Race and gender prove to be two daunting obstacles for the women in Iola Leroy, and success depends on the women’s ability to keep a strong black feminist stance. Prescribed female roles and racial prejudice hinder Aunt Linda and Iola in their ambitions and endeavors, but they resist the expectation that women’s work is nurturing children and husbands. Both characters transcend the confines of the home, and Iola believes that working in public is key to marital success. She repeatedly encounters racism while pursuing her career, and only through the white Mr. Cloten does she secure an accountancy position. To finance a home, Aunt Linda, an entrepreneur, sells pies while her husband is at war. She exerts power over her husband, who disagrees about the purchase; however, due to slavery, she remains illiterate and thus subjugated.
In Iola Leroy, Harper explores the biological and social bases of race and raises the question of which plays a larger role in forming identity. Iola, Harry, and Dr. Latimer, born of slave mothers, struggle with whether or not to pass as white and hide their genetic composition as black. During the nineteenth century, when Iola Leroy takes place, physical appearance signified intelligence, morality, and power, and these characters’ choices of whether to live as white or black have serious consequences. Dr. Latimer, a mulatto who appears white, chooses to live as black, and his intellectual successes contrast Dr. Latrobe’s racist belief that blacks are inferior to whites. Iola and Harry, who were raised as white and appear white, later choose to pass as black. Iola labels herself “the Iola of now,” a black activist who marries a mulatto and repudiates Dr. Gresham because his whiteness links him to slavery. Fearing social and familial disapproval of his love for a black woman, Dr. Gresham begs Iola to pass as white, but she refuses, bringing much hardship to her life. For these characters, “blackness” and “whiteness” mean much more than biology and dictate an entire world view.