Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2013


Serving as a Visiting Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women during her sabbatical year from DePauw University, Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant is pursuing her interest in women’s responses to their cultures’ expectations for them. Her current research focus is the lives of the women of the Progressive Era in the U.S. who established settlement houses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a side note, she finds it interesting that Harriet Alleyne Rice, Wellesley College’s first African American graduate (1887), spent some time as a medical practitioner at Jane Addams’s Hull-House, Chicago’s first social settlement house.

As a visiting scholar, you’re new to the Wellesley centers for women (WCW) community. What should we know about your background in teaching and writing?

Throughout my career I’ve been interested in women’s lifespan development—especially how different groups of women deal with the reality of gender and the costs involved in trying to be good women. I believe that in a lot of women there’s resistance to their socially assigned roles, and I’ve been trying to trace that in my research as well—for example, in my book, The Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance.

In an interview with Ms. Magazine about that book, you said, “you can extort a lot of work from people who subscribe to the notion that they are strong and invulnerable.” If “people” in that sentence means black women, who is “you”?

Everybody! Black families, black men, white people— everyone wants a strong black woman around, because you can throw all kinds of things at her and she’ll keep going. If you’re married to a strong black woman, she will always find a way to manage adversities and persevere, even when you, as a partner, can’t. As a mom, the things she’s able to accomplish in 24 hours will astound you. It sounds impressive, but in reality it’s a mule-of-the-world kind of role. For that book, I spoke with 58 black women about what it means to be a black woman. Early on in the interviews, when they brought up the word “strong,” four or five of them— using these exact words—said that they also had a “deep down inside,” a private place where they registered prohibited emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, and desperation. As a group, many black women have elevated rates of obesity, hypertension, and often unacknowledged depression, and I believe these distresses are tied to keeping up this performance of being invulnerable and loyal and capable, in spite of what they know and feel “deep down inside.”

Do you postulate a frequently suppressed “deep down inside” for American women in general?

Yes, I believe that every cultural group of women has a mystique—something that codifies what it means to be good and acceptable. Relative to other groups, many black women may exhibit a certain voicefulness or a capable public presence, but they’re rarely allowed the recognition of having an interior, the way, for example, white women are. For white women, their mystique assumes a meekness, their playing nice. Yet, for all women, I think there’s a resistant voice inside that never concedes completely to what our cultures or circumstances would dictate. So I believe that self-silencing is part of all femininities, and that holding back is really corrosive. You have to be able to step away from the “shoulds” and the “have-tos” of your environment to say, “But I feel!” or “I want!” In my research I have a lot of hope that however bad a situation might be, there’s a part of our psyche that never gives in—and that giving voice to that part can provide a sense of what we might do to change the situation.

You plan to use your sabbatical time at WCW to write a book about some important women of the progressive movement. Will this work relate to that “resistant voice” you’re talking about?

Very much so. The Progressive Era, from 1880s to the Great Depression, was a time of tremendous social activism— women’s right to vote, as well as child protection, compulsory education, the 40-hour work week, and other efforts to reduce some of the most egregious excesses of industrialization. That period also reflected the efforts of a pioneering group of women who had entered universities and started to chart public lives for themselves that addressed the common good. The settlement house movement was part of that. The three women I’m most interested in are Jane Addams, Maria Montessori, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They were born within ten years of each other, they knew of each other and shared many views, and they didn’t just do things that nice women did. Jane Addams was really interested in the socialization and integration of recent immigrants into American democracy. She talks very beautifully, movingly, about how democracy needed to be socialized so that different groups of people came into regular contact and started to take an interest in each other’s lives. People see her as a do-gooder, but she had this radical view of American democracy as not defined by voting or the profession of high-minded ideals. For her, it was an ethic of everydayness. Maria Montessori described children as the most oppressed group on earth. We think of her as having an interesting spin on hands-on learning, but she had an incredible, trenchant critique of how we treat children and thwart their innate capacities to achieve independence and contribute to society from this healthy place of accomplishment. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a real firebrand who wrote utopian novels about how we could live in homes and society differently and what it would be like to have relationships between men and women which were really based on companionship and respect, rather than on the contrived dependency of wives on husbands. So all of these women made important ethical statements about how we were falling far short of many of the democratic principles Americans were claiming for themselves. The working title for the book is Daughters of Educated Men: School Girls, College Women, and the Ethics of Settlement Life.

Why the emphasis on “daughters of educated men”?

That’s a phrase used by Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, her long 1938 essay on how we might prevent war. She talks about the ethical potential she sees in the daughters of educated men, with their new access to education and the professions, and the opportunity they now had to follow their fathers and brothers “across the bridge” from home into the public sphere. She warns that if we enter into the professions and the patriarchal, egocentric, capitalist world like our menfolk, we will become as war-prone as they are. I think Woolf, as a writer and feminist, very carefully coined the phrase. “Daughters of educated men” suggests young womanhood, which, as a developmental psychologist, I see as a pivotal life space that I want to study in these women’s ethical journeys. The Progressive Era overlapped with the late nineteenth century epidemic of hysteria, when medical professionals were seeing a lot of typically upper-middle-class, young, white women who were having profound problems in adolescence—depression, anxiety, eating problems, and psychosomatic ailments. For young women who were the pioneers, for whom women’s colleges were founded, or who were the first to have access to coeducational institutions and had to fight for that opportunity—for many of them, I think “adolescence” wasn’t tied to puberty; it was tied to the end of their schooling. As one advice book captured, these young women graduates faced the dispiriting reality of “After college, what?”

One way, beyond distress, that some of these women managed life post-college was that they banded together, which allowed them to really take in their own gifts, their potential, their capacity. I don’t think it was any accident that Jane Addams co-founded Hull-House with a college classmate. Here were these women in this incredibly unique historical moment who were reaching out to each other to make something new, knowing full well each other’s struggles. And I think those struggles had a lot to do with voice, a voice that was perhaps more girl-like than woman-like, a voice that was able to say both, “I want!” and, “Something not’s right here.” These women who founded settlement houses weren’t interested in benevolence. They were pretty incensed with the social order, and pushed a patriarchal state to see things that it had been blind to. And I think their voice had a lot to do with their own girlhoods—not meaning the ages from five to 12, as we usually think about it, but from five to 22, because education allowed them to have an extended girlhood, to experience a moratorium on their adult responsibilities. As adult women and social reformers, they lived lives of service, which did not devolve into servitude. There’s something about the care work that these women undertook that is very different from the stories that my friends and I keep swapping about exhaustion—even in 2013, there’s a certain depletion that’s involved in being a good mother or a wife or a good member of whatever your work community is. In contrast, there seems to be a joyfulness in these women’s work, as well as a keen persistence. I don’t see them as becoming burned out, and yet they all had careers that were at least 40 years long in this kind of work. I’m interested in what powered them through.

Say more about this “girl-like voice.”

When I was pursuing my doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I studied with Carol Gilligan, who empirically pointed out how striking the voices of girls are before adolescence. For example, an eight-year-old girl doesn’t sound like her 16-year-old counterpart. She is likely to be sassy, spirited, outspoken, and often very comfortable with her own body—but then something radically changes in adolescence. I think that adolescence in the nineteenth century and today is a process of initiation into patriarchy—a phrase that Gilligan uses—where that relatively expansive living space that you had as a girl becomes very, very narrowed. And you hear that in their voices—in what a 16-year-old will hold back, whereas when she was eight, she would have just said it out loud and with feeling. And the problems we still see in female adolescence—the depression, suicidality, and self-harm—often reflect the attempts of individual girls to fight a social order with the only tools they have, their bodies.

In my own college teaching, I try to have young women think about themselves more from that pre-adolescent “What’s possible? What are you passionate about?” stance rather than from the “I’m afraid” or “What will other people think?” place that is more familiar to them. This self-silencing starts in adolescence, and I try to help students consider the costs of not being who you were meant to be, in not keeping your voice. A lot of people assume that if the settlement women didn’t write like the men of their time, theirs must be a maternal or generically feminine voice. I think it is something more insurgent, something much more incisive—the voice of a girl, a young woman who is not wedded to patriarchy. I think of them as women who were developmentally at their most disaffiliated from the social order. Not in the sense that they weren’t connected to it, but that they were closest to being independent—financially, relationally, and ethically. Being willing to be disloyal to the conventions of your society and family of origin, to not follow in the steps laid out for you, isn’t easy; but these women found ethical grounds for their disloyalty. That might still be relevant.

Why is it important that you write this book?

Because I want to! (Laughter) But more seriously, because there’s something so contemporary about these women’s lives. When I bring them into my classroom, my women students are, like, “Wow! This was written a hundred years ago? How could that be?” It blows their minds away that women from the past could see through some of the problems we still struggle with.

Why did you choose WCW as the place to spend your sabbatical while you write?

The work that goes on in these Centers has a heart to it. It’s good scholarship, but it’s scholarship that’s informed by real problems, not just academic curiosity. I think Jane Addams, Maria Montessori, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be very at home at the Centers, because this is the kind of work that they did—research and writing to move people and change something that they found abhorrent, unsustainable, or in conflict with our democratic potential. So being here may help me channel some of that energy that they brought to their own work and lives.

This article, contributed by Susan Lowry Rardin, was made possible through support from the Mary Joe Gaw Frug Fund.


Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, where she has taught since 2001 and won an Exemplary Teaching Award. Widely published on women’s, racial, and pedagogic issues, she has also made presentations on these subjects at many academic conferences. Her book, The Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance, was published in 2009.

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