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Jacquelyn Sparks

History 325

Dr. Murphy


Women’s Work and Ethnicity: Racial and Ethnic Divides in Women’s Work

American women have always been workers—whether they are doing unpaid work in the home or in a waged workplace setting, the type of work women have done has largely depended upon their social class and ethnicity. Women throughout history have been largely relegated to "women’s work", but a closer examination of their work shows a further divide down racial and ethnic lines. In this essay, the issue of ethnicity will be explored more in-depth. Women of different ethnic backgrounds have experienced changes in the type of work they have done throughout the many eras of U.S. history.

This essay will examine the racial and ethnic divides of women’s work in the colonial period (pre-1800s) , the pre-industrial period (1820-1880) , and finally the late 1800s- the twentieth century. While this is not an attempt to discuss the work of all women, this essay will provide specific examples of ethnic divides in women’s work, and try to provide the social, religious, and economic reasons why different groups of women participated in certain work.

The first women in American, Native Americans, were subject to very different ideas about women’s work than their European counterparts. Native American women held the unique position of the primary agriculturists and food producers in their society—a position that was not held by European women in early America. This control over food production put them in a unique position of mutuality with males in their culture—both mutually respected the importance of one another’s work. Native American women could also hold political or leadership positions in some tribes, as well as positions of "elder" or "healer". Coocoochee held this position in her community—her spiritual and healing powers amounted to her gaining a well-respected place in her society, both by women and men.

Coocoochee’s work, as well general trends of work among Native American women, stand in great contrast with the type of work European and African American women were taking part in during this early colonial period. Since white colonial settlements had an extremely skewed sex-ratio, with men outnumbering women in almost all cases, colonial women’s work was largely in the home. Women worked at cleaning, cooking, spinning, raising children, and helping out on the family business or farm. White women during this time period were sometimes able to work out of the home, often as midwives. European women differed from Native American women, as they were not principle food producers, and had much fewer opportunities to hold positions of authority in their communities.

Yet another group of women in this colonial period, African Americans, were engaged in work that was unique to their race. Since the first African American woman arrived in Jamestown in 1619, their work was largely dictated under the system of slavery that began to take told during this colonial period. Slave women were held to very different standards than white women, who were not seen fit to do hard field labor. Thus, many slave women in the colonial period labored in the fields, tending rice, corn, tobacco, and other labor-intensive crops.

Other slave women did domestic work in their masters’ homes—nursing children, sewing, mending, cooking, cleaning, and other domestic tasks. African-American women’s work would remain largely the same, until the changes brought about by the Civil War.

As America gained its independence in the latter 18th century, the nation was set on a course for a new type of economy. During the pre-war period, the market economy began to emerge during the early 1820s, especially in the north, and increasingly changed the nature of many women’s work. White women, African-American women, and Native American women would all feel the effects of the new economy. Also, an influx of immigrants brought a new group of women, who would find their own place in this changing economy.

White women during this pre-industrial period still held many of the same domestic duties—a women’s place was still cooking, cleaning, and raising children. The new economy, however, created changes in many men’s employment. Many men were now working outside of their homes, and women assumed even more responsibility in their households. It is during this time period that a middle class began to emerge, and women of this class adopted the distinguishing title of "lady". This group of women provided a major market for the consumer goods that were increasingly becoming mass-produced. This demand for ready-made goods had a great affect on the economy—as well as the work of other groups of women.

Not all white women had the luxury of belonging to the middle class, yet were affected by the new economy in different ways. Other women, particularly of the Northern working-class, saw the market economy as a way of leaving their farms and domestic work. They began to enter the growing workforce in factories, especially the textile mills of New England. The experiences of these young women, and their motivations for entering the manufacturing occupation, are chronicled in the letters and memoirs contained in Thomas Dublin’s book, Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860.

The writers of the five groups of letters in this book are largely representative of the type of young women that entered these textile mills during this pre-Civil War period. Textile mills were racially segregated, employing no minority women. Thus, this new workforce consisted of all white, mostly young, working-class women from similar family backgrounds. Most were daughters of small New-England farmers, and sought factory work for a variety of reasons. Both push and pull factors brought these young women to the mills.

There were many factors that pushed these young women off their farms. Falling prices of agricultural goods caused economic hardship for some New England farmers, and supporting their families became more difficult. Also, the availability of readymade cloth increased dramatically, no longer making home spinning and weaving profitable. Since the home production of cloth was a main job for young women in farming households, this convenience of readymade cloth took away one of this once important function in the household. These two factors (and there were others) pushed women off their farms, largely contributing their enthusiasm for factory work.

Other factors pulled women to the textile towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts. Work in factories provided opportunity for waged employment, even though their pay was very meager. Some women wished to contribute to their family economy, offering much of their remaining wages (once their room and board was subtracted). Others, like Lowell-girl Mary Paul, wished to occupy their time as well as earn money to buy new clothes—a luxury that was not possible in many farm families. Other young women wished to save for an education, a dowry, or for other personal reasons.

Mill employment was obviously attractive, as many women—Dublin estimates "tens of thousands"—worked for New England textile mills during this pre-Civil War period. This employment opportunity for white, Northern women might not have been possible, however, without the cotton boom that came from Southern cotton plantations. This fiber was becoming increasingly important in textile manufacturing because of the lightweight cloth it yielded (Wool had almost always been used prior to cotton. It yielded a more coarse, heavy cloth). This need for cotton affected two other racial groups of women, African Americans and Native Americans.

As the need for cotton increased, plantation owners moved their operations westward. Disregarding the native societies already in place, Southerners manipulated laws and treaties to force Native American tribes westward. In many cases, this changed the nature of Native American women’s work. As they were forced on to lands that were less suited for farming, they increasingly lost their place as primary food producers in their communities. This responsibility gave way to the hunting and gathering done by men, and many historians argue that this lead to the loss of autonomy among Native American women.

The cotton boom affected African-American women’s work as well. While a handful of African-American women were free during this time period (like Harriet Jacob’s grandmother) and could find employment to earn wages, most were trapped in the institution of slavery. For the many slave women who worked as field hands, the demand for cotton increased the pressure on them to produce this commodity. Their obligations to their masters left little time for their family lives, but they were still expected to take care of domestic work after their laborious day in the fields. As a labor-intensive crop, slave women were responsible for hoeing and picking the cotton. These were two tasks that involved a great deal of back-breaking work.. In a roundabout way, women’s opportunities in northern textile mills depended heavily on the exploitation of African-American women’s work in the South that produced the raw materials for the textile industry.

Other ethnic groups of women during this time period, mostly immigrants, began to find their way into the work force in many ways. As many immigrants arrived in urban areas, many non-native women found positions in low paying domestic work. As many immigrants at this time were Irish, some Irish immigrant women found occupation in the Catholic Church. One such example of religious work was Sister Agatha O’Brien, an Irish immigrant who was instrumental in the creation of social institutions in the Chicago area during the 1840’s. She and her "Angels of Mercy" demonstrated the capabilities of immigrant women, as well as provided for women a welcomed alternative to marriage and domestic work.

The culmination of the struggle between the industrialized North and the agricultural South resulted in the four-year Civil War. This time period brought some important changes in the racial divides in work—with slavery abolished, African-American women in the post-war period had to redefine their position in the workforce and in their homes. Their new presence as free laborers would eventually create competition for jobs with white women, often resulting in racial clashes.

An example of these racial clashes can be seen by looking at the early twentieth century, during the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s. During a time when employment opportunities were scarce, many positions that were previous held by African-American women (largely domestic work) were being taken by desperate white women. As Jacqueline Jones stated in her article, "Harder Times: The Great Depression", African-American women had but a "precarious hold on gainful employment". Work remained divided further among racial lines, as clerical positions opened during the time, only a small percentage of African-American women could enter this type of employment. Instead, most black women were forced to take temporary agricultural or domestic positions to support themselves during this time of hardship.

As the nation recovered from its time of economic troubles during the World War II era, women found themselves recast as "Rosie the Riveters". "Rosie" was white, strong, intelligent, and capable—as well as a major propaganda effort on the part of the U.S. government to involve the nation’s women in wartime industry. But could "Rosie" transcend race? Would minority women be able to work alongside their white sisters, earning the decent wages that came of factory work at the time? This is a struggle that many African-American women faced as white women were entering the defense industry. Black women had been completely shut out of one of the first industrial opportunities for women—the New England textile mills. Nearly one hundred years later, women gained a chance at meaningful wages in manufacturing—a chance that many African-American women refused to pass up.

White women were readily accepted into many areas of wartime industry. In fact, they were often recruited by door-to-door women’s committees. African-American women did not gain employment so easily. When they were given jobs, they were often undesirable ones. Black women were given heavier, dirtier, and often more dangerous work than white women—often placed at the controls of heavy machinery in foundries. There were some areas in which they were completely shut out. One African-American woman on the "Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter" documentary desired a job in the shipyards, but was rejected because of her race. However, she did not want to leave without a job. She demanded an opportunity to prove herself, as she had training prior to applying for the job. When her interviewers saw her abilities, she was given a job with higher wages than the one she had come for.

There were clashes between races in the workplace, as white factory employees expressed their racist attitudes about working alongside the few African-American women. A striking example of this can be seen the video, an episode over public showers in one such factory. As black women tried to use the showers, they were refused. White women expressed grief about having to share the showers. This segregation angered the African-American workers, they protested, and eventually the showers were closed to everyone. Though African-American women had come a long way in entering the industry, they still faced racial challenges once they got there.

While all women felt they had made gains in their stay in the wartime industrial setting, many women were disappointed as they were forced to return to poorly-paying, "women’s work" jobs once the war was over and men returned. The traditional system of sex-typed work returned in full force during the 1950s, and women once again entered jobs in restaurants, hotels, secretarial work, retail, etc. As decades went by, women of all races (with the help of civil rights legislation of the 1960s) have begun to realize their individuality and worth, entering the workforce in record numbers.

Women have also begun to enter traditional "men’s" professions, as Pauli Murray did by breaking down gender and racial barriers to become a lawyer. "Jane Crow", her description of the racial and gender discrimination she experienced as she attempted to make her way through law school, is still an underlying problem for minority women in the workplace. As women’s work begins anew at the turn of a new century, it will be vital to racial and ethnic barriers as well as gender barriers if all women hope to gain equal opportunities in the work force.


Helen Hornbeck Tanner, "Coocoochee: Mohawk Medicine Woman".

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Thomas Dublin, Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860. (Columbia U. Press, NY, 1981).

"The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter", Video.

Pauli Murray,"Making the Personal Political: Fighting Injustice", Women’s America, eds. Kerber and De Hart. pp. 508- 516

Sara Evans, "Rosie the Riveter: Women and War Work during World War II", Women’s America, eds. Kerber and De Hart. pp. 442-448.

Suellen Hoy, "Agatha O’Brien and the Sisters of Mercy: A Community of Nuns in Early Chicago", Women’s America, eds. Kerber and De Hart. pp. 165-167.

Jacqueline Jones, "Harder Times: The Great Depression". Women’s America, eds. Kerber and De Hart. pp. 410-414

Glenda Riley, Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History, Vol. 1. (Harlan Davidson Inc., IL, 2001.)