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Carby received her Ph.D. in 1984 from Birmingham University. Her doctoral dissertation later became the foundation for the book. Reconstructing Womanhood analyzes writings from black women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as examines the social, political, and historical landscapes in which these works were produced. Carby wrote the book with four major aims:
- To examine how black women writers and orators dealt with the exclusionary practices of domestic and literary ideals of womanhood in nineteenth century white society; and how black female intellectuals transformed and reconstructed these ideologies to produce their own definitions of true womanhood.
- To expose the lack of significant political alliances between black and white women during the nineteenth century. Further, in terms of contemporary feminism and literary criticism, Carby argues that white women were more inclined to show allegiance to race instead of gender by allying themselves not with black women, but with the dominant white male patriarchy.
- To identify the societal contributions of black women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during a period of intense intellectual activity and productivity deemed the "black women’s renaissance".
- To serve as a literary history chronicling the emergence of black female novelists and the historical contexts in which they wrote.