This dissertation focuses on the transnational activities of African American clubwomen during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including their work as scholars, lecturers, missionaries and organizational leaders. My project shows that the work of African American women reformers went far beyond localized, domestic issues dealing with their homes and communities and instead encompassed efforts to deal with the global ramifications of American and European imperialism, black disenfranchisement, women’s rights, and racial violence. Through their activism, scholarship and travels, African American clubwomen frequently wrestled with the machinations of racial and gendered hierarchies beyond the borders of the United States. I contend that African American clubwomen turned their marginalized position as black women in the U.S. into a privileged position of knowledge concerning the role of America in the world and the role that black women (of all nationalities) should play in the elimination of racial and gendered oppression worldwide.
In addition to documenting the activities of prominent African American women's organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Council of Negro Women, my dissertation focuses more specifically on the careers of three exemplary women within the African American women’s club movement: Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Margaret Murray Washington. All of these women deployed a global vision in formulating their responses to race and gender discrimination, yet they did so from vastly different intellectual perspectives. Anna Julia Cooper critically examined the imbrications of American imperialism and American racist ideology; Ida B. Wells sought international collaboration as a way to transcend the obstacles impeding the struggle against racist violence in the United States; and Margaret Murray Washington sought the means to create a composite racial identity for women to color to combat racial discrimination in the post-World War I era. Scholarship on the international work of American reformers has shown a lack of familiarity with the history of African American women and has neglected using the archives and manuscript collections of African American women’s organizations in telling the histories of American reformers in the world. My dissertation accounts for the different approaches to politics and culture manifested by these women, yet it also seeks to build a framework for integrating the work of African American women within studies of internationalism and transnationalism.