The history of how women first fought for the right to work, then for the right to retain their jobs, and later, for the right to equal treatment and pay, is an appalling, inspiring, and ongoing story. Caroline Fredrickson, a former legal director at the ACLU and NARAL and the current president of the American Constitution Society, provides readers with a comprehensive and galvanizing analysis of that struggle in her new book, Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over.
Fredrickson investigates how labor policies, from the New Deal to the present day, have been written with certain favorable biases toward men. In an era of nominal employment equality, we have failed to overcome this preferential treatment, which has ingrained itself in the legislation that governs workers’ rights. We have a two-tiered system, she argues, in which some employees reap the benefits, while an underclass of vulnerable workers — disproportionately women — is passed over and left to fend for itself
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Women’s Work: Misogyny And Mixed Messages
In the twentieth century, workers fought for job protections, resulting in some phenomenal victories — the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and later the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Workers gained the right to earn a minimum wage and work a limited number of hours per week or get paid overtime; they were allowed to join unions and bargain for wages and benefits; they were protected from job discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and disability; they won the right to take time off when having a child or caring for a sick family member; and women would no longer face adverse job consequences when they got pregnant. Well, sort of.
It is important to put all this legislative activity in context, not just in the familiar frame of economic hardship that was the Great Depression and the response that was the New Deal, but in the mindset of the cultural milieu, and in particular that period’s entrenched racism, visceral anti-immigrant paranoia, and deep-seated hostility to women’s emancipation. This context is not just scene setting but goes a long way to explain how our laws came to omit certain workers from their embrace.
During the Great Depression, working women were frequently criticized for allegedly taking jobs away from men, who were assumed to be the primary breadwinners in their families. The media disparaged working women, who had allegedly abandoned their true calling of motherhood and housework for shallow and silly reasons. They were accused of working simply because they desired a little extra money for frivolities or wanted to fulfill themselves rather than focusing on their proper roles in the home of wife and mother. Writer Frank Hopkins asked, “Would we not all be happier… if we could return to the philosophy of my grandmother’s day when the average woman took it for granted that she must content herself with the best lot provided by her husband?”
Working women were blamed for many social ills, from undermining the strength of family ties to contributing to the delinquency of their children. Not surprisingly — because while emancipated white women were viewed with hostility, commentators blithely ignored the fact that black women were continuing to work in high numbers — the great angst about working women and their dereliction of their duties of hearth and home focused on white women. As the historian Jacqueline Jones notes in her book Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, “Working wives became a public issue to the extent that they encroached upon the prerogatives of white men at home and on the job.”
Black housekeepers and nannies did not take men’s jobs away or challenge men’s role as family patriarchs and thus could be ignored. Although newspaper reporters and commentators characterized working women as silly and shallow, the sad reality was that many women desperately needed a job to keep their families from falling off the cliff. By 1931, two million women who had been employed before the Depression found themselves out of work. Between 20 and 50 percent of the newly unemployed women had been the family’s sole breadwinner, making the loss of employment existential and plunging their families not just into poverty but into destitution.
But with high unemployment, notes historian Philip Foner, “some legislators and employers sought to deny work to married women whose husbands had jobs. Section 213 of the 1932 Federal Economy Act, for example, required that one spouse resign if both husband and wife worked for the federal government. This meant, technically, that it was up to both marriage partners to decide which one should resign. But a Women’s Bureau analysis of the results of Section 213 showed that more than 75 percent of the spouses who did resign were women. Section 213 remained on the books until 1937.”
State legislatures around the country also debated legislation that would have directly barred married women from certain jobs. Although many bills did not pass and others were found unconstitutional, women were still excluded from state jobs by executive order in several states. And, according to a survey done by the National Education Association in 1931, more than three-quarters of the fifteen hundred school systems in the survey would not hire women as teachers if they were married and two-thirds of the schools had fired married women. Married women were also pushed out of jobs in banks, insurance companies, utilities, and public transportation.
African American women suffered even more from unemployment in the Great Depression. Some white families fired their black housekeepers, cooks, and nannies because they could no longer afford the help, while others did so because they could afford to replace their black employees with higher-status white servants — more white women were seeking domestic work to support their families and bumped African American women out of these jobs. For African American women, the impact was devastating.
In such urgent need of work, African American women in urban areas would gather at specific street corners to wait for the white women who would drive in to hire them for day labor. Similar in nature to the parking lots where landscapers and construction firms hire day laborers today, these street corner labor exchanges were known as “slave markets.” In a 1935 article for The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke described how these “slave markets” could be found all over the Bronx, catering mostly to white women who came in from Westchester, Long Island, and the Upper East Side to purchase a few hours or a full day of a black woman’s time for between 15 and 30 cents per hour. “The lower middle-class housewife… having dreamed of the luxury of a maid, found opportunity staring her in the face in the form of Negro women pressed to the wall by poverty, starvation and discrimination,” they wrote.
The busiest markets, those with the highest “bids” and the most “buyers,” were the two at 167th Street and Jerome Avenue and at Simpson Street and Westchester Avenue. The black women started to gather early in the morning and stayed until they were hired or the white housewives had stopped coming. Sometimes white men came “shopping” for a different kind of labor from the women. Leaning against walls, crouching, or, if lucky, sitting on a box or a bench, the “slaves” came in foul weather and fair, braving bitter cold and enervating heat to earn a bit of money to keep their lives together.
Many of these women had once worked as servants for upper-class families before the Great Depression made white maids more affordable. The large pool of unemployed and desperate women made it easy for white families to mistreat them by forcing long hours and extra duties for no extra money, lowering wages, or failing to pay wages at all. A contemporary account captures the mind-set of those white employers taking advantage of the destitution of African American women: “A southern white man… admitted as a matter of course that his cook was underpaid, but explained that this was necessary, since, if he gave her more money, she might soon have so much that she would no longer be willing to work for him.”
The “slave market” was more than metaphorical. In many southern states, legislators attempted to bind African American workers to low wages and penury by enacting a web of laws that amounted to slavery by other means. Prohibitions on leaving work and debt laws subjected workers in the fields and in the plantation homes to nearly insurmountable restraints on their ability to pursue better opportunities. Despite Supreme Court decisions starting in 1911, declaring these laws unconstitutional under the Thirteenth Amendment, states did not cease to enforce them until the early 1940s.
Pervasive attitudes about race, women, and work played an enormous role in shaping and limiting what work would be considered deserving of protection by members of Congress during the New Deal. The belief that so-called women’s work, consisting of caregiving, housekeeping, and similar occupations, was women’s natural role helped justify legislation that gave rights only to those engaged in real “work,” [i.e.] mostly white men. With much of the work in the home having been done by African American women, it was particularly devalued as a legacy of slavery and racial oppression.
Domestic labor was known as “niggers’ work,” and, two legal scholars observe, “Not surprisingly, the mammy image — a large, maternal figure with a headscarf and almost always a wide-toothed grin — persists as the most enduring racial caricature of African-American women.” Such attitudes made it easy to throw these women and these jobs over the side. Historian Susan Ware writes that “while the New Deal pushed the federal government in new directions, the coverage of these new programs was never complete. Many workers were left outside of the scope of the relief programs and social security. In the case of blacks, the exclusion was often the result of deliberate discrimination. But for women, who likewise did not always receive their full share of benefits, the discrimination was less calculated. Unless reminded, policymakers simply forgot that women, too, were hurt by the Depression.” This deliberate discrimination and less-than-benign neglect characterize not only the New Deal laws but much of what came after, continuing to shape our laws and their application today.
From Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over by Caroline Fredrickson. Copyright © 2015 by Caroline Fredrickson. Published by The New Press, on May 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
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