Melissa Harris-Perry
Photo by Charles Ommanney for MSNBC

Days 5 & 6: Q&A session with Melissa Harris-Perry


Each week of the Nerdland Scholar Challenge, Melissa Harris-Perry will host a Q&A about the topic of the week. Do you have a burning question about something we’ve learned? Now is the time to ask!

Assignment: Submit your question(s) in the comments via the Nerdland Scholar Challenge group. (If you haven’t already joined the group, you can do so here.)

This week’s discussion will take place Saturday, right after #nerdland – 12:00 PM EST.

Updated March 23: Thanks to everyone for participating in the first Nerdland Scholar Challenge Q&A with Melissa Harris-Perry. Below are the questions and responses from yesterday’s discussion - the next Q&A is Saturday the 29th.

Heather Munro Prescott: Hi Melissa, I would like to hear more about the respectability politics you mentioned in the reply to my comments. Could you give some examples of how this informs African American political activity today? What role do women play? How can feminist scholars contribute?

Melissa: Heather, I could easily draft a book length response to this inquiry. Come to think of it, my book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, is my attempt to contribute to our scholarly understandings of respectability politics and its effect on how black women engage the social and political world. Here is some of what I wrote about the historical epoch we have been discussing in the challenge this week:

Women’s clubs became a popular tool of social and political organizing for women in the years following the civil war. Among white women, these clubs laid the foundation for suffrage activities, progressivism and temperance movements in the early 20th century. Barred from participation in white women’s organizations, African American women developed their own robust movement of social uplift through a number of loosely affiliated national organizations focused on racial equality, justice, and moral hygiene. The National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896, became the largest and most enduring organization of this movement. Operating under the motto “lifting as we climb,” the 20th century black women’s club movement was, in part, an organized political attempt to counter the myths of sexual licentiousness with counterexamples of modesty and respectability.  Active from the 1880s through the 1930s, women’s clubs made up the largest racial movement of the 20th century, eclipsing even Garveyism and the modern civil rights movement. Club women’s work contributed to the economic and political survival of black communities through its efforts to address material inequalities, the club movement also worked to create an alternative image of black women as chaste and temperate.  It resisted the painful sexual assumptions at the heart of black women’s lived experience, combining the work of community uplift with strategies of promoting religious fidelity, personal moderation and social respectability.  At the core of essentially every activity of National Association of Colored Women’s (NACW) members was a concern with creating positive images of black women’s sexuality.

These stereotypes meant that normal expressions of human sensuality such as wearing visible makeup or revealing clothing, openly dating, or publicly engaging in romantic physical affection, could be read as confirming evidence of black women’s lewdness.  In an effort to resist these stereotypes, black women in public leadership positions buried normal, innocuous expressions of sexuality behind an image of either pristine asexuality or narrowly defined respectable married identity. They aggressively advanced a social agenda that encouraged other black women to follow their example. Having been cast as disreputable, these black women leaders sought to establish their respectability and through that act to lay claim to fair and equal treatment in public life. This “politics of respectability,” enacted through a specific culture of dissemblance, is a response to the myth of hypersexuality. Black women who served as school teachers, nurses, church mothers, civic leaders and the like hoped that their public displays of strict sexual respectability would counter existing prejudices and help control the terms by which they would be seen.

My favorite young feminist scholar writing about the continuing effects of respectability politics is Brittney Cooper.

Here are some of my favorite feminist texts on this issue:

Patricia Hill Collins. 2004.  Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism.

Hazel Carby. 1992. Policing the Black Woman’s Body in an Urban Context. Critical Inquiry. Volume 18, Number.4. 738-755

Darlene Clark Hine. Summer 1989. Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West. Signs, Volume 14, Number 4. Pp. 912-920

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. 1993. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Stephanie Shaw. 1996. What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers during the Jim Crow Era.

Cathy Cohen. 1999. Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics.


Elena Camp: Has their every been a period in American history where women rights activist represented the interest of all women and not just the majority population?

Melissa: Elena, this is probably a question we should open to the responses of all the challenge participants. It is certainly possible to argue that seeking the right to vote for women does serve the interests of all women, even when the discursive tools and political strategies the activists used were biased by race and class.  Let me try to make this argument in a larger framework.

The American Revolution and founding of the United States occurs in a context of intergenerational slavery, the oppression of women, the murder of Native Americans, and other structures of oppression that we now recognize as profound human rights violations. But the American Revolution also established a nation founded on the ideals (if not the practice) of human equality and self-governance. The United States even went so far as to establish those values in its founding documents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The establishment of a Democratic republic was and is a distinctly valuable and definitive contribution in human history. And it exists alongside and intertwined with the horrors of slavery, genocide and inequality. That’s tough. It is complicated. For me, the ways that mainstream feminist movements often reproduce racism, classism and heterosexism mirrors this larger complicated history.

Do we celebrate the suffrage movement for securing women’s right to vote or do we critique the movement for its racism? What happens when we elevate the moments, leaders and movements that accomplished great things while also holding and espousing odious views? Should we take heart in their imperfections because it allows us to believe that we too can make great change even if we are imperfect or should we judge these movements by their most grotesque realities? Is Thomas Jefferson the hero who penned the Declaration of Independence or the villain who held his own children in slavery? Is Margaret Sanger the courageous pioneer of women’s reproductive rights or the vile eugenicist who sought to eliminate black, immigrant, poor and disabled populations? The answer, of course, is that each are both.

So Elena, this is a very long way of saying, “no.” There is no moment I can point to when feminist movements were fully inclusive of all women’s interests. It is also a long way of saying, “maybe,” if we judge the gains of those movements as ultimately benefiting all women.

Sandi-1621080: I am a baby boomer and cut my teeth on the struggles of the 60’s and 70’s.  Now we see a much less directly engaged youth.  How do your students react to these studies about the intersection (or not) of women’s suffrage and racial discrimination back while that direct battle was being fought and now when the battle to preserve all suffrage is more nuanced?

Melissa: Sandi, I want to challenge your characterization of today’s youth.  I have had the privilege of spending my entire career on college campuses in the presence of young people. It is an article of faith that today’s generation is apathetic, but I don’t think the empirical evidence bears out this belief.  In 2008 and 2012 we saw the highest proportion of young voters in American history. Movements like the Dream Defenders and the Black Youth Project are at the forefront of the most important social and political actions in the U.S. today. Young people are critical to the movement to increase the minimum wage and are playing the definitive role in immigration reform. It is important to remember that progressive political activism is always the purview of a minority of any generation. Even in the context of the 1960s, only a minority of Boomers were on the front lines of Civil Rights, Feminist and anti-war activism. Certainly some of my students are apathetic and disengaged, but many of them inspire me with their innovative engagement of the political world.

SJimenez: This week’s readings were focused on the early women’s movement’s focus on motherhood as the way “in” to politics and having a voice. Today, “motherhood” is again a critical experience brought up in public discourse and social causes. But the women’s movement and feminism hasn’t always embraced motherhood as a key identity, in part because of the idea of choice in being a mother. Are there ways in which “motherhood” as a political identifier today is more empowering than the 1800s? Are there ways it’s less empowering today? Did the factions of the movement of 60s and 70s that shied away from using motherhood miss out on opportunities?

Melissa: Yes yes yes. We are going to conduct an entire week of investigation on precisely this issue in week 3.  Stay tuned and let’s revisit this question.

@cyndikdb: Learning that the suffrage movement built their case in part by disparaging and diminishing others, what is happening today that mirrors that and how can we shine a light to expose and end that tactic?

Melissa: It can be jarring to learn that the movements or leaders we admire built their activism on tactics we detest. It took me two years to get over learning about how awful Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was toward the women who were leaders alongside him in the 1950s and 60s.  It is important to teach our histories with a full appreciation of how complicated those histories are. This doesn’t mean reviling all past accomplishments or denigrating those who accomplished great feats against tough odds. It does mean that historical narratives that are entirely heroic are almost always false.

As you point out, this remains a problem in contemporary movements. For example, there are ongoing challenges and tensions between many elements of African American political movements and LGBTQ movements.  On the one hand, there are black political leaders who espouse horrifyingly homophobic ideas while they oppose marriage equality. On the other hand, many mainstream LGBTQ organizations are silent and absent on issues like voting rights or criminal justice reform amid current black political action.  For those of us who straddle these identities or see ourselves as allies in these movements, it is always a challenge to both support the issues we care about and offer criticism to those with whom we share the struggle. But I submit that we must do both.

Nilsa Rivero: Hello, Melissa and to everyone here. What’s a good *scholarly* introduction, and overview of Feminism? Maybe like a study guide, textbook or preferably something you can find on the web.

Melissa: Hi Nilsa, Here are some suggestions. First, the syllabus from my class Women in Politics, Media and the contemporary United States. There are many books and articles listed in the syllabus that I recommend.

In November, I wrote a letter to Washington reporter Michelle Cottle in which promised her I would provide a syllabus on black feminism. That syllabus is here.

And finally, the book Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks. 


@aliciakoglesby: What made you start this challenge? Did something happen as a catalyst to creating the challenge? What were you hoping to see become of it? 

Melissa: There are many reasons we wanted to issue a Nerdland scholar challenge, but I think the easiest way to explain the motivation is that I am a teacher. Even though I host MHP Show, I still think of myself primarily as a teacher, rather than as a television host. Television is a very powerful medium, but it has frustrating limitations. The time we have to discuss any given topic is brief.  Viewers get to hear from me, but I don’t have regular opportunities to engage with viewers. We have to discuss very complicated topics and don’t always have the opportunity to fully explore the topics.  The Nerdland Scholar Challenge gives me a way to address some of these shortcomings.  We can engage a little more deeply and with more interaction. I love teaching and this is about as close I can get to teaching a class with 20,000 students! 

I also have many goals I’d like to see come to fruition as a result of this challenge, but there is one that is at the top of my list. I would like to have a place on the internet where people interested in having a conversation about issues that matter to women and to feminist politics can engage one another without the trolling, hate speech, and triggering comments that have become so common in social media. I used to engage followers on Twitter, but it has become increasingly difficult to have substantive “conversations” when there are so many vile racist and sexist comments to sift through in order to get to the substantive discussion. I am hoping this will be a safer place. 

Days 5 & 6: Q&A session with Melissa Harris-Perry