Mary Mac Ogden

Feb 17, 2021

8 min read

Anna Julia Cooper & Mary McLeod Bethune

The Legacy of African American Women Leaders from the South

February is a month the nation celebrates African American history. Two amazing southern women are critical to any study of black feminist thought and leadership: Anna Julia Cooper and Mary McLeod Bethune. Both were born in the Carolinas, one a generation before the other, and each demonstrated the powerful role black women leaders had in promoting race progress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries despite the dual discriminations of racism and sexism that defined their lives.

“woman’s work and woman’s influence are needed as never before… to bring a heart power into this money getting, dollar-worshipping civilization… to bring a moral force into the utilitarian motives and interests of the time… to stand for God and Home and Native Land versus gain and greed and grasping selfishness.”

Anna Julia Cooper, 1892

Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964)

In 1858 Anna Julia Cooper was born in Raleigh, North Carolina to an enslaved mother and her mother’s owner, George Haywood. Cooper received an education at St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh and finished college and graduate school at Oberlin College. She married George Cooper, a former West Indian slave, in 1877 and after his death two years later, served as a secondary school teacher, a principal and eventually president of Freylinghuysen University in Washington, DC. In 1925 at the age of 65, she was the first African American woman to earn a Doctorate in History from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Cooper’s first book, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, is considered a seminal work of African American feminist thought. Written in 1892 Cooper’s message acknowledged the precarious status of black women in America who confronted “both a woman question and a race problem,” what is today known in black feminist theory as double jeopardy, the idea that black women have endured the dual discriminations of racism and sexism.


Cooper urged black women to recognize their power to make change citing the work of notable black activists like Frances Watkins Harper and Sojourner Truth. The exclusion of minority women from the late nineteenth-century feminist movement and the silence of the South on many national issues shaped Cooper’s effort to give voice to black women at a time when America was on the brink of great change. The themes of endurance and strength in the midst of discrimination and oppression are constant throughout Cooper’s work and illuminate the struggles black women faced in American history.

Anna Julia Cooper

Cooper approached the subject of the status of women as an educated black woman in an age of intense racism and violent discrimination in the South. The social context of her book is important. The 1890s were the nadir (low point) of race relations in American history. In the wake of industrialization, urbanization, immigration and political expansion came social dislocation that fueled racism, sexism and the marginalization of minority groups within American culture. The majority of black Americans in the 1890s lived in the South, where lynching and Jim Crow laws limited the freedoms attained with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Parallel political and social organizations like the Colored Farmer’s Alliance and Colored Women’s League emerged in the 1890s as platforms for black people amid xenophobic racism. For black women, the club movement and religious institutions served as springboards into the politicization of gender and race issues. Black women organized under the banners of anti-lynching, race uplift and self-help and coalesced in the formation of the Colored Woman’s League (1892), the National Federation of Afro-American Women (1895) and the fusion of the two, the National Association of Colored Women (1896), although hundreds of unaffiliated, local organizations thrived across the nation. The NACW represented the broadening base, vision and abilities of black clubwomen and illustrated the efforts of black women to improve mechanisms of racial self-help. Disfranchised, black women had to “provide for their people what the white state would not” and focused their efforts on leadership, employment, education and community improvement for the race.

In her argument Cooper centered the black woman between a white world that did not acknowledge her and the black man whose political expediency and focus on the race problem differentiated his goals from black women. Because of his own status anxiety, the black man was to Cooper a person misunderstood by the dominant culture: “There are to be found both intensely conservative white men and exceedingly liberal-colored men. But as far as my experience goes the average man of our race is less frequently ready to admit the actual need among the sturdier forces of the world for woman’s help or influence.” Where white women’s work was appreciated and supported by their male counterparts, Cooper argued that black women’s contributions/insights on everything from politics to economy were not acknowledged by black male counterparts. She contends this was because they were “absorbed in the immediate needs of their own complications.” She further argued that politics corrupted the black man’s insight, claiming he developed “the faculty of taking advantage of present emergencies rather than the insight to distinguish between true and false.”

Anna Julia Cooper

Her message to black women was to endeavor to push forward and prepare to participate in the promising times. Southern clubwomen were slow in joining the national movements, and black southern clubwomen were at a disadvantage because of location as well as money. In the South black women were typically poor, uneducated and limited by debt, childrearing and economic options. In 1890 the majority of black women who lived in the South had no voice or opportunity for organization due to poverty. Cooper recognized this silence and saw education as key to advancement. Cooper’s work was designed for an audience of educated men and women as a manifesto to improve the black race, particularly in the South, where the majority of black people lived until the migrations of the interwar period.

“There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free country under the Constitution. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all…We are on our way…We must gain full equality in education…in the franchise…in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.”

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1954

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955)

Like Anna Julia Cooper, Mary McLeod Bethune carried forward the call to advance opportunities for black people in the South through education and activism. Although a generation younger than Cooper, Bethune built on Cooper’s vision of using education and leadership as a mechanism of advancement.

Mary McLeod Bethune was born in Mayesville, SC on July 10th, 1875, and like Cooper, she benefited from the schools established in the region during Reconstruction. She dedicated her life to advancing opportunities for African Americans through leadership in government, clubs and educational institutions. Her career reflects the struggles and achievements black women and men endured in their efforts to gain equality, overcome discrimination and vindicate their race in an era where poverty, violence, illiteracy and political exclusion defined the lives of many African Americans in the nation.

The fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves, Bethune earned her early education in the southern missionary schools developed during Reconstruction. Her academic excellence led her to Scotia Seminary and later Moody Bible Institute. “I think my life work must have begun the day I was given a Bible,” said Bethune, a testament to the importance religion played in her life and career. After acquiring teaching positions through the Presbyterian Church, USA she opened Daytona Institute, later Bethune-Cookman College, in 1904.


Her life of service grew from this starting point. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (1924–1928), created the National Council of Negro Women (1935), worked in Franklin Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet as Director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs (1936), consulted the administrations of Hoover, Coolidge and Roosevelt and was an active participant in the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the formation of the United Nations. She was awarded numerous honorary degrees and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. Bethune’s legacy “of interracial cooperation and increased educational opportunity for blacks” has served as a beacon for black leadership in America to the present.

National Association of Colored Women

Bethune fought against racial oppression, segregation and poverty and for black women’s rights during her career. Her activism spanned five decades and contained elements of reform and protest, a mixture that helped her stay ahead of changing times and formulate ideological directions for Bethune-Cookman College, women’s clubs and government divisions that reflected race pride and methods of advancement that challenged injustice in America. Historian Darlene Clark Hine argues, “Bethune is a pivotal figure in twentieth century black women’s history. Her life and work is inarguably one of our major links connecting the social reform efforts of post-Reconstruction black women to the political protest activities of the generation emerging after WWII.” Hine further states that Bethune’s writings and speeches addressed the multitude of struggles faced by black women, from fighting discrimination to gaining access to political rights. The struggles she faced as a black woman fighting in a white, male dominated world reflect her powerful personality, but she never sacrificed people for personal gain. She sacrificed her time, energy and money to get people ahead, giving voice to black America’s suffering in an age when many African Americans endured discrimination, race violence, political exclusion and economic depression.


Going forward, reflect on the contributions of women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Anna Julia Cooper. Bethune said, “Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”