“We have done our best to make the world know,
‘We are the fairest among thousands.
Eastern Star, Peaks View Chapter slogan
Even before women were allowed to join civic and social groups, they were active participants, doing whatever custom and tradition allowed. In most cases, women nursed the infirm and fed, clothed, and cared for the needy. Philadelphia women organized the Daughters of Africa in 1812, the first black female benevolent society in North America. Like many of the all-women’s groups that followed, this one was the female counterpart of a male group already in existence.
Nineteenth-century standards required women to be pure and upright. To maintain these male-defined standards, Masons joined Eastern Star. These male members of female groups monitored women during their meetings in much the same way that white religious leaders monitored black worship services before the Civil War.
Individual African American women faced unique challenges before and after the Civil War. So, too, did the civic and social groups they formed. Negative stereotypes often shadowed the lives and reputations of black women. In an era when social expectations for women dictated that they be virtuous child-rearers, black women were often accused of being loose and of not maintaining high moral standards for themselves or their households. In addition, American standards of beauty did not include physical characteristics possessed by most women of color. Black women’s groups often addressed these challenges. Women’s groups did more than provide for those in need; they also upheld high moral standards and encouraged positive self-concepts.
In Central Virginia, female organizations date back to the 1870s. The earliest female societies tended the sick and buried the dead. In the 20th century, women’s groups addressed individual and community needs. The Buddies, Inc., held Miss Bronze Lynchburg pageants to recognize African American female beauty, poise, and intelligence. The Deltas sponsored Miss Jabberwock activities, and the AKAs organized Little Miss AKA contests. Such efforts helped to build self-esteem, highlight talent, and encourage academic excellence among young African American women. Other women’s groups promoted service as well as mutual friendship. The Distant Friends, for example, organized in 1980 to “keep established friendships alive and cultivated” for women who lived in Lynchburg, West Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina. The group also brought well known African American speakers to their native city.