As the club [i.e. National Association of Colored Women, 1896] women went about their work of ‘defending our name,’ they dissociated themselves from working-class women’s blues culture, and assumed the missionary role of introducing ‘true womanhood’ to their less fortunate sisters. In fact, they were defining the name of the female contingent of the black bourgeoise. It did not occur to them—and may not be obvious today—that this women’s blues community was in fact defending the name of its own members. And while club women achieved great victories in the historical struggles they undertook against racism, and forcefully affirmed black women’s equality in the process, the ideological terrain on which they operated was infused with assumptions about the inherent inferiority of poor—and especially sexually assertive—women. In hindsight, the production, performance and reception of women’s blues during the decade of the twenties reveal that black women’s names could be defended by working-class as well as middle-class women. Women’s blues also demonstrate that working-class women’s names could be defended not only in the face of dominant white culture but in the face of the male assertions of dominance in the black community as well.
This quote is from her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. This is really important. She doesn’t ignore the accomplishments of middle class Black women BUT it is important to note that many looked down on blues singers at the time—the same ones who are idolized now in hindsight. They weren’t always idolized. We see the same thing occurring today with notions of “respectable” Black women singers being juxtaposed to ones not deemed “respectable” and such labeling ends up being patriarchal, sexist, misogynoirist and classist. There is no true choice or good side to a binary. While it is understandable that middle class Black women wanted to be treated like “women” versus chattel for centuries as all Black women were under slavery, this often came at the price of them looking down on working class and poor Black women, even as the former worked towards social justice as well as the latter. While respectability politics sought to eschew racist oppression and humanize Black people, it also reinforced colourism, classism and misogynoir. Blues singers helped to give working class Black women a voice and amplified their voices. Also, in many ways, they were more daring than some middle class Black women because they directly challenged oppression from Black men, not just from Whites. So many blues songs focus on financial independence, choice of sexual partners, sexual empowerment, rejection of abuse, fighting back and more.