New book from UW–Madison’s Winkle-Wagner documents decades of Black women’s vital community-building in higher education

By Laurel White

Black women seek out, build, and maintain vibrant communities of support in order to survive and thrive in college and other higher education environments, according to a new book from a School of Education faculty member. 

The book, “The Chosen We: Black Women’s Empowerment in Higher Education,” is built upon oral histories from 105 college-educated Black women who graduated from college in the United States between 1954 and 2014. By blending those oral histories with empirical social science and social theory, author Rachelle Winkle-Wagner presents a map for Black women’s success and offers ways institutions can more effectively support Black scholars. 


Winkle-Wagner, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, says the book was an effort to better understand how Black women succeed in academia in the face of barriers such as racism and sexism. 

“Black women were building and maintaining communities with one another and supporting one another,” Winkle-Wagner explains. “Really, the lead finding is that Black women have understood and do understand that their liberation is tied to one another in a way that all of us could stand to learn from, and that all of us could stand to think about right now.”

The “chosen we” communities outlined in the book vary from informal relationships, such as friend groups and families, to formal groups including campus student organizations and Black sororities. In all cases, these groups provided vital support and community as women navigated college, graduate, and professional school and shaped their personal and academic identities.

“Often these spaces were initiated before racial integration in education and have been created in obvious and subtle ways on college campuses ever since,” the book notes.

Preeminent Black scholar Diana Slaughter Kotzin, the Constance E. Clayton Professor Emerita in Urban Education at the University of Pennsylvania, lauded the sharing and analysis of the oral histories in the book’s introduction. 

“The telling of these stories, particularly in reference to the women’s perceived impact of their college environments on their self-concepts and identity development, is long overdue,” Slaughter Kotzin wrote.

Slaughter Kotzin has been a longtime mentor to Winkle-Wagner and was a guiding force for the book.

Winkle-Wagner says the direction of “The Chosen We” grew out of her 2009 book, “The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity among Black Women in College.” While the first book illuminated a widespread feeling of identity suppression and struggle for Black women seeking undergraduate degrees, Winkle-Wagner says her new volume offers stories of agency, resistance, and self-identification. 

“These are stories of hope, perseverance, accomplishment, and power,” she says. “I hope Black women can read it and see themselves.” 

Image courtesy SUNY Press

To gather the 105 oral histories —a process that took more than a decade — Winkle-Wagner partnered with Black women “gatekeepers” in five locations: Lincoln/Omaha, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta. She says working with those women helped her establish connections and foster trust in the communities. In some cases, interviewees wrote or co-wrote their oral histories for the book.

As a white woman, Winkle-Wagner has spent decades exploring how to do cross-racial research in a way that is thoughtful, non exploitative, and authentic.

“My credibility is always up for grabs. I have to build trust with participants in every minute we’re together,” she says. “I write myself into the story to always identify myself as a white woman and someone going across racial lines. It’s up to the reader to decide every minute if I’ve done well.”

Of the 105 interviewees highlighted in “The Chosen We,” 36 women attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and 69 attended predominantly White institutions (PWIs). There were 29 women who attended both PWIs and HBCUs. Sixty-six of those women earned an advanced degree and 30 earned a terminal degree. 

In the course of analyzing the oral histories, Winkle-Wagner uncovered a disturbing trend: many of the women who attended PWIs experienced serious health crises during their academic careers, while none of the women attending HBCUs experienced the same. 

“It’s a social injustice, the idea that we’ve built social institutions and educational institutions that really might be hurting people’s bodies,” Winkle-Wagner says. “It makes our necessity to do better a life or death issue.”  

Winkle-Wagner and Bridget Goosby, professor at The University of Texas at Austin, have received grants from the Spencer Foundation to continue exploring and potentially building upon that preliminary finding in a large, national mixed methods study of Black women faculty and health outcomes.

As she continues this work, Winkle-Wagner hopes Black women and their allies in academia and beyond connect to the findings of “The Chosen We.”

“Black women have told their own stories for generations, but people haven’t listened,” she says. “There’s so much to be learned from the wisdom in this book.”

“The Chosen We: Black Women’s Empowerment in Higher Education” was published by SUNY Press in December. More information about the book is available here

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