“The Heavy Load of Agency on Health: Anna Julia Cooper, Race and Gender”

1          It is not the intelligent woman vs. the ignorant woman; nor the white woman vs.

2          the black, the brown and the red,-it is not even a cause of woman vs. man.

3          Nay, ‘tis woman’s strongest vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear

4          her voice. (Cooper A. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press:


1          Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, “when and where I enter, in the quiet,

2          undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing

3          or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with

4          me‟. (Cooper A. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press: 1988)

For a black woman, playing race and gender may require making a conscious

determination of the “self”. Chatter with a doctor is often different from the vernacular used with

a parking valet for each serves a different purpose for the engagement. Giddens describes human

agency as acting in one’s interest with linear action within a social constraint-thus the term

“structuration”. We are both bolstered and constrained by the very society in which they exist.1

Our reactions are far from linear- we are human. Black women may converse in the salon, free to

vent among the miasmic heat of irons, stench of acetone nails and lye-laced chemically treated

hair. The conversation mixes purpose with the unbridled freedom to discuss her life, love and

sorrows. This self may not be demonstrated in the clinician’s office but the same sorrow song of

her life is necessary to care for her health. Looking at the health disparities plaguing the U.S., the

self projected by the Black female patient must be unconstrained and she must “speak” to respectful

clinicians in return.1

In this duality of structure, on the most basic level people make up society but are

inherently constrained by it.2 The human body cries for action with deterioration over time.

Whether a woman chooses to act or has the allowance to take full deliberate healthful action is

another story altogether. There would be no better demonstration of power among Black female

embodiment than to possess control over her own limbs. Certainly there are ill fated social

determinants that certainly make such efficacy difficult to achieve. Determining “when and

where I enter” is essential to assuring the nation’s health. It is hers to worship for the sake of

society at large. When is it appropriate to think of self as woman before a racial category?

Why is this even asked in the first place? Can selfhood be achieved simultaneously? This issue of embodiment is a

precursor that must not ignored when exploring the failures and less frequent successes of

understanding health. The importance of including the social examination of the body

in any discussion of health status and disparity is crucial to unraveling this dialectic. 3

Health must be seen as social as constrained by a masculine world. Epidemiologically,

each woman has a footprint of exposure over the lifespan that bolsters or hinders realizations

of health3.Sex matters in etiology of disease. Gender is linked to life chances. This bodes the question

should making a female “bodies count” require such cerebral acrobats as to viewed a

self as an Other to come to terms with the social epidemiology? Unfortunately, Gadamer posits that prejudice

and regulation to the Other is necessary for self realization.4 It is that relegation to Other that has been the problem.

Is the other race or gender, or

something else?

Dissatisfied with the gender based prejudice, Cooper speaks of making a choice

between two rooms at a hotel that presumed to be a simple choice by society: one labeled “for

ladies” and one for “for colored people”. She muses “under which head it come”. 5 Society had

dictated for her whom she must oblige: “colored”. This does not decrease the dissonance of this

convolved choice of self and Other when the Other is a she. Living a departmentalized self for the sake

of social stratification serves no one. But the reality remains that it is this stratification from which we

tend to self-define. But the logic of “Black” and “woman” does not come easily as Cooper has illustrated.

Cooper calls that both are required criteria for leading the Black race. Though most would now agree that race

is socially created, the dark hue of one’s skin does not come with a

disclaimer that this should not matter. Cooper highlights that society often demarcated based on

social dichotomies. In doing so, a woman must contend with whether she is Black or not, healthy or ill.

Cooper defends an edict of “true womanhood”; she presents the case that there will be no elevation of race without true

womanhood.5 But Cooper was a product of her day with 19th century womanhood equating to

submission (as an appropriate action) and unapologetic piety. Cooper was a bundle of social contradictions

for her time- a black woman of slave lineage, a holder of a doctoral degree, Latin speaker on necessary occasions.

Why choose Cooper to illustrate this moral concern? She was Black. Every black woman does not fit a presumed

role of what Blackness must entail. She is autonomous with differing hopes, dreams and life chances albeit

wrapped in veil of a shared race and a societal based construction of worth that she must choose how to navigate.

The discussion of body cannot be divorced from the physicality of the sex or social

construction of gender roles (however primeval or progressive the persuasion). Would a Black

woman then be embodied as “female” not Black if she has successful beat the grim statistics of

Black morbidity? When can she be Black again? Is she then something else? Anna Julia Cooper

wrote in 1892 that there are 2 kinds of peace in the world: one produced by suppression and the

other brought by “proper adjustment to living, acting forces.”5 Racialized meaning is slippery

and elusive. Gender is no joking matter. If the peace allowed by optimal health remains confined

to the uncertainty of such a hermeneutic, not exploring “the Other” of the Black female may be

the worse folly of all.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Dr. James Upton and Dr. James Jones, my “Booker T.” , for the mental gymnastics practice of decifering race....

author: Michele Battle-Fisher, MPH, MA


1. Battle-Fisher M. Taking a Dramatic Eye to the Doctor’s Office Interaction. The Yale Journal

of Humanities in Medicine. http://yjhm.yale.edu/essays/mbattle-fisher20090208.htm.

Updated February 8, 2009. Assessed July 26, 2011.

2. Giddens A. Central Problems in Social Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of

California Press; 1979.

3. Krieger N. and Smith G. “Bodies count” and Body Counts: social epidemiology and

emboding inequality. Epidemiol Rev. 2004; 26, 92-103.

4. Gadamer H. Truth and Method. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group,


5. Cooper A. A Voice from the South. New York: Oxford University Press; 1988.


About Michele Battle-Fisher

This is an archive of the Orgcomplexity Blog. Please follow me at the following sites: mbattlefisher.wix.com/orgcomplexity Michele Battle-Fisher (Facebook author page) www.linkedin.com/in/mbattlefisher mbattlefisher (Twitter) michele.battle.fisher (Skype) Author Website http://amazon.com/author/michelebattlefisher

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