Black Women's Work

The repository is hosting a growing list of references dedicated to the work of women and the challenges women face around work (Women and Work).

Recent additions in this area include studies focusing on the specific perspectives of Black Women.

Black Women’s Studies was established in the late 1970s in the US, as a critical development of the movement for women’s liberation. The first anthology of writings by Black Women feminists, But Some of Us Are Brave, was published in 1982. Key contributions in the English-speaking world were also made with reference to the lives of migrant women in the UK. In English-speaking academia, “Black women” therefore refers predominantly to African-American women in the US, and women from former British colonies in the UK.

In this rich area of scholarship, work has consistently remained a central issue.

An article published by Bonnie Thornton Dill in the fourth volume of Signs, “The Dialectics of Black Womanhood” (vol. 4, issue 3, 1979), provides illuminating insights on this. The article canvasses many of the themes that subsequent research was to document and explore in the following years. It establishes in particularly clear fashion the specific senses in which work has been central in the history and in the contemporary lives of black women in America.

As Dill writes in her introduction:

“a historical tradition of work forms an essential component in the lives of Afro-American women… The emphasis on women’s work role in Afro-American culture has generated alternative notions of womanhood contradictory to those that have been traditional in modern American society. These new models project images of sexual and intellectual equality, economic autonomy, and legal as well as personal parity with men… They represent an aspect of life that has been dominant for generations among many Afro-American women. ”

“The Dialectics of Black Womanhood”, p.543.

Dill’s article begins with a critique of the assumptions of post-war sociologists who studied the lives of African-American families. Their analyses, she shows, make the white, patriarchal family the implicit default model against which black families and black women are normatively compared. A key reference in contrast for the counter-model she wants to propound is Joyce Ladner’s ground-breaking 1971 Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, a study of young Black women’s in St Louis. For Dill, Ladner’s book helps to make the case that many of the traits traditionally associated with Black women, notably their strong independence, translated in consistently high levels of labour participation, a series of traits interpreted negatively by conservative social scientists, in fact appear in a completely different light when viewed from an internal perspective. This internal perspective includes the impact of historical experiences and the ambiguous role of work in them. The horrors of slavery, which affected women in specific ways, in ways that many of them were able to report in their own voices–see for instance Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, among many other autobiographical narratives–, are a key aspect to understand why the contemporary situation of Black women harbours a “dialectical” signification. Beyond the trauma they suffered, a cultural and psychological legacy of strength and resilience developed. This established a form of autonomy that speaks for the entire feminist movement:

“The image of independent, self-reliant, strong and autonomous women which pervades the models of the young black women in Ladner’s study has been reinforced by the work experience and social conditions of black women throughout history. The image, therefore, represents both the oppressive experiences of work and the liberating attitudes of personal autonomy and sexual equality. It may explain the findings of the 1970 Virginia Slims American Women’s Opinion Poll that ‘an essentially urban coalition of black women and the young and the educated of both races are ready to follow the examples of blacks and the young and challenge the status quo in American society.’ This finding is particularly interesting in light of the goals of the women’s liberation movement and the relationship of black women to this movement. It has been acknowledged that black women have not identified strongly with what many have seen as a movement of middle-class white women. I would suggest that the image of women–as more than housewives and as sexual equals–towards which white women strive is, in large part, synonymous with the dominant image and much of the experience of black women. Ladner says it well in the closing statement of one of the chapters of Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: ‘Black womanhood has always been the very essence of what American womanhood is attempting to become on some levels.’ And again in her final chapter:

‘much of the current focus on being liberated from the constraints and protectiveness of the society which is proposed by the Women’s Liberation groups has never been applied to Black women, and in this sense, we have always been ‘free,’ and able to develop as individuals even under the most harsh circumstances. This freedom, as well as the tremendous hardships from which Black women suffered, allowed for the development of a female personality that is rarely described in scholarly journals for its obstinate strength and ability to survive. Neither is its peculiar humanistic character and quiet courage viewed as the epitome of what the American model of femininity should be.’

Thus the contradiction between the subjection of women from West Africa to the harsh deprivations of slavery, farm, factory, and domestic work and the sense of autonomy and self-reliance which developed, points in the direction of a new avenue for studying black American women. And it is the potential synthesis of these contradictions which embraces the future problems and possibilities of a new definition of femininity for all American women”.

“The Dialectics of Black Womanhood”, p.555.

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Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), National Museum of African American Culture and History, Washington, DC.