolitionists, missionaries, and clubwomen. They built on the work of their predecessors while laying the foundations for succeeding black women internationalists in the early 20th century. By World War I, a new generation of black women activists and intellectuals remained crucial parts of the International Council of Women, an organization founded by white suffragists from the United States, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global organization formally led by Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. But they also formed an independent organization, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR). Within and outside of the ICWDR, black women from Africa and the African Diaspora faced and challenged discrimination on the basis of their sex and race. Their activism and intellectual work set a powerful precedent for a subsequent wave of black internationalism shaped by self-avowed black feminists.

Article

Legal aid organizations were first created by a variety of private groups during the Civil War to provide legal advice in civil cases to the poor. The growing need for legal aid was deeply connected to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. A variety of groups created legal aid organizations in response to labor unrest, the increasing number of women in the workforce, the founding of women’s clubs, and the slow and incomplete professionalization of the legal bar. In fact, before women could practice law, or were accepted into the legal profession, a variety of middle-class women’s groups using lay lawyers provided legal aid to poor women. Yet, this rich story of women’s work was later suppressed by leaders of the bar attempting to claim credit for legal aid, assert a monopoly over the practice of law, and professionalize legal assistance. Across time, the largest number of claims brought to legal aid providers involved workers trying to collect wages, domestic relations cases, and landlord tenant issues. Until the 1960s, legal aid organizations were largely financed through private donations and philanthropic organizations. After the 1960s, the federal government provided funding to support legal aid, creating significant controversy among lawyers, legal aid providers, and activists as to what types of cases legal aid organizations could take, what services could be provided, and who was eligible. Unlike in many other countries or in criminal cases, in the United States there is no constitutional right to have free counsel in civil cases. This leaves many poor and working-class people without legal advice or access to justice. Organizations providing free civil legal services to the poor are ubiquitous across the United States. They are so much part of the modern legal landscape that it is surprising that little historical scholarship exists on such organizations. Yet the history of organized legal aid, which began during the Civil War, is a rich story that brings into view a unique range of historical actors including women’s organizations, lawyers, social workers, community organizations, the state and federal government, and the millions of poor clients who over the last century and a half have sought legal assistance. This history of the development of legal aid is also very much a story about gender, race, professionalization, the development of the welfare state, and ultimately its slow dismantlement. In other words, the history of legal aid provides a window into the larger history of the United States while producing its own series of historical tensions, ironies, and contradictions. Although this narrative demonstrates change over time and various ruptures with the past, there are also important continuities in the history of free legal aid. Deceptively simple questions have plagued legal aid for almost a century and have also driven much of the historical scholarship on legal aid. These include: who should provide legal aid services, who should receive free legal aid, what types of cases should legal aid organizations handle, who should fund legal aid, and who benefits from legal aid.

Article

Holly Pinheiro

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.

Article

Women in the United States have drunk, made, bought, sold, and organized both against and for the consumption of alcohol throughout the nation’s history. During the second half of the 20th century, however, women became increasingly visible as social drinkers and alcoholics. Specifically, the 1970s and 1980s marked women’s relationship to alcohol in interesting ways that both echoed moments from the past and ushered in new realities. Throughout these decades, women emerged as: (1) alcoholics who sought recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous or a lesser-known all-women’s sobriety program; (2) anti-alcohol activists who drew authority from their status as mothers; (3) potential criminals who harmed their progeny via fetal alcohol syndrome; and (4) recovery memoirists who claimed their addictions in unprecedented ways.

Article

Throughout the 19th century, American women experienced vast changes regarding possibilities for childbirth and for enhancing or restricting fertility control. At the beginning of the century, issues involving reproduction were discussed primarily in domestic, private settings among women’s networks that included family members, neighbors, or midwives. In the face of massive social and economic changes due to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, many working-class women became separated from these traditional networks and knowledge and found themselves reliant upon emerging medical systems for care and advice during pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, upper-class women sought out men in the emerging profession of obstetrics to deliver their babies in hopes of beating the frightening odds against maternal and infant health and even survival. Nineteenth-century reproduction was altered drastically with the printing and commercial boom of the middle of the century. Families could now access contraception and abortion methods and information, which was available earlier in the century albeit in a more private and limited manner, through newspapers, popular books, stores, and from door-to-door salesmen. As fertility control entered these public spaces, many policy makers became concerned about the impacts of such practices on the character and future of the nation. By the 1880s, contraception and abortion came under legal restrictions, just as women and their partners gained access to safer and more effective products than ever before. When the 19th century closed, legislatures and the medical profession raised obstacles that hindered the ability of most women to limit the size of their families as the national fertility rate reached an all-time low. Clearly, American families eagerly seized opportunities to exercise control over their reproductive destinies and their lives.