The club women were surely aware of their apparent duplicity as models of what society assumed all black women could become, given opportunity, on the one hand, yet also spokespersons for those women who had been denied opportunity, on the other. They were reaching out to other black women and seeking strength from unity, circling the wagons, so to speak, in defense against the ill will of this period.

     In educator Lucy Laney's 1899 speech at the third Hampton Negro Conference, "The Burden of the Educated Colored Woman," she raised the question that serves as the title of this chapter, "Can woman do this work?" For Laney and the women to whom she spoke, this "work" was racial uplift. While concerned with the improvement of conditions for both women and men, these "race women" viewed racial uplift as having a great deal to do with educating black women to assume the traditional roles defined by the cult of true womanhood. The cult of true womanhood proclaimed "homemaker" the true vocation for woman. In this view, her true feminine, spiritual nature was fulfilled by creating a peaceful home, separated from the struggles of the marketplace.  But we will see that while these women argued for this kind of training for homemaking, their public discourse also addressed the urgency of improving working conditions for black women in public spaces. They already knew what Elisabeth Fiorenza would write a hundred years later: This praise of femininity conveniently overlooks that poor and unmarried women cannot afford to stay `at home'; it overlooks the violence done to women and children in the home, and it totally mistakes patriarchal dependency for Christian family" (348). Further, it assumed that staying at home was always preferable.

     While this chapter focuses on the rhetorical activities of black women during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, it should be remembered that discussions about the improvement of employment options and working conditions for black women prevailed throughout the century. As early as 1832, before there were nationally organized women's groups, Maria Stewart articulated employment concerns in her Franklin Hall address, when she described the difficulty black Boston women had gaining other than domestic work:

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August 1999