Comparing The Daily Lives Of African American
Women In The 1940S And Today Essay, Research Paper
Comparing the Daily Lives of African American Women in the 1940s and Today
For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America, Black women were an after-thought in our nation’s history. They were the mammies and maids, the cooks and caregivers, the universal shoulder to cry on in times of trouble. Often overlooked and undervalued, Black women were just … there.
African American women have come a long way. In the 1940s, women were treated as second-class citizens and Blacks faced discrimination everywhere they looked. They were not taught to be proud of being Black (Dressier, 1985). They had a hard time going to school. Black children were not taught Black history. African Americans were not able to have a sense of pride about themselves or their culture (Farley & Allen, 1987).
In this paper, I will try to describe and compare the lives of African American women around the time of World War II, a period of great change in the U.S., with their lives today. Due to the enormity of this subject, I am limiting my scope to the discrimination and the resulting economic hardships African American women in particular have endured.
Discrimination in Daily Life
In 1940, it was very difficult for Blacks to get a job due to discrimination. Naomi Craig, an African American and former World War II defense plant worker, describes that when she graduated from high school, she could not get a job. “I went to the offices of the different insurance companies. I was a crackerjack stenographer, and I was smart, but I was colored. When I would go down for a job, the girl in the office would look at me and then call for the employer. He’d come out; he’d say, ‘Uh, uh Miss Jennings, um, yes, well the job is filled.’ I’d go home and call right back. ‘Is there a position open as a secretary in your office?’ ‘Yes there is.’ By my voice, he didn’t know that I was colored because I spoke the same as anybody else. So I said, ‘I was just down there.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Oh were you the Miss Jennings that was down here?’ I said, ‘Yes, I was.’ He said, ‘Oh, well one of the girls…’ I said, ‘You said the job was open.’ He said, ‘Well, one of the girls has decided that she’s going to take it.’ And this was the run-around that I got” (Dressier, 1985).
“When we first worked there was no such thing, for instance, as a coffee break. And there was no such thing as leaving at five o’clock if there was still work to do. I stayed many a night until six o’clock or two o’clock on a Saturday because the work had to be done. You didn’t get paid for that. There was no such thing as overtime. We were very used to long hours. I was used to working two nights a week until ten o’clock and every other weekend. And if I didn’t work the full weekend, I would work Saturday one week and Sunday another week. So there was no such thing as a five-day week. In those days as soon as a woman married, she lost her job (Dressier, 1985).”
“When I went to the school department where they were giving out jobs to help people they said to me, ‘Naomi Jennings, you’ve done very well, haven’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I have.’ She said, ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we don’t have any jobs for you as a secretary or a stenographer.’ Because these jobs were going to white girls. I said, ‘There’s nothing for me?’ She said, ‘I have a little job for you taking care of these twins if you want to take that.’ I said, ‘No, thank you.’ And I went out. You know I was crying. I cried all the way home. I got home and I said to my mother, ‘I’m never going to be able to work.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because they’re only giving out jobs to white people.’ She said, ‘That shouldn’t be.’ I said, ‘it shouldn’t be, but it is’ (Dressier, 1985).”
When the war came, women went to work for the first time in factories and driving trucks. If a delivery truck came to your house, a woman would be driving it. Women were postmen and garbage workers. They did those jobs because all the available young men were in the service (Editorial, 2000).
“We had a terrible time buying a house. Oh yes we did, because we were Black. We went to buy a house and they said, ‘Well, uh.’ When my husband came home, he just got home from the service, and they said we couldn’t get a mortgage. You weren’t shown houses in the sections you wanted to buy. They would take you over to a place that had all rundown houses. When they asked me on the telephone, ‘Would you like to see a house?’ I would say, ‘ Well certainly.’ And we would meet at the house. And I would go there and his face would fall because I would be a Black woman. Talking over the telephone, he wouldn’t know.” (Dressier, 1985).
Fannie Lou married Perry “Pap” Hamer in 1944, and the two settled on the Marlow plantation outside Ruleville, Mississippi. She found that, as a black worker, she was frequently treated as less than human. Ms. Hamer said, “When I was cleaning the boss’s house … his daughter came up to me and said ‘You don’t have to clean this room too good…. It’s just Old Honey’s.’ Old Honey was the dog. I couldn’t get over the dog having a bathroom when the owner wouldn’t even have the toilet fixed for us. But then, Negroes in Mississippi were treated worse than dogs (Halpern, 1990)”.
Although Fannie Lou adopted four daughters, she always wanted children of her own. Tragically, this basic right was denied to her. Like many poor women of color worldwide, a white doctor sterilized Fannie Lou Hamer without her permission. The experience underscored the lack of control she felt she had over her own life (Halpern, 1990).
Salary and Workplace Opportunity
In comparison to U.S. women as a whole, African American women are disproportionately at a greater risk of living in chronic poverty (Belle, 1990; McLoyd & Wilson, 1992). Racism creates further obstacles for women of color to escape chronic poverty (Ulbrich, Warheit, & Zimmerman, 1989) by limiting access to education, employment, and the attainment of goods and services (Halpern, 1990; McLoyd & Wilson, 1992). However, it is also a mistake to view ethnicity as merely a burden. African Americans have learned ways to survive racism and poverty through extended family networks, a strong church, and personal toughness (Dressier, 1985; Taylor & Roberts, 1995).
If women received the same pay as men for comparable work, the incidence of U.S. poverty would drop dramatically, according to a new study. As it is, women, on average, lose more than $4,000 a year in wages due to lower pay scales (Sokoloff, 1999).
The study, jointly released February 24, 2000 by the AFL-CIO and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, states: If married women were paid the same as comparable men, their family incomes would rise by nearly 6 percent, and their families’ poverty would drop from 2.1 percent to 0.8 percent (Sokoloff, 1999).
If single working mothers earned the same as comparable men, their family incomes would increase by nearly 17 percent. Their poverty rates would be halved, from 25.3 percent to 12.6 percent. If single women were paid comparably, their incomes would rise by 13.4 percent, and their poverty rates would be reduced from 6.3 percent to 1 percent (Sokoloff, 1999). Other analysis shows that women who work full-time are paid only 74 cents for every dollar men earn – $148 less each week. Women of color who work full-time earn only 64 cents for every male dollar – $210 less per week (Darity & Myers, 1998).
Income inequality issues are not new, but there is a renewed revival of concern. In a 1997 study, “Ask a Working Woman,” one third of all women and half of all African American women told AFL-CIO researchers they do not have equal pay in their jobs. This year, in his State of the Union address, President Clinton declared his support for strengthening equal-pay enforcement (Darity & Myers, 2000).
Even where the comparable pay news is good it is bad. In Washington, women earn 97 percent of what men make, but minority men in the nation’s capital receive very low wages. Unequal pay for women is worst in Michigan, Louisiana, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming, where women earn only 70 percent of comparable men’s pay. Women of color fare worse, earning less than 60 percent of men’s rates, in Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Wyoming (Taylor & Roberts, 1995).
The best states – comparably speaking – for women are Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island – but even there women earn only 80 percent of the comparable male wage (Taylor & Roberts, 1995).
Increased postwar opportunities for women allowed Black women to leave domestic work for white-collar jobs in the typically female-dominated professions such as social work, nursing, teaching, and library science. During the period of 1960 to the early 1980s, African American women increased their representation in white-collar professional jobs from 0.6 to 2.2%, African American men went from 0.7 to 1.9% and White women went from 13 to 31% (Sokoloff, 1999). These statistics clearly show that while Black women more than tripled their participation in the professions, their beginning point was extremely low.
The reality of African American women’s experiences in the work force is that they continue to work in low-paying, gender identified jobs. Although some progress has been made in increasing Black women’s participation into the higher paid professional job areas, the vast majority of these women occupy unenviable job positions. At the end of the 19th century the majority of Black women in the work force were engaged in domestic work. Almost 100 years later, there are still more African American women employed as domestic workers than there are African American women professionals (Farley & Allen, 1987). With equal education and employment, Black women’s wages have been lower than White men’s and White women’s. Men in “female-dominated” jobs – clerical workers, cashiers, librarians, and childcare – suffer the same wage penalties as women, the report stated (Hess, Markson, & Stein, 1992).
African Americans have suffered from many types of oppression. Discrimination in housing via restrictive covenants and redlining, employment discrimination in hiring and by harassment on the job, and prejudice at work and in their daily life. Whites practiced labeling by viewing all actions of African Americans with suspicion. Of course, African American women suffer from double jeopardy by being both African American and female (Schaefer, 2000).
Only in the last sixty years has the federal government worked to end discrimination. New laws such as the 1968 Civil Rights Act and Linda Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas stating that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Intercession by the Executive branch such as President Truman’s order to desegregate the military. Also Congressional action such as the repeal of the 24th Amendment outlawing the poll tax that had long prevented Blacks from voting (Schaefer, 2000).
The acceptance of the naturalness and beauty of blackness is now firmly rooted in Black popular culture. For African peoples the adornment and beautification of the hair and body is an essential cultural component. In traditional African societies, cosmetic modification has been ritualized. It can be part of a social occasion or may symbolize a stage of development from childhood to maturity, or indicate marital status or the group to which you belong.
The difficulty in accepting this cultural legacy arises in a racially conscious society where Black women and Black men are still struggling with how to present their physical image and still be accepted in the society. It is very complex trying to negotiate your self-acceptance through two opposing cultures.
Advertising in the 1930s had an impact on how African Americans defined themselves, particularly African American women. It is still the same more than 60 years later (Brown & Lieberson, 2000).
Advertisers have successfully exploited the self-image of Black men and women. To be Black, especially if you were particularly dark, was loaded with negative stereotypes. Several products, promising miraculous transformations, were manufactured and marketed specifically to the Black community. Their sales pitch implied that using the right product would eliminate the social conditions that defined Black life, helping them in the assimilation process.
Throughout the 1930s, bleach not only whitened clothes, it was marketed as a means of lightening and whitening black skin. Advertisers swamped readers with a sales pitch that may now seem implausible and insulting, but much of these products, or products making similar claims, are still readily available.
In the 1930s, as much as 20% of a popular African American magazine’s ad revenue, AFRO-American, came from cosmetic companies hawking skin bleaching and hair straightening products. The advertisers were merciless in reinforcing the insecurities of Black women. While some ads were directed at Black men, women were the primary targets of skin care products while men were encouraged to “improve” the appearance of their hair (Brown & Lieberson, 2000).
The implication was that natural physical traits of blackness were defective; whiteness was now the norm for Blacks to emulate. Blackness could be corrected by purchasing and using the proper chemicals on the hair and skin. The standard of beauty was undeniably White, “the whiter the righter” (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). Through their products and marketing strategy they produced and reproduced whiteness.
Ads were carefully worded to play on stereotypes and promoted a negative association with natural blackness. Consequently many Black women and Black men have mutilated their bodies and have even died because they used products, containing harsh chemicals, that promised peace of mind in a bottle (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). (See figures 1 through 7)
It must be clearly stated that much of the fascination with straightening hair and lightening skin became such a part of the culture that some Black men and Black women were simply unconsciously responding to the social norms and expectations. This is not a criticism, only an observation of people trying to survive by any means necessary.
Inevitably, the situation was futile for those who believed the elaborate claims of products promising “whiteness.” Even Blacks who were light enough to pass as white could only gain greater success and acceptance by denying their true identity, living in self-imposed isolation and with the constant fear of discovery.
While American popular culture reserves its most positive stereotype of blackness to light-skinned Blacks, they have never gained complete acceptance in White society, merely marginal tolerance. However, the ads supported and reinforced the prevailing attitude and the historical circumstance that Blacks of mixed race have received educational and economic advantages.
The legacy of all this conditioning is so ingrained in the Black psyche, that exploring the natural beauty of blackness is still not an option for many. While hair and skin color is not the totality of the African American definition today it remains a preoccupation.
Darkness is loaded in negative stereotype. To be dark is to be ugly. “You can’t HIDE skin ugliness forever. Start right today to BLEACH skin to new beauty” (Brown & Lieberson, 2000). This very negative language is used to define what is a natural consequence. Black women like all women in the society were and are concerned about “beautifying” themselves but advertisers took the focus away from enhancing her natural qualities to transforming blackness to whiteness or ugliness to beauty.
Today’s multicultural schoolchildren are fortunate to grow up in classrooms where they are taught to appreciate all of the many heroes of American history, no matter what color their skin was. While previous generations read textbooks that told only part of our Nation’s story, textbooks have been developed in recent years that give students a more accurate picture.
Telephone interview with Mrs. Louise Mitchell
The following is part of a telephone interview with Mrs. Louise Mitchell of Paris, Tennessee. I was introduced to Mrs. Mitchell through my mother, Mrs. Alice Lee Hurt, who is her friend and neighbor. Mrs. Mitchell is African American, 83 years old, a widow, and a former resident of New York City and Mississippi.
“Mrs. Mitchell, could you tell me what life was like around World War II for African American women?”
“In 1937, I was a colored woman, a wife, and a mother. Every morning, rain or shine, I was part of a group of women with brown paper bags and cheap suitcases who stood on street corners in the Bronx and in Brooklyn waiting for a chance to get some work. Sometimes there were 15 of us, sometimes 30, some were old, many were young, and most of us were Negro women waiting for employers to come and bargain for our labor (Mitchell, 2000).”
“We would come as early as 7 in the morning, wait as late as four in the afternoon with the hope that we would make enough to buy supper when we went home. Some had spent their last nickel to get to the corner and were in desperate need. When the hour grew late, we sat on boxes if any were around. In the afternoon, our labor was worth only half as much as in the morning. If we were lucky, we would get about 30 cents an hour scrubbing, cleaning, laundering, washing windows, waxing floors and woodwork all day long. In the afternoon, when most had already been employed, we were only worth the degrading sum of 20 cents an hour (Mitchell, 2000).”
“Once hired on the ‘slave market,’ we would find after a day’s backbreaking toil, that we had worked longer than was arranged, got less than was promised, or were forced to accept clothing instead of cash. We were exploited beyond human endurance. Only the urgent need for money made us submit to this daily routine (Mitchell, 2000).”
“When I was young, there were more than two million women engaged in domestic work in the United States. At the time, this was the largest occupational group for women and about half of them were Negro women (Mitchell, 2000).”
“And though many Negro women worked for as little as two dollars a week and as long as 80 hours a week – we had no social security, no workmen’s compensation, and no old age security (Mitchell, 2000).”
“But as bad as life was in New York in 1937, it was worse in the South. In Mississippi, the White southerners all said that we Negroes were a happy, laughing set of people, with no thought of tomorrow. How sadly mistaken they were. We had such a feeling of unrest, insecurity, almost panic. In our homes, in our churches, wherever two or three of us would gather, there was a discussion of ‘What do we do? Should we remain in the South or go elsewhere? Where can we go to feel secure like other people feel? Do we go in great numbers or only in several families?’ These and many other things we discussed over and over (Mitchell, 2000).”
“And yet sometimes it’s easy to forget just how hard life was back then. Southern railway stations had three waiting rooms, with very conspicuous signs that told the ignorant that this room is for ‘ladies,’ this one is for ‘gents’ and that one is for ‘colored’ people. We were neither ‘ladies’ nor ‘gents,’ but ‘colored’ (Mitchell, 2000).”
“Many, many times I have thought of a neighbor of mine in Mississippi, a Negro woman. She was killed because she was accused of using ‘abusive language.’ Her provocation was great. Her brother had been almost killed by a mob because he had been suspected of taking a pocketbook that had been dropped in the public road (Mitchell, 2000).”
Until relatively very recently, African Americans were denied their history. The rediscovery of this history arouses pride in a legitimate past, enhances self-respect, and provides heroes and leaders with whom we all, and especially African Americans, can identify.
African American women have been doubly penalized. Their history, as written by white, male historians, fails miserably in documenting the female contribution to society’s growth and survival. My hope in this paper is that we look anew at those vital contributions and start to give credit to the millions of women who have shown the pride and strength of people who have endured and survived great oppression.
Barbara Jordan once wrote, “‘We the people’; it is a very eloquent beginning. But when the Constitution of the United States was completed on the seventeenth of September, 1787, I was not included in that ‘We the people’ (Editorial, 2000).” We should honor her memory by continuing to work toward equality and inclusion for all.
Halpern, R. (1990). Poverty and early childhood parenting: Toward a framework for intervention. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 6-18.
Belle, D. (1990). Poverty and women’s mental health. American Psychologist, 45, 385-389.
Brown, A., & Lieberson, L. (2000). AFRO-American: Black or White. Retrieved October 5, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.afroam.org/history/bnw/bwmain.html
Darity, William A., Jr., and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. 1998. Racial earnings inequality into the 21st century. Edited by Billy Tidwell. New York: National Urban League, pp. 119-40.
Darity, William A., Jr., and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. 2000. Black-white earnings gaps have widened. AASP Working Paper Series, University of Maryland.
Dressier, W. W. (1985). The social and cultural context of coping: Action, gender, and symptoms in a southern black community. Social Science and Medicine, 27, 499-506.
Editorial. Fixing the gender pay gap. (January 31, 2000) Detroit News. Retrieved October 8, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http:// http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/WWII_Women/
Farley, R., & Allen, W. R. (1987). The color line and the quality of American life. New York: Russell Sage.
Hess, B. B., Markson, E. W., & Stein, P. J. (1992). Racial and ethnic minorities: An overview. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class and gender in the United States (pp. 145-155). New York: St. Martin’s.
Keenan, Aileen. Learning to live together in good times and bad. (2000). Retrieved October 5, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/WWII_Women/
McLoyd, V. C., & Wilson, L. (1992). Telling them like it is: The role of economic and environmental factors in single mothers’ discussions with their children. American Journal of Community Psychology, 20, 419-444.
Mitchell, L., (November 5, 2000). Personal interview via telephone.
Schaefer, R.T. (2000). Racial and ethnic groups, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Sokoloff, N. J. (1999). Black women and white women in the professions. New York: Routledge.
Taylor, R. D., & Roberts, D. (1995). Kinship support and maternal adolescent well being in economically disadvantaged African American Families. Child Development, 66, 15851597.
Ulbrich, P. M., Warheit, G. J., & Zimmerman, R. S. (1989). Race, socioeconomic status, and psychological distress: An examination of differential vulnerability. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 30, 131-146.