History upholds the story of women fighting their way to make a position in the masculine world of workplace, little is known about African-American women, who had endured the glass ceiling of both sexism and racism. Black women fought to get to the top of the economic ladder. Getting to the top wasn’t an easy task for working women in urban America. Black women have all of their societal duties. Trying to fit into the work place and to be treated as an equal had its set – backs. We had to deal with different things like racism, sexism wage and labor laws and most important family. In other words, black women had to penetrate the concrete ceiling to make a place in the workplace of urban America (Davidson).
The history of women in the workforce in America dates back to the First World War and the great depression, when the women went out to work and support their families when the men folk were in the warfront or out of job (Foner). Between the two great wars, women’s participation in white collar jobs evolved but not devoid of discrimination, which actually meant, “low paid jobs as school teachers and secretaries”. But this advance meant of the American women in-between the wars evaporated in the 1950s when the typical American family picture was Mom safe at the household kitchen and emphasis followed towards women’s domestic obligations.there was and still continues to be wage gap in the salary of men and women (Opdycke). A comparative study shows that the median wage gap of men and women has actually increased since 1951 to 1996 even when female participation in the workforce and their educational level has increased (Opdycke). One primary reason for this wage gap has been attributed to the women’s responsibility as the primary parent in rearing children. So a 1971 survey showed that the earnings of almost 40 percent women rearing children were below poverty line and the percentage was higher among African Americans (Opdycke). So women labor history shows that the scepter of freedom was handed to women and then taken away by societal forces. In such a situation, the work history of black females was even more deplorable.
Black women endured the struggles of racism and sexism in the workplace. Their problems were double of what their white counterparts faced (Davidson). Because black women didn’t have as much privileges as white women they had to settle for lower class jobs. As has been chronicled the black population between the First World War and the Great Depression settled down for “lower-paid, menial, hazardous, and relatively unpleasant jobs” when the job market often followed the “lily-white” policy as their hiring procedure (Drake and Clayton, p. 112). Though the situation for black men has become relaxed, black women continue to face discrimination. Thus, black women continue to find jobs constricted to certain sectors only (Higginbotham). The nature of these jobs was that of unskilled labors like cleaning, laundering, or factory work (Honey). The black women were mostly hired for blue-collar jobs after the Depression and not until 1970s that they were trusted even with “pink-collar” jobs like clerical, sales, secretarial etc (Honey). These jobs had very little room for promotion or growth, so it was a way to keep black women at one level. More black women than white women worked, because there were not many jobs that were desirable to white women black women filled in the gaps. Some black women worked in the factories where they would do the cleaning and other hard labor. These women were paid even less then black men. Society held that women should remain in the household or at least work in paid occupations defined as women’s work, which ruled them out of many factory jobs as well as managerial and better paid occupations.(Honey, p. 87). Often white women assumed supervisory roles in the industries, but not the blacks. They roles were constricted to the lowest works in the factory.
The history of black women in workforce begins with their employment as domestic help during the period of Great Depression. The mentality of Whites to consider Black as “slaves” was not completely dissolved. Hence, black women received no help from the white women. The black women in the labor force were engaged as factory workers due to the acute labor shortage during the Second World War (Honey). Here too there was significant racial discrimination against black women as the factory workers took in white women in place of white men who left for work, and preferred the former to black men or women. Consequently, black women took the “less desirable jobs” in restaurants or custodial services that the white women discarded to work in the factories. The entry of black women was not a landmark victory against racial forces as even the factories the black women were made to do menial work like hand labor, cleaning and sweeping. Overall, in the economic history of labor force, if women faced barriers to enter the workforce and discrimination on the basis of gender, black women faced the worst disadvantages.
The role of family in the responsibilities of women has found predominance in the gender literature which according to many has been used to constrict women’s role in the workforce (Foner; Opdycke). The problem was more acute for black women for they faced both the discriminations: racial and sex based. Family life and raising children was one of the most difficult jobs to do for black minority women. Black women were on the forefront of the workforce and because of the low income of their husbands women were forced to get out and work to make ends meet. Working-class majority of black women played an equally important role in raising children, bringing wages into black households and holding families, churches, and community organizations together (Honey, p. 86). As time went on some women turned down the better paying jobs and settle for the wage decrease for the sake of their children. As an account of Irene Black shows, “I knew I had to work ‘cause I always took things, see. I knew I had to work, ‘cause I had no husband” (Honey, p. 97). Family was a big factor but putting food on the table was a much bigger choice these women had to make. Some families just consisted of just one parent which made this a bit more difficult. So it was upon the women folk of the black to hold on to their jobs irrespective of their low pays (Honey).
The wages provided to black women was degradedly low. They were provided the least of the wages provided to women. Women as history shows has received lower wages than men, and black women received even lesser. Mostly whites obstructed in providing the deserving wages to blacks, and the gap was more acute for black women. One basic discrimination of denial to black women better paying jobs. Further, the whites created a barrier in the educational system wherein the black women were constrained to gain the expertise to attain good paying jobs, and even if they did, they had to work harder to get half the pay offered to their white counterparts. This clearly indicates that the wage gap which was already high for women in America, as compared to men (Foner), black women faced even more wage difference due to dual force of discrimination curbing their way to economic freedom (Opdycke).
A black woman’s path in the modern workforce has been marred with thorns that bear both the poisons of racism and gender-bias. Racial stereotypes made them the pariahs of the white society and their gender made them the intellectual weaklings. Their fight was against white capitalism which found redemption in socialism and unionization (Honey; Foner). The history of women labor movement assumes new heights when considering the plight of black women who faced the maximum neglect from administrative, economic, as well as academic intelligentsia. Their fights was against both the forces and presently the situation is far better than what it was during the Great Depression, but as the feminists would advocate nothing less than complete freedom is acceptable.
- Davidson, M. The Black and Ethnic Minority Woman Manager: Cracking the Concrete Ceiling. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1997.
- Drake, St. Clare and Horace Clayton. Black Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
- Foner, Philip Sheldon. Women and The American Labor Movement. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
- Higginbotham, Elizabeth. “Black Proffessional Women: Job Ceiling and Employment Sectors.” Zinn, Maxine Baca and Bonnie Thornton Dill. Women of Color in U.S. Society. Temple University Press, n.d. 113-131.
- Honey, Michael Keith. “Make a Way out of no way: black Women Factory Workers.” Honey, Michael Keith. Black Workers Remember. London, UK: University of California Press, 2000. 86-131.
- Opdycke, Sandra. Historical Atlas of Women in America. London: Routledge, 2000.