In the selection from "The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation," Fannie Barrier Williams brings to light the struggles that the newly liberated slaves must face in order to get back to a neutral starting place. They are the first generation - they have no one to model their behavior after in order to find a known path to success. "In the mean vocabulary of slavery there was no definition of any of the virtues of life" (181). No book that they could access would be able to convey the kind of information that a tradition of living and success could.
Barrier Williams emphasizes how black women are not tracked as a discrete group, which makes it difficult to say how and if they have progressed. Her emphasis underscores how these women, as a group, are discounted and not seen as worthy of being noted. Yet, she is able to find some evidence in both churches and schools that demonstrate how eager black women are for education. All this despite the fact that society is still poised to prevent these women from reaching any sort of equality.
Williams brings out themes of justice and equality, appealing to the her audience's sense of fair play. That women of color cannot find employment in places where their talents lie, despite being qualified and even over qualified for the work. There is no reason to prevent them from those jobs for which they qualify, except prejudice. She bemoans the farce of legal equality written into law that does not allow for social equality. "When the colored people became citizens, and found it written deep in the organic law of the land that they too had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were at once suspected of wishing to interpret this maxim of equality as meaning social equality" (186). And nowhere in the country did they find social equality. The phrasing of the sentence is telling - the colored people are the object of suspicion, not the ones suspecting. The law must hold different meanings for different people if the idea of social equality is met with suspicion.
A land that allows the law to treat people differently is not a healthy land. A cause that forwards the cause of some women at the expense of others is not a healthy movement. "We believe that social evils are contagious. The fixed policy of persecution and injustice against a class of women who are weak and defenseless will be necessarily hurtful to the cause of all women" (186). By using the word contagious, Williams suggests disease. She does not want colored women left out, as many white women want to leave them out, when it comes to the advancement of women. She wants them to remember that in fighting for women's rights they are fighting for equality. They should not work against their own cause by leaving black women behind.