Expanding Women’s History: Anna Julia Cooper, Zitkala-Ša, and Sui Sin Far

Dr. Anna J. Cooper, Zitkala-Ša, and Sui Sin FarDr. Anna J. Cooper, Zitkala-Ša, and Sui Sin Far. (Photos: Smithsonian; Light, Bright, and Sparkling Blog)

Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month is a radical and important starting point for better remembering histories and stories that can and should be part of our collective memories and narratives year-round. Yet the distinction between the two months, perhaps exacerbated by their back-to-back timing, suggests an unfortunate separation between race/ethnicity and gender, as if Women’s History signifies especially or even solely white women’s identities and stories.

Certainly there are many white women’s histories and stories that need better remembering and inclusion in our national narratives. But it’s not either/or, and if we expand our vision of Women’s History Month to include women from every American community, we find challenging and inspiring lives and voices with whom we should all be far more familiar. Three such women shared part of her story in autobiographical works that offer strong starting points for a full exploration of her life and career.

Born into slavery in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina, to a slave mother and a slave-owner father, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964) went on to be one of the late 19th and early 20th century’s most significant educators and scholars: teaching at Raleigh’s Saint Augustine Normal School and Ohio’s Wilberforce University, among other institutions; receiving her M.A. in Mathematics from Oberlin College in 1897; beginning a PhD in History from Columbia University and completing it at the University of Paris-Sorbonne at the age of 65 (making her the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate). In 1892, while serving as the principal of Washington, DC’s M Street High School, Cooper published A Voice from the South, a multi-layered work of autobiography and oratory, educational philosophy and radical theology, and political and social activism. No one work can capture Cooper’s more than a century of experiences and contributions to American education, scholarship, and society; but Voice reflects her multi-faceted identity and interests, and feels entirely timely and salient today.

Born on South Dakota’s Yankton (Sioux) Reservation in 1876, to a Native American mother and a European American father who subsequently abandoned the family, Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938; also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) went on to be one of America’s unique figures. She was an educator, musician, and activist. She played violin with the New England Conservatory of Music and at the 1900 Paris Exposition with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Band (she taught music and oratory at the school). She wrote the libretto and songs for The Sun Dance (1913), considered the first Native American opera (composer William F. Hanson wrote the music). And she founded and served as the first president of the National Council of American Indians, an organization dedicated to lobbying for Native American citizenship and rights. Between 1900 and 1902, while teaching at Carlisle and working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Zitkala-Ša published a series of autoethnographic pieces in the Atlantic Monthly. These included “An Indian Teacher among Indians,” “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” and “School Days of an Indian Girl.” These works embody Zitkala-Ša’s complex individual life and identity, but also offer a vital window into Native American communities and issues, and their relationship to American society in this period of challenge and transition.

Born Edith Maude Eaton in England to an English businessman father and a Chinese mother who had been adopted by missionaries, and raised in both upstate New York and Montreal after the family’s immigration, Sui Sin Far (1865-1914) went on to be one of the era’s most talented journalists, travel writers, and authors. She reported and wrote opinion columns for the Montreal Star and Daily Witness while still a teenager, then continued to write in and about each of her subsequent homes, from Jamaica and Boston in the late 1890s to San Francisco and Seattle in the early 1900s. She published numerous realistic and romantic short stories and collections of short fiction throughout these decades, culminating in the groundbreaking, masterful short story cycle Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912). In 1909, the New York Independent published Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,” a nuanced, self-critical, impassioned, and unique autobiographical examination of the stages and settings of Far’s life and identity. Like each of these texts, and each of these women, Far’s piece challenges our perspectives on American histories and lives, forcing us to expand our collective memories and narratives to include and engage with these experiences and voices.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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