By: Amy Nguyen and Paul Dhillon
Born in 1858 in a town called Raleigh, North Carolina, Anna Julia Cooper soon grew up to be one of the most influential women in the history of feminism. Although she was born into slavery, she was still able to successfully lead a promising life that influenced black feminism across the country (Sheftall, 2009). At the age of 8, Cooper received a scholarship from St. Augustine Normal School and Collegiate Institute, which was well-known for educating former slaves and their families. During her 14 year stay at the school, she proved to be a bright student who had a strong passion for liberal arts. While studying, she also met her husband, A.C. Cooper in school, who unfortunately passed away after two years of their marriage. Ironically due to the death of her husband, she had an opportunity to teach at the institution because she was not obligated to become a housewife. From there, her path to feminism began.
One of the first obstacles Anna Julia Cooper had to overcome was when she was still in college. A class that was offered at the school, dubbed the “Ladies’ Course”, was solely reserved for men. Cooper fought for her rights to take the course by demonstrating her academic skills. To everyone’s surprise, Cooper excelled in the class and later tutored other young men at the subject (Shilton, 2003).
After graduation, Anna Julia Cooper moved to Washington D.C. and was recruited to work as a principal at M Street High School, which was a Preparatory High School for the Negro Youth. There, she founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892. In 1897, she opened the first YMCA chapter for colored women. After working at M Street High School for a few years, Cooper was dismissed from her career due to an up stirring controversy that regarded her character and behavior. Of course, the reason for this was because her ideology and principles. Back then, these were considered to be out of order, even though, thanks to Anna Julia Cooper, today her ideas are commonplace. However, in 1910, she was rehired to be a teacher. After all the commotion, Cooper was more motivated than ever. She decided to drop her teaching job and head back to school at University of Paris where she obtained her Ph.D in philosophy, making her the fourth black woman in American History to do so (Cooperproject.org).
While working as a teacher and principle, Cooper finished her first work of litrature in 1892. The book, A Voice from the South; By a Women from the South was widely viewed as the first writings of black feminism. The point the book tried to prove was that the educational, spiritual, and moral progress of black women would be beneficial to society. Her work gathered substantial attention from important scholars and critics. Her book is now looked upon as the first literature supporting Black Feminism. This book was a huge milestone for feminism as a whole. In one of her essays titled Womanhood, Cooper stated, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter … the whole Negro race enters with me” (Cooper, 1892). Her works really give an inside perspective on what life was like back then for black women, and offered solutions to many problems. In many was she was so far ahead of her time, and it was apparent through her works. Although renowned as an author, Anna Julia Cooper was also a speaker at many important affairs. One of her speeches was delivered at the Worlds Congress of Representative Women on May 18, 1893 (Cooperproject.org). In this speech she elaborated on the progress of African American since slavery, and how they are viewed in society. “I speak for the colored women of the south because it is their that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored women of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny evolving” (Cooper, 1893). She also spoke at the Pan African and the Women’s Congress in Chicago with a Speech entitled “The Needs and Status of Black Women.” At these speeches Cooper really cemented a name for herself as a leader of the black feminist movement (Cooperproject.org).
In 1930, Cooper retired from her job at M Street High School. Although she decided to retire, it was not nearly the end of her political activism. Cooper continued to follow her path in feminism by accepting the position of president at the Frelinghuysen University, a school that was created in order to help and provide classes for Washington DC residents who were unable to get a hold of higher education. She first worked the president and then later as the registrar. Cooper retired from her work about 10 years before she passed away in 1964 at the age of 105.
Anna Julia Cooper is an icon in both the African American community as well as the feminist community across the world. She is considered the founder of the Black Feminism movement in the United States, and her legacy continues to live on to this day. Without her, issues such as race and gender inequality wouldn’t be as progressive as they were today. Cooper’s life shows a women who was passionate of her cause, and would stop at nothing to get her message across. Her speeches show a women who could win over audiences with her breathtaking wordplay and passion. As her legacy lives, on we can remember her as a warrior, and a true icon in the feminist community.
The following is a video constructed by University Students outlining the life of Anna Julia Cooper.
Guy-Sheftall, B. (2009). Black Feminist Studies: The Case of Anna Julia Cooper. African American Review, 43(1), 11-15.
Moody-Turner, S., & Stewart, J. (2009). Gendering Africana Studies: Insights from Anna Julia Cooper. African American Review, 43(1), 35-44.
Moody-Turner, S. (2009). Anna Julia Cooper: A Voice beyond the South. African American Review, 43(1), 7-9.
Anna Julia Cooper’s Biography – Anna Julia Cooper Center. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://cooperproject.org/about-anna-julia-cooper/
Cooper, A. (1892). Anna J. Cooper (Anna Julia), 1858-1964. A Voice from the South. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cooper/cooper.htm