Friday Womanist – Toni Morrison

They were always there. Whenever you wanted to do something simple, natural and inoffensive. Like drink some water, sit down, got to the bathroom or buy a bus ticket to Charlotte, N.C> Those classifying signs that told you who you were, what to do. More than those abrupt and discourteous signs one gets used to in this country – the door that says “Push,” the towel dispenser that says “press,” the traffic light that says “No” – these signs were not just arrogant, they were malevolent: “White Only,” “Colored Only,” or perhaps just “Colored,” permanently carved into the granite over a drinking fountain. But there was one set of signs that was not malevolent; it was, in fact, rather reassuring in its accuracy and and fine distinctions: the pair that said “White Ladies” and “Colored Women.”

The difference between white and black females seemed to me an eminently satisfactory one. White females were ladies, said the sign maker, worthy of respect. And the quality that made ladyhood worthy? Softness, helplessness and modesty – which I interpreted as a willingness to let others do their labor and their thinking. Colored females, on the other hand, were women – unworthy of respect because they were tough, capable, independent and immodest. Now, it appears, there is a consensus that those anonymous sign makers were right all along, for there is no such thing as Ladies’ Liberation. Even the word “lady” is anathema to feminists. They insist upon the “woman” label as a declaration of their rejection of all that softness, helplessness and modesty, for they see them as characteristics which served only to secure their bondage to men.

Toni Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” New York Times Magazine, 1971

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