In his encyclopedic The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, published in 1891, Irvine Garland Penn included the journalistic prowess of Josephine Turpin Washington. A listing of the various publications that featured her stories fills three pages, and a photo of her wearing a stylish hat of the era is included. He begins the profile of her by noting that she was born on July 31, 1861, in Goochland County, Virginia. Other dates have been published for her birth, but the year appears to be consistent, as is who her parents were: Augustus and Maria Turpin.
According to Penn, she was taught to read “by a lady who was employed in the family.” After rudimentary lessons at home, she continued her education at normal and high school, and at the Richmond Institute, which later became the Richmond Theological Seminary. She enrolled in Howard University and graduated in 1886. Her teaching career began at both previous institutions of her training, and was briefly interrupted when she married Dr. Samuel Washington.
Given her husband’s practice in Alabama, Washington began teaching at Selma University. When Frederick Douglass was the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, he hired her as a copyist. This venture was in keeping with her early aspirations as a writer—as a teenager, her article “A Talk about Church Fairs” appeared in the Virginia Star. Her criticism of churches selling wine during their fundraisers was a harbinger of her later concerns about social and political affairs.
One of her most publicized essays was “Higher Education for Women,” featured in the People’s Advocate in the early 1890s. In it, she waxed eloquently and perceptively about the conditions facing women as they strove for educational opportunities. “The dense darkness, which for six thousand years, has enveloped women’s intellectual life, is rapidly disappearing before the rays of modern civilization,” she began. “Advanced public sentiment says, ‘Let there be light!’ and there is light; but it is not that of a brilliant noonday, rather it is the brightness of a rising sun, destined to flood the world with glory. There are still many, who, while advocating female education to a certain point, decry the necessity and propriety of giving to women what is known as higher education. By this term we mean that education which involves the same head-training, having for its banks the same general studies, deemed essential to our brothers; that education acquired only at the college and the university.
“The very fact that a woman has a mind capable of infinite expansion, is in itself an argument that she should receive the highest possible development. Man is placed here to grow. It is his duty to make the most of the powers within him. Has anyone the right to thwart him in these efforts, to shut him out from the means to this end, to say to him as concerns his educational training, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further!’”
Moreover, she added, “Should not those who have capacity and inclination be allowed to receive this higher education? Should not those who have a gift be permitted to develop and exercise it? If a woman has a message for the world, must she remain dumb? God forbid that man should close the lips of one commissioned from heaven to speak! Who wishes that Mrs. Stowe had not taken up her pen to depict the horrors of slave life? Yet had she desisted from such labors, probably she would have darned a greater number of stockings and sewed on more buttons…The better the training she has received, the better enabled she will be to perform the social duties devolving upon her. The more effective the intellectual armor in which she encases herself, the more prepared she will be to engage in the contests of [the] mind. Men adapt themselves to their company, and conversation in society does not rise above the level of its women. Is it not necessary that women be ready to meet men upon equal intellectual ground? Is it not important that her mental equipment is not inferior to his own? No one would have social converse composed exclusively of discussions on the ‘elegies,’ or made up of quotations from the ‘little Latin and less Greek’ learned in the schools; but the discipline gained by such scholastic training makes one undeniably brighter, wittier, more entertaining, capable of wielding a greater influence for good.”
Washington delivered this same essay in 1885, with some editing, to the Young Ladies Literary Society at Howard University.
Thus we have a sample of her insight and declarations—she was fearless in her proposals and admonitions. She published about the important issues as widely as she spoke in public forums, particularly pertaining to women’s rights and educational advancement.
Josephine T. Washington died on March 17, 1949, in Cleveland, Ohio, at age 87.