The Politics of Respectability and the Middle Class

African American men and women students outside a brick building with notebooks at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, Alabama

The politics of respectability was an ideology charged and steeped in the concepts of an emerging middle class. The middle class emerged in the Post Civil War years as a reaction to a changing economy, new definitions of leisure, ideas about modernity, concepts of manners, and an increase in the educated population. The middle class came to be defined as a cohort committed to the values of hard work, education, integrity, quiet, reserve, etc. This translated into their conservative and professional dress, polite manners, and other markers. These cleavages became important not only to the national narrative, but the personal narrative of its members. 

In a graduation speech at Howard University (featured below), Kelley Miller implored the graduates before them to remember that "All the world respects a man who respects himself". Here, they are using the language of respectability politics to encourage young graduates to always remain polite and collected in the face of adversity. However, Miller does not wish for African Americans to be complacent. No, Miller believes that African Americans should not "go through the world with a self-deprecatory demeanour, as if you owed the the rest of the world an apology for existing". To Miller, African American graduates should use their knowledge and achievements for the betterment of the race. 

The Black middle class utilized the ideas of respectability to promote the "uplift" of their race. By obtaining high levels of education, nice clothing, and acting properly, middle class African Americans considered themselves and expected others to consider them as good of citizens as Whites. They believed that, what W.E.B. Du Bois called the "talented 10th", of the population would lead the race to prosperity and equality. Thus, middle class Blacks became the leaders of the African American community. This had both benefits and negative consequences. The emergence of middle class Blacks paved the way for the establishment of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and provided a rational framework with which to combat the emergence of segregation. Well educated respectable citizens deserved the same rights as white educated citizens. On the other hand, this also gave middle class African Americans license to police lower class and poor Blacks, leading to tensions within the African American community. Education, professionalization, and middle class status therefore brought new meaning and new contradictions to the Black experiences of freedom and citizenship. 

Barnard Girls - - 6/3/14 The Reason Dinner was Late

The concept of womanhood has always been attached to ideas of respectability. Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, respectable women were expected to be good republican mothers and keep care of hearth and home. Women only needed to be so educated as to be able to educate her own children to be good citizens of the republic. Furthermore, women were not expected to work outside the duties of the home unless it was absolutely necessary for her family's survival. The Civil War disrupted these patterns by allowing women to become more educated and take on other roles as laborers. The War also changed ideas about what was considered respectable work for women. Coupled with women's increasing desires for new opportunities in education and professional life, colleges began to educate more and more women every year. This allowed women to redefine themselves and womanhood in terms of their academic, personal, and professional pursuits. 

From these new definitions, a new woman emerged. The ideal of this new woman was portrayed in the magazine "Gibson Girl" (featured right). In this cartoon entitled "The Reason Dinner was Late", a woman sits and practices her drawing instead of cooking dinner. While drawing is an intellectual pursuit that has traditionally been considered female, and therefore isn't very revolutionary, the act of focusing on work rather than cooking dinner is novel. This demonstrates the duality of new freedm and continued oppressive expectations over women in this period. According to Edwards: "In her purest form the New Woman was a daughter of the [White] elite, fashionable and rich, who made men swoon at charity balls as she spoke fluently in French about her recent Continental tour"71. The new woman was, in other words, well educated and easily able to stimulate men with their knowledge. This definition of womanhood still confined women to the expectations that they pursue heterosexual relationships and concern themselves with strictly cultural matters, but gave women the freedom of intellectual parity and the opportunity for new experiences.


71. Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006. page 112