Copyright 1998 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved

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Copyright © 1998 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

Reviews in American History 26.1 (1998) 220-238


Race and Gender in Modern America

Jacqueline Jones

Attempting to discuss race and gender as discrete categories of historical analysis is like trying to study a rushing river by capturing a piece of it in your hands. The river constitutes a powerful force and alters the landscape it traverses in dramatic ways; but it is not possible to isolate its constitutive parts and still appreciate its fluidity--that is, the very characteristic that defines it.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, scholars have dislodged racial and gender ideologies from their essentialist (that is, biological) moorings, and have recognized that these ideologies float freely in space and through time, ever changing and ever contingent on specific circumstances. One does not have to look very far to find instances in which physical appearance was irrelevant to definitions of "race," and where sex organs were irrelevant to definitions of "gender." In her study of black working women in Philadelphia in the 1890s, Isabel Eaton recorded a case of "a very fair young girl, apparently a white girl" employed as a department store clerk. After the girl had worked at the job for two years, "it was discovered that she had colored blood and she was promptly discharged." 1 In this instance, "colored blood" was not a physical characteristic, but rather a metaphor for an African heritage, broadly construed, and a heritage of enslavement in America, more specifically implied.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his memoir, Colored People, noted the World War II "racial" dynamic that assigned service work performed by female civilians to black men in Army life: "Because the Army replicates the social structure of the larger society it defends, almost all black draftees were taught to cook and clean. Of course, it was usually women who cooked and cleaned outside the Army, but someone had to do the work, so it would be black men." 2 In the case of both the Philadelphia store clerk and the Army cooks and custodians, white employers and military officers manipulated racial ideologies to reserve "modern" jobs for whites exclusively; these jobs included, for women, serving as the visible agents of a consumer culture, and, for men, working with pieces of technologically sophisticated defense hardware. Standards based upon "blackness" and "femaleness," then, were invoked by whites in positions of authority as transparent ploys to preserve various social hierarchies--"whites" over people of African descent, and men over women. [End Page 220]

Historians now simply add race and gender into the mix of social signifiers that drive American society--class, stages of life, marital status, and ethnicity (to name just a few). All of these characteristics are subject to constant redefinition; they reveal less about a person's "objective" status and more about the larger political meaning attached to that person's situation in any particular time and place. And it would be foolish to try to disentangle these social identifiers from each other--for example, to study a group of women in isolation from their specific socio-economic and demographic context. In fact, studies of racial and gender ideologies are successful only to the extent that they include consideration of a whole host of factors at work simultaneously. Social historians, then, juggle contingencies, and the more the better.

Of all public controversies in recent memory, the debate over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1992 revealed the intertwining of issues related to gender and race. (As graduates of Yale Law School and successful lawyers, Clarence Hill and his accuser, Anita Hill, were arguably members of the same "class.") Pundits and scholars alike attempted to isolate specific prejudices at work in the case: Was Hill a victim of sexism (on the part of the senators who questioned her as well as Thomas) or was Thomas a victim of racism (on the part of the media and the feminists who sided with Hill)? The framing of questions like these, in stark either-or fashion, obscured the intertwined systems of power on display during the hearings themselves. In the end, the hearings represented a socio-political phenomenon--a rushing river--that could not be understood without a full appreciation of its rich complexity, a complexity that transcended relatively narrow gender and racial categories. 3

In the late twentieth century, historians tend to use the word race in rather imprecise ways, primarily as shorthand for dichotomies in the historical experiences and (more arguably) for current sensibilities of all "white" people (which includes some very dark-skinned people indeed) in contrast to people whose ancestors were enslaved in what is now the United States. In fact, it is rather jarring to hear the word race used in the early-twentieth-century sense, as in 1994 when Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray The Bell Curve purported to show that "blacks" as a group were less intelligent than "whites" as a group--that "biology is destiny," with a vengeance. 4

The black-white dyad remains a source of muddled thinking and hinders our understanding of the myriad kinds of and uses of racial ideologies evident in history. In a wide variety of contexts, these ideologies were created and then dissolved, or reconstituted. In the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo settlers on the West Coast held that impoverished Mexicans were a race distinct from wealthy Spaniards. 5 Further, the anti-Chinese rhetoric of Anglo working men in California in the 1870s and 1880s echoed the anti-black [End Page 221] rhetoric of anxious tradesmen and displaced artisans in the East. Miners and landlords charged that the Chinese were crafty and inclined to criminal behavor, fit only for agricultural labor or jobs like laundry work that would otherwise be performed by white women. Despite these parallel systems of white "racial" supremacy, the plight of the Chinese diverged significantly from that of blacks in the northeastern and southeastern states. The Chinese lived in virtually all-male communities, and they at least temporarily secured a foothold in manufacturing enterprises. (It is noteworthy that, when anti-Chinese sentiment reached hysterical proportions in the latter part of the nineteenth century, whites conceived of the Japanese--whose numbers were small and whose potential as economic competitors was therefore slight--as members of a different "race" compared to the Chinese.) 6 In any case, many regions of the country have always been characterized by a kind of ethnic diversity that is at odds with the black-white, either-or construct characteristic of American historiography. In the late twentieth century, the Fourth Wave of foreign immigration, dominated as it is by refugees from Latin America and East Asia, reminds us that social diversity does not lend itself to the simplistic dichtomies evoked by black and white "racial" differences.

Throughout American history, particular groups have used the code word race in an attempt to insure that a more vulnerable group will remain a persistent "other." Labeling certain people "black" constitutes only one manifestation of an on-going process of self-identification and political exclusion in American society. Therefore, to bring some concreteness to the study of racial and gender ideologies, we might begin by suggesting that such ideologies are in fact strategies deployed for specific reasons; rhetoric more often than not follows function. In other words, "discourses of difference" are merely thinly disguised rationales for systems of inequality that are either in the process of development, or already in place. Of enslaved people and free people of color in antebellum America, one white abolitionist noted shrewdly, "We dislike them because we are unjust to them." 7 By this he meant that injustice preceded the "racial" ideologies that sought to justify it.

The idea that women, or individuals labled "feminine," are meant to take care of children, prepare meals, and cleanse a variety of surfaces is an ancient one that still has a profound effect upon the twentieth-century social division of labor. In contrast, racism in the United States has a considerably more complicated history. Yet by focusing on the idea of racial difference as one among any number of political weapons, it is possible to outline at least three historical contexts in which it has been used. First, groups of relatively powerful people have claimed "racial" superiority over other groups in order to impose a certain kind of labor upon them. In the British North American colonies, theories of "racial" difference between people of European and [End Page 222] African descent evolved gradually as political elites sought to create ideological justifications for developing labor systems based on servitude and slavery. Second, people who perform the same kinds of work as people labeled "racially" inferior have seized upon racial ideologies to distance themselves from the targeted group. For example, these ideologies proved useful to both destitute Irish immigrant workers in antebellum cities, and to southern white sharecroppers and tenants--people who shared with blacks certain jobs, as well as a similarly lowly material standard of living, and feared that historic forces of economic inequality would condemn them to continue to work alongside blacks in the future. 8 White housewives might glorify their own (unpaid) role as domestic caretakers while simultaneously denigrating the labor of the black women who did the same kind of work as a slave or a salaried domestic. These specific, strategic uses of racial ideologies remind us that emerging classes of whites have often used blacks as a counter-reference group, defining themselves as a unified group (of wage-earners or housewives, voters or union members) not just on the basis of who they are, but also on the basis of who they are not--that is, "blacks."

And finally, in certain instances, other racial ideologies (those invoking difference but not inequaltiy) have also been used by members of oppressed groups as rhetorical tactics of liberation, as a source of strength and collective resistance to injustice. Nevertheless, while notions of "blackness" might function as a force for political cohesion among African descendants living in the United States, these notions might also expose fault lines within the group itself--for example, when men proclaimed that only they were able to speak on behalf of the "race," or when middle-class persons prove reluctant to acknowledge the forces of class stratification within their own communities. 9

For the historian of twentieth century America, the challenge is to sort out the universal from the particular aspects of ideological deployment. We might contrast the seemingly intractable view of women as "nurturers" at home or in schools and hospitals with the much more flexible view of women as wage-earners who constitute a reserve army of sorts that can, at any particular time, be pulled into or pushed out of the work force. "Public opinion" discouraged middle-class, married, white women from working outside the home for wages during the Great Depression, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor created a new (albeit short-lived) ideal of middle-class, married white women defense workers qua patriotic citizens. In this instance, traditional views of the proper white woman's "place" yielded to military necessity.

Likewise, coal and lumber barons who constructed all-white company towns in the South predictably expressed time-honored racist views to justify the exclusion of blacks. In 1927, a West Virginia coal mining superintendent cited his pride in company-sponsored institutions as a rationale for employing [End Page 223] only whites: "We do not want to bring in colored men and undesirable people and decrease the standing of the community, particularly the schools." Nevertheless, a strike by white miners could lead to the immediate revocation of this so-called "principle" of labor deployment, as black strikebreakers were eagerly recruited, their supposedly deletorious effect on the white "community" notwithstanding. Traditional views of the black worker's proper place yielded to economic necessity. 10

In the twentieth century, patterns of labor that rest upon racial and gender ideologies represent but the most recent in a series of historical developments that have relegated black people to the margins of political power and economic well-being since the settling of Jamestown. As the United States evolved from bound servitude to free labor, black people were kept in slavery; as the economy shifted from agriculture to factory work, black people remained confined to the countryside; as the white-collar economy superceded heavy manufacturing, blacks were disproportionately represented in blue-collar jobs. Beginning in the 1890s, the process of "modernization" put a white face upon two crucial aspects of the emerging political economy--the evolution of a consumer ideal of fashion and glamour, an ideal that relied upon youthful white women as salesclerks and as advertising and entertainment icons; and the ideal of technological progress, which relied on increasingly complicated kinds of machinery operated by certain groups of white men and women. Other groups of white men and women performed jobs similar to those of blacks--there was no hard or fast "racial division of labor" 11 --but not until the 1940s and 1950s did black workers gain a foothold in the mainstream modern (manufacturing) economy. By that time, the proces of deindustrialization was already underway, and, lacking seniority, black employees began to feel the full force of the technological changes that would gain widespread public attention only when they began to affect white wage earners and managers in the 1980s. 12 At the end of the twentieth century, immigrants and poor native-born whites compete with blacks for manual-labor jobs, and, in some places, totally displace them. 13 Meanwhile, multiethnic, multiracial distressed communities proliferate around the country. 14 Nevertheless, ideologies of racial difference that posit stark contrasts between the lives of all whites and the lives of all blacks continue to hold political sway.

The preceding discussion is meant to serve as an introduction to a more specific analysis of the topic that comes to mind whenever anyone utters "race and gender" in the same breath--the history of African-American women. Recently, historians have contemplated the "intersection" of these two ideologies in the lives of black women; this two-pronged approach is bound to be a narrow one, ultimately, if we do not address a whole realm of other factors that affect the lives of individuals. (At times, for example, class issues seem to recede in the face of the gender-race juggernaut.) In any case, [End Page 224] historians generally realize that their studies must be grounded in the material reality of the lives of the people they study, rather than positing some sort of transcendent, disembodied "discourse."

The historic struggles of black women serve as a constant reminder of the dangers inherent in generalizing about all women and about universal standards or ideals of womanhood. (At the end of a semester in a course on American women's history, students find it a useful exercise to try to finish this sentence: "Ever since the founding of the British North American colonies, through the end of the twentieth century, all women . . .") Of course, African-American women are not the only group to challenge the over-arching generalizations that often characterize women's history; but black women's studies has proved a particularly fruitful area of study for scholars in recent years.

The field has grown exponentially since the appearance of pioneering works in the 1970s and early 1980s. These works include two documentary collections--Gerda Lerner's Black Women in White America (1972), and Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings (1976), edited by Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin; two anthologies--one entitled The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (1978), edited by Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982), edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith; and Bonnie Thornton Dill's essay, "The Dialectics of Black Womanhood," published in Signs in 1979. In one way or another, all of these works highlighted black women's unique relation to the labor force, and the means they employed to resist oppression in the workplace, in the streets, and in the courts of law and (white) public opinion.

Historians have joined with sociologists, literary critics, writers, and political theorists to respond to initial developments in the general field of women's history, which in its earliest stages took the experiences of middle-class white women as the standard, and, more often than not, the sole topic to be explored. The challengers argued that black women's history was not merely a subset of the field of women's history, and that it was not possible for scholars merely to append a paragraph or chapter noting the "exceptionalism" of black women's history within a larger story in which whites took center stage. More recently, scholars have debated the relation between black women and various feminist movements within the United States and around the world, and have explored the politics of academic professionalism in shaping the study of African-American women's history. These debates, often lively and contentious, ultimately enrich our understanding of the complexities of modern ideologies of difference. 15

The building blocks of black women's history are the life-stories that [End Page 225] reveal the practical workings of political ideologies of all kinds. Scholars have made heroic efforts to bring an ever increasing number of these stories to the fore, and black women, sharecroppers as well as celebrities, clubwomen as well as former Black Panthers, have published their own autobiographies and memoirs. 16 Ambitious oral history projects, including The Black Woman in the Middle West Project: A Comprehensive Resource Guide, Illinois and Indiana, coordinated by Darlene Clark Hine, Patrick Kay Bidelman, Shirley M. Herd and Donald West, and the Black Woman Oral History project at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, have yielded detailed biographies of twentieth-century black women. 17 A massive reference-work project launched by Darlene Clark Hine, editor, and Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, associate editors, culminated in 1993 with the publication of the two-volume Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. 18 This resource is complemented by a burgeoning number of other reference materials, such as The Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, published in 1996. 19 Countless research collections, including the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), government document collections related to southern peonage and the Great Migration, have made a wealth of information as accessible to the general reader as the nearest microfilm machine. As of 1997, the Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, published by University Publications of America, consisted of 32 reels of microfilm, and included her writings, personal papers, and files from her work with the National Youth Administration and a variety of women's organizations. 20

As a group, black women were notable for the long years they were forced to devote to wage-earning in the southern countryside and northern cities. Historians of the twentieth century have examined the broadest possible context of black women's labors--their wage work (or, in the case of southern peons in extractive camps, work for a lack of wages) under the supervision of whites who lorded over kitchens, public school boards, tobacco factories, commercial laundries, and war defense plants; their wage work within the realm of relatively self-contained black communities; their unpaid work on behalf of their own families, including extended kin; and their unpaid work on behalf of their neighborhoods and their "race." Scholars have also attempted to bring a comparative perspective to these sorts of studies by looking at contrasting patterns of work among white men, white women, and black men within a specific time and place. In this respect, the liabilities of white women workers--as wage-earners and as housewives--appear purely relative, for these women maintained clear-cut advantages over their black counterparts in virtually every work setting. White female workers benefited from the expansion of the clerical and sales sectors in the early twentieth century, they established a foothold in certain kinds of industries like textiles [End Page 226] and cigarmaking early on, and, because of their more privileged class status, enjoyed greater latitude in deciding whether or not to stay home with their children full-time. 21

Historians have explored a variety of issues that have placed African-American women at the core of their analysis. Among the most exciting areas of study is that of the politics of opposition. This term suggests not a single strategy or even a single goal, but rather a continuum of resistance and protest, as black women resisted the demands imposed upon them by employers and other agents of Jim-Crow discrimination such as streetcar drivers, voter registrars, and public welfare case workers; and as they fought against lynching and other forms of state-sanctioned terrorism. Some worked to overturn legal and institutional strictures against integration. These were the women of the NAACP, National Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, and certain labor unions (like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Automobile Workers) who pushed for an end to segregation in partisan political activity, education, and employment. Women professionals such as schoolteachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses remained ever vigilant to opportunities that would allow them to appropriate much needed authority and resources from tight-fisted white administrators. 22 Groups of black women also positioned themselves in the struggle centering around human rights issues--lynching, police brutality, and convict labor and other forms of neoslavery. 23

At one end of the spectrum of the politics of opposition we might identify the aggressive efforts of middle-class black women to speak out and organize against a racial caste system, and on behalf of black people's economic and political freedom. These efforts included advocacy of integration into the "mainstream" white economy and political system on the one hand, and a drive for black nationalism, in jobs and community self-control, on the other. However, these twin impulses were neither wholly distinct from each other nor mutually exclusive, as when Depression-era housewives leagues' sponsored boycotts of local businesses that hired only white employees. 24 At the other end of the spectrum we find more informal, spontaneous kinds of protest conducted by ordinary black men and women in the workplace and in public arenas when a servant deserted her employer's kitchen the day of a fancy dinner party, when streetcar riders jostled white passangers and otherwise intruded into their "space." 25 The maids who formed the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott brought both modes of resistance together--the "traditional" informal, and the "modern" organized--though other leadership styles were also present in that particular campaign. For example, Rosa Parks represented the fledgling civil-rights movement which was sponsored by the local Montgomery branch of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King, Jr. [End Page 227] furthered the historic role of the black church as a vehicle for community organization. In any case, it is clear that the theme of resistance encompasses a vast realm of human behavior--learning to read and write, carving out time for one's family over and above the demands made upon a woman by her employer, and maintaining a code of "respectability" in defiance of whites who denigrated all black women as lazy and promiscuous. Along these lines, historians have investigated regional migration as a political act, noting the initiative seized by individual women migrants, the role black women leaders played within migrating kin groups and communities, and the symbolic and real nature of the exodus out of the South as a means of liberating black women from predatory white men. 26

An emphasis on black women's activism in various contexts--the fight for women's suffrage, the social settlement movement, missionary work, community welfare, and social reform in general--highlights the ultimately narrow and often self-serving nature of much of middle-class white women's efforts in the political sphere. 27 Several historians have delved into the records of black and white suffragists, revealing that the white clubs affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (founded in 1890) pressed for an "educated suffrage" as a means to distance themselves from other contenders in the political sphere--such as, Eastern European immigrants as well as black men and women. The white suffragists posited a view of the world that was bifurcated between respectable, highly educated, native-born, middle-class whites, and nearly everyone else. In contrast, black women's vision of enfranchisement rested on more inclusive notions of citizenship, and on practical concerns related to self-protection against the high-handedness of an employer, the brutality of a policeman, and the terrors of the lynch mob. 28 Rather than simply noting the racial biases of white women's reform activities, some scholars have gone further to illustrate the ways in which black women's particular forms of activism transform our understanding of larger political movements, like Progressivism. 29

Recent scholarship thus suggests that black clubwomen rarely engaged in organized efforts that were purely social (that is, apolitical) in nature. Instead, they sought to fill the vacuum left by Jim-Crow social-welfare policies at the federal, state, and local levels, and by racially exclusive networks of charitable and reform organizations (often run by white women). 30 Once again, white women's policies of racial separateness--founding social settlements for immigrants but not black residents of late-Victorian cities, pressing for a better-funded public education system that would continue to deny to black children their fair share of taxpayer's money--mock the notion that there existed some sort of "female" political sensibility that we might automatically contrast to a "male" counterpoint. 31 Indeed, a cynic might suggest (with some [End Page 228] justification in certain cases) that privileged white women reformers were simply in the business, so to speak, of ameliorating the social problems among the white poor caused by the exploitative labor practices and political programs put in place by their own fathers, husbands and brothers. At the same time, these white women ignored the race-based injustices that those same policies sought to preserve and justify. In this view, then, white women were not arrayed against their menfolk so much as symbiotically allied with them, the women seeking to "tidy up," or "put a human face on" an emerging industrial capitalism built upon the subordination of certain groups of people.

A more benign interpretation might simply stress the overweening power wielded by specific groups of white men at specific times, rendering women irrelevant to the process. Scholars have detailed the "gendered" roots and implementation of the welfare state--the institutionalization of the view that women are by nature dependent and less deserving of good jobs compared to men. 32 These assumptions placed all poor women and their children at risk. Yet more broadly it is important to note that, in the 1930s, social policymakers made a conscious effort to exclude black workers--as servants, field workers and seasonal laborers of all kinds--from the social-welfare protection legislation that served as the cornerstone of New Deal legislation. Black families suffered when their breadwinners were not entitled to unemployment compensation, the miniumum wage, workplace saftey standards, Social Security, and compensation for overtime work. By linking health insurance to employment within large corporations, labor union leaders and business executives concocted an arrangement that yielded little incentive for either Republicans or Democrats to push for federally guaranteed health care for all Americans. In these decisions, southern congressmen who were also the chairmen of powerful Congressional committees, together with organized labor and corporate executives, colluded to create a modern welfare state that failed to provide for the needs of the poor of either race. Members of Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, and black and white women positioned in a variety of political and proto-political organizations, had little say in these matters. 33

Historians have shown that while black women leaders might have advocated reforms seemingly similar to those championed by white women, their brand of activism represented a distinctive kind of political activity. To build up women-owned businesses in the urban New South, to fight for an equitable distribution of school-fund money in the southern countryside, to work for better playground facilities or expanded police protection in their own communities--these activities challenged Jim Crow, one of the main pillars propping up a series of social and economic inequalities in American society. Because their work was by nature radical, and not reformist, black [End Page 229] women adopted a variety of leadership styles. Some were self-consciously accommodating in their tone and demeanor, while others were uncompromisingly outspoken and militant in their rhetoric. The impressive variety of these styles contrasted with the strategies of white clubwomen and other activists. Like Maggie Lena Walker, a black nationalist who worked for the economic independence of other black women in Richmond, Virginia, black women leaders tended to understand, in a way their white counterparts did not, that "racial" injustice was inextricably linked to economic injustice. 34

Black women activists were not wholly oblivious to their own gender and class status within their respective organizations. At times they called attention to what they perceived as a too-cautious approach of black men in pressing for change, and at other times they also sought to distance themselves from poor people of their own communities. 35 Though active in religious and civil-rights groups, they chafed against the gender conventions that demanded hard work from them but relegated them to positions of informal leadership only. 36 Embracing an ideal of pious and socially responsible womanhood, they found it easier to make alliances, no matter how tentative and temporary, with white women of the middle class. 37 In turn-of-the-century North Carolina, these alliances gained ground during the period when black men were disfranchised by constitutional amendment. 38 In contrast, lacking a similar rhetoric of gender-based purpose, men in religious and civil-rights groups found it correspondingly difficult to participate in joint endeavors at the local level.

Yet in even tentative biracial encounters among women, timing was everything. For example, in post-World War II Montgomery, Alabama, efforts to create links between middle-class women of the two groups foundered within the context of an emerging civil-rights movement. In her autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, Virginia Durr tells of a group of black and white churchwomen who began to meet and talk about local issues in the early 1950s. It was difficult for them to find a place to share a meal together since public venues, like hotels and Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) campgrounds, excluded black people. At times the white women had to contend with friends who were their own worst enemies. For example, a white woman told a prominent black religious leader who had been invited by Durr's group to address an integrated meeting, "'Your church services are so emotional--people screaming and hollering and throwing themselves around in church. We don't like those kind of services.'" Durr notes that Mrs. Cooper, the black religious leader, offered this reply, "'Well, many black churches don't have those kinds of services and many white churches do.'" Later, the formation of an integrated prayer meeting (among a few prominent women of both races) came to an abrupt end when a segregationist decided to publish the names of white women members. As Durr notes, "The women [End Page 230] became frightened when their names were publicized. Even their husbands began getting phone calls from people who threatened to stop doing business with them if their wives went to any more integrated meetings." The white women could not sustain any momentum under these circumstances, and they paid a high price in public mortification before disbanding the group as: "Several husbands took out notices in the papers disassociating themselves from their own wives. One man disassociated himself from his aunt, another disassociated himself from his daughter. They were scared of the repercussions on their business." 39

Changing sexual mores in general, and, in particular, the incursion of a modern consumer culture into rural areas--a culture that relied on explicit links between female sexuality and the glamour of commercial consumption--have inspired a number of studies that suggest that white women were often eager to join their husbands and brothers to resist threats to the racial-caste hierarchy. Throughout the twentieth century, the issue of black civil rights has been linked to any number of challenges to the status quo. During the 1920s, white women in the rural Midwest and South scapegoated blacks as a menace to their way of life; during the 1950s, white women in the South saw black integrationists as a threat to the privileged status of their own children in school, and their own husbands at work. To be a good (white) mother--that is, to advance the interests of one's family against the demands of "unworthy" interlopers--was to oppose racial integration at every level of life. 40

In her introduction to the memoir of her grandmother, Mamie Garvin Fields, Karen Fields notes that in early twentieth-century Charleston, the workings of Jim Crow--rendered symbolically by the strains of the Confederate anthem "Dixie"--played "like a background Muzak unlistened to." For Mamie and Robert Fields, "The voices of the Muzak brayed on in the back alley," but husband and wife "went purposefully in and out the front door of their life." 41 Not every aspect of black family or community life was penetrated by "racial politics," though historians tend to turn up the volume of the Jim-Crow Muzak when considering black women's history. In looking ahead to future possiblities for research, we might note the need for merging the "gender conventions" literature produced by recent scholars with some of the studies that have detailed the development of regional black communities in the South and the black ghetto in the North. 42 Most of the ground-breaking local or state studies in the field of African-American history focus upon economic-structural and political issues, to the neglect of the texture of informal family and neighborhood life. 43

The history of specific worksites remains a topic ripe for for historical research. It is no longer sufficient merely to acknowledge that certain workplaces were racially exclusive and let it go at that. For example, the [End Page 231] history of the southern textile industry reveals a number of convoluted twists and turns; under slavery, black machine operatives (as slaves) were an integral part of the workforce in many mills. After the Civil War, mill owners decided to press the argument that black people were incapable of working machines, in conjunction with a "New South" effort to limit mill employment to whites exclusively. Thereafter, residents of all-white mill villages easily adopted the metaphor of the family, with its connotation of mutual support and real or quasi-kinship bonds, but in the process these workers also gave credence to the notion that all-white workplaces were somehow part of the "natural" order of things. 44 The myriad ways that blacks were kept out of certain kinds of work--some more subtle than others--are as intriguing as the battles that blacks fought to achieve entry into those workplaces.

Patterns of employment provide a key to understanding the on-going process of defining and refining the notion of "whiteness" in the twentieth century. Historians have explored the ideological function of "blackness" during critical points in American history, such as when the Founding Fathers could measure their own freedoms against the slavery endured by people of African descent and when white workers in the antebellum North could distinguish themselves from blacks, not on the basis of poverty or a heritage of slavery (for Irish immigrants had their own burdens to bear on both these counts), but on the basis of skin color. Some historians have suggested that World War II was a watershed in smoothing over ethnic tensions among whites; Roman Catholics, Jews, and the sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrants entered the war conscious of their ethnicity, and then emerged from the war, from defense factories and the killing fields of Europe and the South Pacific, as "Americans." 45 This is no doubt an oversimplication of mid-twentieth century identity politics; but the fact remains that whites created a workshop culture in factories, and a code of military honor on the battlefield, that was more often than not blatantly racist. 46 It was no wonder, then, that postwar patterns of employment, labor unionization, and suburbanization demonstrated a persistent bias against blacks. 47

As historians we need to shed light on the transition of workplaces from all-white to integrated, and in some cases to all-black, beginning in the 1960s. Confined to menial jobs as domestics and agricultural field workers for generations, black women early sought out positions in the clerical sector when formal barriers to their entry were dismantled by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet few black women wage earners were inclined to measure their success solely on the basis of their freedom from scrubbing floors and picking cotton for wages. Moreover, some soon discovered that they had fought their way into office work just as computers and other technological advances were contributing to the degradation of the workplace. Interviewed [End Page 232] in 1995, Jewel Jackson, a single mother and a secretary for a university in Boston, shared a sense of frustration with other women trapped in dead-end jobs: "I hate being a sceretary. It's boring. It's demeaning. The pay is bad and it's got a royal stigma wrapped around it: single mom. Secretary. Dumb. . . . The lack of money reflects a lack of respect." Meanwhile, white women continued to receive preference from their employers; more white women assumed managerial positions and consequently, "the clerical staff [was] getting blacker and blacker." 48 In a related vein, historians are now beginning to document the increasingly prominent role played by black women workers in the labor struggles of the second half of the twentieth century. 49 As the number of service and low-level clerical workers eclipses that of industrial workers, black women's roles as union leaders will continue to increase. Apparently, the preeminence of teamsters, steelworkers, and automobile workers was but a transitory stage in the history of American labor unions.

In the late twentieth century, the global assembly line shapes the lives and labor of African-American women in ways that are both historic and new. Employees of chicken and catfish-processing plants in the rural South and cleaning women in gleaming city skyscrapers remain persistently poor within a high-tech economy. At the same time, their communities play a perverse role in the international economy--as sources of cheap labor on the one hand (though some immigrant groups have pushed them out of certain local labor markets) and, on the other hand, as sites of consumption of high-priced sneakers and gold chains, among other items. 50 Well-educated women have gained an entree into the professions, and into the offices of major corporations, but for the most part they remain confined to positions in the areas of social welfare (as social workers, teachers, and nurses); institutional administration (as keypunch operators and lower-level managers); and as personnel or "human resources" staff members. All of these jobs are particularly susceptible to corporate and governmental "downsizing." Most dramatically, government cutbacks have eroded public employment as historic sources of jobs for black workers. When military bases are shuttered, and federal office buildings closed, the displaced workers find it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to secure comparable jobs at comparable pay elsewhere. The integrity of black (as well as white) families suffers as a result.

The study of gender relations within twentieth-century black communities has been dominated by the work of sociologists who sensationalize the topic without providing much in the way of historical context. The so-called "underclass theorists" set the tone for current explorations of poor black neighborhoods; their work implies, wrongly, that all poor people are black, and that all black people are poor. Serious attention to the history of poor immigrant and native-born white communities would help correct many of [End Page 233] the flawed assumptions that guide these "underclass" studies; in most cases, the everyday strategies that poor black people use to piece together a living for themselves are not unique, but rather representative of poor people everywhere.

In the 1990s, media images of women as mothers tend to contrast the white suburban "soccer mom," dependent upon her husband and glorified for staying home full-time with her children, with the African-American inner-city "welfare queen," dependent upon the state and condemned for wanting to stay home full-time with her children. Meanwhile, affirmative-action opponents portray all black people as rapacious job seekers who will not rest content until they have deprived white workers of their educational and employment advantages. These contrasting and conflicting views, which continue to drive public policy, uphold traditional black-white dichotomies, simultaneously reinforcing notions of all women's economic powerlessness, and class-based prejudices related to women and work. 51

To argue that social and economic inequalities have persisted throughout American history, and to cite the history of African-American women as proof positive of that point, is to miss the rich complexity of history as a process. Indeed, over the generations, gender and racial ideologies have proved remarkably fluid and adaptable. In the late twentieth century, we find nothing incongruous in appreciating the talents of African-American entertainers and professional athletes (male and female), who are paid millions of dollars each year, while accepting the apparent fact that millions of black men, women, and children are doomed to languish in impoverished communities, without the educational credentials and work opportunities that provide access to the blessings of a high-tech society. More and more white Americans are responding with indifference to this political reality, and they denigrate our role as scholars when they ask contemptuously: What's history got to do with it? Providing a convincing answer to that question, one that could be embraced by the general public as well as policy wonks, might very well constitute the agenda of social historians for the twenty-first century.

Jacqueline Jones is Harry S. Truman Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University. She is the author of American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor (New York, 1998).


1. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (New York, 1967), 337.

2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Colored People: A Memoir (New York, 1994), 85.

3. On the hearings and their significance, see, for example, Geneva Smitherman, ed., African American Women Speak Out on Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas (Detroit, 1995); Sandra L. Ragan, The Lynching of Language: Gender, Politics, and Power in the Hill-Thomas Hearings (Urbana, 1996); Toni Morrison, ed., Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (New York, 1992); Anita Faye Hill and Emma Coleman Jordan, eds., Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings (New York, 1995).

4. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York, 1994). But see also Malcolm Gladwell, "The Sports Taboo: Could it Be that Blacks Excel at Sports Because They're Black?" The New Yorker, May 19, 1997, 50-55.

5. Tomas Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley, 1994).

6. Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley, 1971); Chinese Immigration: Its Social, Moral, and Political Effect; Report of the California State Senate of the Special Committee on Chinese Immigration (Sacramento: State Office, 1878); Mary Roberts Coolidge, "Chinese Labor Competition on the Pacific Coast," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 34 (1909): 120.

7. James Freeman Clarke, "Present Condition of the Free Colored People of the United States" (New York: New York Anti-Slavery Society, 1859), 5.

8. On Irish immigrant workers, see, for example, Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London, 1991); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York, 1993). On southern white sharecroppers and tenants, see, for example, Dolores E. Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (Philadelphia, 1986); Jacqueline Jones, The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present (New York, 1992).

9. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race," Signs 17 (Winter 1992):251-74.

10. Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris, The Black Worker: A Study of the Negro and the Labor Movement (New York, 1931), 222-23.

11. As George Frederickson points out, the United States, unlike South Africa, lacked the proportionately sizable black population that would make it possible to assign specific kinds of work to black people only. See Frederickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York, 1981).

12. See, for example, Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton 1996).

13. Roger Waldinger, Still the Promised City? African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York (Cambridge, Eng., 1996).

14. Jacqueline Jones, "The Late Twentieth-Century War on the Poor: A View from Distressed Communities Throughout the Nation," Boston College Third World Law Journal 16 (Winter 1996): 1-16.

15. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston, 1990); bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston, 1989); Elsa Barkley Brown, "'What Has Happened Here': The Politics of Difference in Women's History and Feminist Politics," Feminist Studies 18 (Summer 1992): 295-312; Deborah K. King, "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology," Signs 14 (Winter 1988): 42-72.

16. To cite just a few examples: Jacqueline Anne Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer (Athens, 1989); James P. Comer, Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family (New York, 1988); Thordis Simonsen, ed., You May Plow Here: the Narrative of Sara Brooks (New York, 1986); Sarah Rice, He included Me: the Autobiography of Sarah Rice (Athens, 1989); Mamie Garvin Fields with Karen Fields, Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir (New York, 1983). Well-known women, including Maya Angelou, Kathleen Cleaver, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, have written autobiographies.

17. Darlene Clark Hine, et al., eds., The Black Woman in the Middle West Project: A Comprehansive Resource Guide, Illinois and Indiana (West Lafayette, Ind., 1986); Ruth Edmonds Hill, ed., The Black Woman Oral History Project: From the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library (Westport, Conn., 1991).

18. Darlene Clark Hine, et al., eds., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (New York, 1993). This work consists of two volumes.

19. Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, eds., Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 4 vols. (New York, 1996).

20. Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Foundation Collection parts 1 and 2 (Bethesda, Md., 1997).

21. To cite only a few examples: Tera Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge, Eng., 1997); Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed, eds., 'We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible': A Reader in Black Women's History (New York, 1995); Lois Benjamin, The Black Elite: Facing the Color Line in the Twilight of the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1991); Eileen Boris, Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States (Cambridge, Eng., 1994); Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York, 1985); Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (Urbana, 1985); Darlene Clark Hine, Speak Truth to Power: Black Professional Class in United States History (New York 1996); Michael K. Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Urbana, 1993); Elizabeth Haiken, "'The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves': Black Laundresses in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1917-1921," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Spring 1990): 20-50; Lois Rita Helmbold, "Downward Occupational Mobility During the Great Depression: Urban Black and White Working Class Women," Labor History 29 (Spring 1988): 135-72; Kenneth L. Kusmer, "African Americans in the City Since World War II: From the Industrial to the Post-Industrial Era," Journal of Urban History 21 (May 1995): 458-504; Jeff Cowie, "Rooted Workers and the Runaway Shop: A Comparative History of Capital Migration and Social Change in the United States and Mexico, 1936-1995" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1996).

22. Stephanie Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Women Workers During the Jim Crow Era (Chicago, 1996); James L. Leloudis, Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1996), 180; Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950 (Bloomington, 1989).

23. See, for example, Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York, 1984).

24. Darlene Clark Hine, "The Housewives' League of Detroit: Black Women and Economic Nationalism," in Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History (New York, 1994), 129-46.

25. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African-American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 (Washington, D.C., 1994); Tera Hunter, "Domination and Resistance: The Politics of Wage Household Labor in New South Atlanta," Labor History 34 (Spring-Summer 1993): 205-20; Robin D.G. Kelley, "'We Are Not What We Seem': Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition to the Jim Crow South," Journal of American History 80 (June 1993): 75-112.

26. See, for example, Alferdteen Harrison, ed., Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South (Jackson, 1991); James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago, 1989); Darlene Clark Hine, "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance," Signs 14 (Summer 1989): 912-20; Carole Marks, Farewell--We're Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration (Bloomington, 1989); Joe W. Trotter, Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (Bloomington, 1991).

27. See, for example, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement Movement, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill, 1993).

28. See, for example, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, "Discrimination Against Afro-American Women in the Woman's Movement, 1830-1920," in The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images, ed. Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Port Washington, 1978); Adele Logan Alexander, "Adella Hunt Logan and the Tuskegee Woman's Clubs: Building a Foundation for Suffrage," in Stepping out of the Shadows: Alabama Women, 1819-1990, ed. Mary Martha Thomas (Tuscaloosa, 1995); Suzanne Lebsock, "Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study," in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, ed. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Urbana, 1993); Giddings, When and Where I Enter; Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York, 1993), 101-18.

29. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1996); William Chafe, "Women's History and Political History: Some Thoughts on Progressivism and the New Deal," in Visible Women, 101-18.

30. See, for example, Kathleen Berkeley, "'Colored Ladies Also Contributed': Black Women's Activities from Benevolence to Social Welfare, 1866-1896," in The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family, and Education, ed. Walter J. Fraser, Jr. (Athens, 1985), 181-203; Darlene Clark Hine, "'We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible': The Philanthropic Work of Black Women," in Hine Sight, 109-28; Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925 (Knoxville, 1989); Jacqueline Anne Rouse, "Atlanta's African-American Women's Attack on Segregation, 1900-1920," in Gender, Class, Race and Reform in the Progressive Era, ed. Noralee Frankel and Nancy S. Dye (Lexington, 1991); Dorothy Salem, To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 1890-1920 (New York, 1990); Anne Firor Scott, "Most Invisible of All: Black Women's Voluntary Associations," Journal of Southern History 56 (Feb. 1990): 3-22; Stephanie J. Shaw, "Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Association of Colored Women," Journal of Women's History 3 (Fall 1991): 10-25.

31. Cf. Paula Baker, "The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920," American Historical Review 89 (June 1984): 620-47.

32. Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 (New York, 1994); Sonya Michel and Seth Koven, eds., Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (New York, 1993).

33. See, for example, Nelson Lichtenstein, "From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era," in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton, 1989), 122-52.

34. Elsa Barkley Brown, "Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke," Signs 14 (Spring 1989): 610-33.

35. Deborah Gray White, "The Cost of Club Work, the Price of Black Feminism," in Visible Women, 247-69.

36. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).

37. Eileen Boris, "The Power of Motherhood: Black and White Activist Women Redefine the Political," in Mothers of a New World, 213-45; Mary Frederickson, "'Each One Dependent on the Other': Southern Churchwomen, Racial Reform, and the Process of Transformation, 1880-1940," in Visible Women, 296-324; Nancy Hewitt, "Politicizing Domesticity: Anglo, Black, and Latin Women in Tampa's Progressive Movements," in Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era, 24-41; Marion W. Roydhouse, "Bridging Chasms: Community and the Southern YWCA," in Visible Women, 270-95.

38. Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow.

39. Virginia Durr, Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Durr (1985; New York, 1987), 244-45.

40. Nancy McLean, Beyond the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Klu Klux Klan (New York, 1994); Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley, 1991).

41. Fields, Lemon Swamp, p. xiv.

42. See for example Shirley Carlson, "Black Ideals of Womanhood in the Victorian Era," Journal of Negro History 77 (Spring 1992): 61-73; Sharon Harley, "For the Good of Family and Race: Gender, Work, and Domestic Roles in the Black Community, 1880-1930," Signs 15 (Winter 1990): 336-49. On regional studies, see, for example, Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana, 1989); Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana, 1976); Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: the Making of a Ghetto: New York, 1890-1930 (New York, 1966); Allan H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920 (Chicago, 1967).

43. For exceptions, see James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Urbana, 1980); and Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro.

44. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, 1987); Cathy McHugh, Mill Family: The Labor Systems in the Southern Cotton Textile Industry, 1880-1915 (New York, 1988).

45. See, for example, Gary Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960 (Cambridge, Eng., 1989).

46. See, for example, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (Chapel Hill, 1996).

47. For the effects of these trends on black and white women, see Joanne Meyerwitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia, 1994).

48. Jackson is quoted in Sara Ann Friedman, Work Matters: Women Talk About Their Jobs and Their Lives (New York, 1996), 87-88.

49. See, for example, Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: A History of Hospital Workers' Union, Local 1199 (Urbana, 1989); Sara Mosle, "Letter from Las Vegas: How the Maids Fought Back," The New Yorker, Feb. 26 and Mar. 4, 1996, 155.

50. See, for example, Carl Husemoller Nightingale, "The Global Inner City: Towards an Historical Analysis," in W.E.B. Du Bois and The Philadelphia Negro: A Centenary Reappraisal, ed. Michael Katz and Thomas J. Sugrue (Philadelphia, 1998).

51. See Sherry Wexler, "To Work and to Mother: The Politics of Family Support and Family Leave" (Ph.D. diss., Heller School of Public Policy, Brandeis University, 1997). .


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