Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Gender Consciousness

BOND: Now maybe I'm making a big jump here, but you go back to Washington State and your husband's career continues on and you are for a period wife and mother. And there's a period where you take a long time to finish this dissertation.

COLE: Seemed like forever.

BOND: Does -- do notions of gender begin to raise -- rise up to a more prominent place in your life then because of: he's doing this, you're doing that? What's --

COLE: No question, I would and I'll come to that very, very quickly, but I'd also say that, that I first had some inklings about some gender questions in Liberia as well. Women of my age who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and other Southern cities in the middle of racial discrimination, I think we were slow learners about gender. We were certainly affected by it, as were men folk, but race was so overpowering in its presence and its consequences. In Liberia, removed from the immediacy of the race question, I not only was hit by the class issues, but I began to first ask notions about the woman question. Not in loud voice, but at least I began. Yes, it struck me as frankly unfair that I should have to go where Robert Cole had a job, and that I was then to scrounge a job. Did I make a major protest about it? No. But it did grab me: "This doesn't -- this doesn't seem so fair." At that time however, we had one son -- David had been born in Liberia -- and another son. And so there I am stirring pots, writing a dissertation, kid on the hip, and beginning to get myself back really into the academic stream. The time really demanded that I get back into that stream because it was 1962 and there was a lot of agitation, even in an isolated place called Pullman, Washington, at Washington State. As black students were raising their voices, as black faculty in small numbers were saying, "Why aren't there more of us?" As even the issues of the civil rights and the black power movement came across the country into the Western part where we lived.

BOND: Now back to gender for a moment: housewife, student, mother. There have to be other wives undergoing this same thing. Their husbands are pursuing their degrees and following their careers, and do you find any kind of reinforcement among them, common source of irritation that you all share that sharpens your feelings about gender?

COLE: It is very clear to me that it would take another hunk of years before this entrapped labor force -- women typing, and I don't mean word processing, typing dissertations of husbands, using White Out to get through the process -- would finally say, "Wait a minute, why are we doing this?" And, "You know what? I've got a dissertation I would like to write one day." The voices were not strong, there was not a great deal of gender consciousness in those years in which I lived in Washington State. By the time we come across country to Hunter College, the voices are very strong. And so it's really -- not even Hunter College, I'm sorry, come across country to Massachusetts but the voices are getting very strong.

BOND: Before you go to Hunter?

COLE: Before I go to Hunter. So it's really in this early '70s that I begin to listen to my own voice and to hear the voices of other women -- and I don't just mean white women, I mean women of color as well -- raising the gender question.