Guy-Sheftall, Beverly 1946–
Beverly Guy-Sheftall 1946–
Educator, writer, editor
As a young professor in the 1970s, Beverly Guy-Sheftall set out to address an imbalance in the field of women’s studies. Her efforts have yielded two decades of scholarship dedicated to African American women’s issues, a ground-breaking scholarly journal, and the creation of the highly regarded Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College in Atlanta. Guy-Sheftall, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of English at Spelman, is the founding co-editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. She has also edited several influential anthologies by and about African American women. Today Guy-Sheftall is widely recognized as an authority on black feminist scholarship—or, as she put it in Ms. magazine, a practitioner in “the stunning tradition of black female intellectualism.”
Beverly Guy-Sheftall was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother, Ernestine Varnado Guy, was a feminist before the term had even been coined. As a single parent in the 1950s, she supported her three daughters by teaching math and, later, working as an accountant. Her daughters were taught to work hard on their studies and to prepare for an independent, productive adulthood. Guy-Sheftall recalled in the Atlanta Constitution that her mother “emphasized that every tub sets on its own bottom. She said you need to be independent and self-reliant, even when you’re married.”
Guy-Sheftall graduated with honors from Memphis’ Manassas High School in 1962, when she was only 16. That same year she entered Spelman College in Atlanta, an institution specifically for African American women. There she majored in English and minored in secondary education. After earning her bachelor’s degree—again with honors—in 1966, she moved on to Wellesley College for further study. She completed her master’s degree requirements at Atlanta University in 1970.
While completing her master’s degree thesis, “Faulkner’s Treatment of Women in His Major Novels,” Guy-Sheftall began to cast a critical eye on her own education. She determined that her literature studies had been far too “male-oriented,” and she embraced the relatively young field of women’s studies instead. In 1971, when she returned to Spelman College as an English professor, she decided to help broaden the women’s studies movement to include issues pertinent to African Americans.
Born in 1946 in Memphis, TN; daughter of Ernestine Varnado Guy. Education: Spelman College, B.A., 1966; Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), M.A., 1968; Emory University, Ph.D., ca. 1977.
Educator, writer, book and magazine editor. Alabama State University, Montgomery, faculty member, 1968-71 ; Spelman College, Atlanta, G A, professor of English and women’s studies, 1971—, founder of Women’s Research and Resource Center, 1981, currently Anna Julia Cooper Professor of English. Founding co-editor, with Patricia Bell Scott, of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Frequent speaker on women’s studies and feminist issues.
Selected awards: Kellogg and Woodrow Wilson fellowships; Spelman College Presidential Faculty Award for outstanding scholarship.
Addresses: Office— Women’s Research and Resource Center, Spelman College, Atlanta, G A 30314.
Her task was not always easy. “The dominant attitude in the black community was, black women didn’t need [feminism] because we were already liberated,” she explained in the Atlanta Constitution. “What they meant was that black women were in the labor force working, and that got translated into liberation.”
Not to be thwarted, Guy-Sheftall began editing books of literature by African American women and publishing articles about black feminism. She co-edited the 1979 title Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, the first anthology of African American women’s writing ever published in America. In the meantime, she worked on her doctoral dissertation, completed as Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes Toward Black Women, 1880-1920. Rarely are dissertations published in quantity, but Guy-Sheftall’s was, appearing in 1991 as a volume in the series Black Women in United States History.
As the 1980s began, Guy-Sheftall helped to establish two pioneering resources for black women’s studies. The first was Spelman College’s Women’s Research and Resource Center. Guy-Sheftall founded the center and still serves as its director. The second was the periodical SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, which Guy-Sheftall co-founded with Patricia Bell-Scott. Today SAGE remains the only scholarly journal devoted to the concerns of women of African descent. Author Paula Giddings described the magazine in the Atlanta Constitution as “the only place where, every time you pick it up, there’s a concentrated emphasis on … scholarship on black women.”
Guy-Sheftall’s other books include Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters, which she co-edited with Bell-Scott, and Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, in press. An Atlanta Constitution reviewer noted that Double Stitch “gives unprecedented and long-overdue attention to the ties that bind mothers and daughters,” adding that the work reveals “a patchwork of provocative scholarship, revealing autobiography, impressive poetry and fine fiction.” For these and other accomplishments, Guy-Sheftall was given Spelman’s Presidential Faculty Award for outstanding scholarship. She was also named to the Anna Julia Cooper Professorship—an endowed chair in the English department that honors the daughter of a slave who earned a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.
A sought-after speaker on feminist issues and a prolific reviewer for magazines as diverse as Ms., Essence, and Ebony, Guy-Sheftall has served as a consultant to numerous universities with women’s studies and other multicultural programs. Her own Women’s Research and Resource Center in Atlanta serves as a model for what can be accomplished to enrich the understanding of African American women. Atlanta Constitution contributor John Blake observed that under Guy-Sheftall’s direction, the center “has forced the women’s studies movement to confront the ‘double whammy’ for women of color—sexism and racism.”
With her colorful wardrobe and zest for life, Guy-Sheftall hardly fits the worn-out stereotype of a college professor. She enjoys living in Atlanta, she told Ms., because the city has “a rich tradition of black activism and empowerment through education. “On a personal level, Guy-Sheftall has only one regret: that her mother did not live to see her accomplishments. Ernestine Guy died in 1981 after a prolonged battle with breast cancer. Asked in the Atlanta Constitution how she thought her mother might respond to her career—and her considerable status in the scholarly community—Guy Sheftall concluded: “She’d be happy. She would feel that she had made her point.”
(Editor with Roseann P. Bell and Bettye J. Parker) Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Anchor Books, 1979.
Spelman: A Centennial Celebration, Spelman College, 1981.
Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes Toward Black Women, 1880-1920, Carlson, 1991.
(Editor with others) Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters, Beacon Press, 1992.
Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, in press.
Atlanta Constitution, February 9,1992, p. N7; March 6, 1992, p. Gl; July 19, 1994, p. C3.
Jet, April 20, 1992, p. 24.
Ms., July/August 1994.
Additional information provided by Spelman College, Atlanta, GA.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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