Conversations with Dead People: How Should Society Organize Its Efforts Against Violence Toward Women?

 This is a project created by Thomas Pless for ENG 238 African American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University (Spring 2015), taught by Dr. Crystal Anderson. It is a conversation between two African American writers who discuss a contemporary issue.  This dialogue gives students an opportunity to engage in close reading and relate literary texts to contemporary ideas.

Anna Julia Cooper: Firstly, I would like to thank you, Frances Harper, for conversing with me today on the topic of violent acts directed toward women and how we should go about solving this issue. For, despite different views and beliefs, we wish to accomplish the same goal. That goal being the promotion of the most effective way to eliminate violence toward women and violent behaviors in general. To accomplish this lofty goal we must take an organized approach that garners the power of legislation and politic support to enact sanctions that will truly intimidate those who consider this malicious act of violence against their fellow man. This effort will not only create consequences for perpetrators of this crime, but will also provide a statement to society that this behavior will not be tolerated. Those fearful of persecution and the obstacles in the way of gaining justice will band together to make their voices heard in these laws and will start a societal shift towards a truer peace.

Frances E. W. Harper: And thank you, Anna Julia Cooper, for opting to have this methodical sparring of intellect. The product of this debate will indeed prove beneficial for the efforts to protect women and those that are the targets of abuse. These dangers, the abuses that have provoked this meeting are the very things that must be corrected. For as long as these motivations persist, they will harm those before your method of punishment and correction can land its decisive blow. My method takes a more concentrated focus toward the prevention of these incidents rather than the reactionary tendencies of your method’s nature. I say we must remove these behaviors by attacking where they originate. The quality of the families from which these offenders have been developed in. In my writings, “The Two Offers,” I highlight the impact family has on the citizens it creates, “The influence of old associations was upon him. In early life, home had been to him a place of ceilings and walls, not a true home, built upon goodness, love and truth.” (Gates, 463)

Anna Julia Cooper: While your idea is admirable in perception, how could this goal be achieved? You cannot monitor the families of society and reprimand them when they stray from the path of a righteous upbringing. In my literary work, “Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race,” I write, “Now this high regard for woman, this germ of a prolific idea… we have said, from two sources, the Christian Church and the Feudal System. For although the Feudal System can in no sense be said to have originated the idea, yet there can be no doubt that the habits of life and modes of thought to which Feudalism gave rise, materially fostered and developed it;” (Gates, 621). The Feudal System helped magnify the image of women in society and must be utilized to further advance their perception and promote behavior society accepts. While your method of family intervention may induce change, it cannot reach the vast masses that this method can.

Frances E. W. Harper: We accomplish this goal by cultivating the youth while also using the united voice of society to emphasize the importance of this renaissance of the family behavior. And what better place to spark this cultivation in a place where youth are on the brink of adulthood and also dealing with this problem of violence first hand. This very place being the colleges of the United States. Where young adults hunger for knowledge, strive for input in the world around them, and also are confronted with this same problem of violence. By educating college students on morality and equality, we both set the foundation for future families on respect and kindness and also unite the voices of those in college institutions that are too scared to stand up against these injustices. This intervention will create the cause for these influential voices to not only better their niche in society, but also spread this message to those outside the confines of their schools. This action looks to better the future families and promote respect through the wide reaches of universities.

Anna Julia Cooper: All these benefits can also be realized with my method of reaction. By creating legislation in the institution itself, they not only influence the community to adapt and value the morality behind the law, but also show a motivated entity that people can gather behind and believe in. The institution itself is a foundation that already connects its members and garners an influence and voice to those that know of it. These legislation and the sanctions in place for their violation, can influence the mentality of society while also providing a framework for punishing those who detract from its limitations. Why then should these great influences and advantages owned by the institution be forfeited?

Frances E. W. Harper: Unfortunately, your method has already been undermined. We would not be here if it were not for the institutions’ inability to fix this problem already. These institutions have proven to be ineffective in properly deterring violent behavior, or at least have proven to be unable to properly handle the after math of these situations with proper swiftness and unwavering dedication to seeking out justice for the victims involved. We must not trust the protection of women and cultivation of good morality strictly to entities that has shown to have an ineffective reactionary response to this issue. This quote from my writings help exemplify my point, “but it was not the place for the true culture and right development of his soul. His father had been too much engrossed in making money, and his mother in spending it… to give the proper direction to the character of their wayward and impulsive son. His mother put beautiful robes upon his body, but left ugly scars upon his soul; she pampered his appetite, but starved his spirit.” (Gates, 463). We cannot simply react to these incidents because one offence is too many to have to endure. We must prioritize our efforts to the bettering of the families that make up our community so that these ambitions of cruelty cannot infect children through the misguided teachings of the parents.

Anna Julia Cooper: You continue to reinforce your opinion, but, I believe, you have misunderstood my stance with institutions. I have recognized the power that institutions have had in the past and could have with this problem. I do not believe that the institutions are currently setup to handle these problems, but I do believe with a refocusing and prioritizing, institutions can recognize their potential. This quote shows the current needs of institutions, “We need men who can let their interest and gallantry extend outside the circle of their aesthetic appreciation; men who can be a father, a brother, a friend to every weak, struggling unshielded girl. We need women who are so sure of their own social footing that they need not fear leaning to lend a hand to a fallen or falling sister… but earnest, unselfish souls..” (Gates, 628) With the right people leading the institutional charge against violence we can recognize its influence in a way that commands dedication at the risk of alienation and sanction.

Frances E. W. Harper: So it appears that we both, to a degree, question the ability of institutional action to solve this problem. While I understand that you believe that institutions can be reformed to be able to lead, but is it efficient to have to reform an entity to then reform aspects of society?

Anna Julia Cooper: But this option offers a concrete framework to a governing body that when cultivated can create a difference in legislation that encourages people to believe in a message that can be delivered from an organized platform. My main problem with your method is that it lacks the clearly visible and strong foundation that institutions have to promote a message and reach farther than individual relations. Having something visible and something powered by the right kind of people offers an opportunity for anyone to hear about their goals and then contribute.

Frances E. W. Harper: These are valid opinions, but how do you propose to make such a solid foundation when we do not cultivate and promote the very qualities that make them effective in an institutional operation. A quote from yourself, I believe, shows that you have the same concern, “A stream cannot rise higher than its source. The atmosphere of homes is no rarer and purer and sweeter than are the mothers in those homes. A race is but a total of families. The nation is the aggregate of its homes. As the whole is sum of all its parts, so the character of the parts will determine the characteristics of the whole.” (Gates, 627) So I believe you also value the quality of the parts that make up a whole. In this case the people making up your institutional foundation need to be of a high quality. Which again I believe the only way to accomplish this is through the reformation of healthy families and homes.

Anna Julia Cooper: While I still question the degree of efficiency in your methods, you have presented solid arguments. Unfortunately we have run out of time for our discussion. Thank you again for your thoughts.

Frances E. W. Harper: Thank you as well, I believe this conversation goes to show the complex nature of this problem as we continue to tirelessly venture to end violence against females and citizens as a whole.


Gates, Henry Louis. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Third ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2014. Print

Kalin, John. “Re-thinking Sexual Assault Prevention in High School and College: John Kalin at TEDxColbyCollege.” YouTube. YouTube, 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 May 2015.

“Sexual Assault Findings On College Campuses In Kentucky.” WBKO RSS., 10 May 2015. Web. 12 May 2015.

University of Michigan. “Dating and Domestic Violence on College Campuses.” Dating and Domestic Violence on College Campuses. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 12 May 2015