Worcester State University


Exploring Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions

Philosophy Professor and Department Chair Kristin Waters, Ph.D., is not surprised that many people have never heard of Maria W. Stewart. The influential writer and lecturer was known in the first half of the 19th century as a staunch proponent of human liberty and equality. But like many black female intellectuals over the years, Stewart has received little attention from historians and social commentators.


A new book co-edited by Waters and University of New Hampshire Assistant Professor of Communications and Women's Studies Carol Conaway, Ph.D., seeks to change all that. Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions, published this year by the University of Vermont Press, sheds light on a number of individuals whose work has been largely ignored – even suppressed, according to Waters.


“Why are people surprised to learn there is a black women’s intellectual history? Because it’s not taught,” Waters said. “It has been suppressed to maintain the balance of power.”


Waters explained that Stewart and other black intellectuals including Frances E. W. Harper, Anna J. Cooper, and Ida B. Wells espoused racial and gender equality, creating a counterpoint to the work of such classical theorists as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. They also explored themes of religion as liberating and oppressing, women’s moral role, multiple forms of oppression, and control of sexuality and reproduction.


“These were thoughtful, educated women whose ideas threatened to eliminate cheap black labor and challenged the notion of male superiority,” Waters continued. “It was not by chance that they slipped into obscurity.”


Waters and her co-editor spent four years uncovering narratives “that are not well known, that have in fact been hidden to maintain social inequality,” she said.


An interesting side note came to light when one of the book’s contributors, Marilyn Richardson, revealed that her mother was a member of the Worcester Normal School class of 1939. “Her name was Rheubie Jeannette Brisband, and it’s really a treasure for me to have her yearbook with all the notes seniors and faculty wrote by each other’s pictures,” Richardson noted.


Waters said that she hopes the book will add a new dimension to today’s political discussions. “Ideas that issue from a long line of thought tend to carry more force,” she explained. “Recognizing political traditions of the past can help create more social justice for the future.”


Worcester Statement, fall 2007


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