Intro to Afro-American Studies
Black Women and the Family
Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies
|LOGIC OF CHANGE||Social Cohesion||Traditional Africa||-||Slavery||-||Rural Life||-||Urban Life|
|Social Disruption||-||Slave Trade||-||Emancipation||-||Migrations||-|
|UNITS OF ANALYSIS||Ideology||A1||B1||C1||D1||E1||F1||G1|
The particular problems and concerns of Black women must be discussed not as isolated questions, but as a part of the problems faced by all Black people. Over 52% of all Black people in the United States are women. Women play a special role in bearing children and in the family, and increasingly are becoming sole heads of households. However, Black women face greater discrimination than any other group in this society - in income, in job opportunities, in education, in holding political office, and in other areas of social life.
The oppression of Black women has its historical roots in the foundation and development of capitalism and imperialism in the United States. This special oppression is based on three things:
1. Most Black women are workers and are subjected to economic (class) exploitation at the hands of the rich. Black women have always worked and this more than anything else has shaped the experience of Black women in the United States. In fact, the work experiences of Black women make their concerns somewhat different from those of the women's liberation movement which seeks to get white women into the work place. Both Black and white women, however, share the demand of equal pay for equal work.
2. Black women, as do the masses of Black men, suffer from many forms of racist national oppression, like job discrimination and the denial of basic democratic rights.
3. Black women, like all women, face male supremacy (sexism) which attempts to put women into subordinate roles in a male-dominated society. This is reflected in the role of women in the Black family. In short, the oppression of Black women grows out of the same system of capitalism that exploits and oppresses the masses of Black people and everybody else, and it is buttressed by patriarchal ideology. The particular content of this oppression has been transformed as the experiences of Black people have changed from slavery to the rural experience to the urban experience. These three periods provide the historical framework for our analysis of Black women and the family.
THE SLAVE PERIOD
There was full employment for Black people during slavery. It is estimated that half of the slaves in the United States in 1860 were women. Their labor was exploited in three main sectors of the economy: in the fields, in the household, and in industry.
As field slaves, women's main activity (like men's) was to produce crops (first tobacco and sugar and later cotton), which were pivotal to the early development of the United States. As house slaves, women (more so than men) were used as domestic servants, keeping the slaveowners' houses, cooking their food, and raising their children. Women were also exploited in many industries in the South. Robert Starobin reported in his 1970 study of industrial slavery:
In the view of many factory owners, women cost less to maintain. Because they could work faster in certain jobs, they also produced more than men in industries like textiles. For women who were field slaves and industrial slaves, long hours of housework (cooking, sewing, etc.) were usually added to a full day of production work.
The necessity of (forced) work left little time to raise a family. However, stable family relations did develop among slaves, though these were always subject to the economical and political dictates of the slave system. The common plight of oppression and exploitation suffered by slave men and slave women created a concrete basis for equality, as well as developing strong and independent Black women. Some slaveowners respected the mother/father/child relationship because this often increased the slave family's economic efficiency (and discouraged rebellious male slaves from running away).
Many, however, broke up families in order to profit from the sale of slaves. Solomon Northup, a slave himself, described a familiar scene during the slave period:
these difficulties, the slave family played an essential role. As John
Blassingame concluded in The Slave Community, the slave family
"was primarily responsible for the slave's ability to survive on the
plantation without becoming totally dependent on and submissive to his
The Negro Family in America, E. Franklin Frazier described the
special role of the mother in the slave family:
Two main forms of oppression based on sex were suffered by slave women. First, female slaves were subjected to the grossest sexual abuse. According to Frederick Douglass, "the slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons, or brothers of her master," not to mention the slaveowners themselves. Rape and unwanted pregnancies became the common plight for slave women. Forcing Black women to become "breeders" to reproduce the supply of slave labor, especially after the end of the slave trade, was the most extreme form of this sexist oppression. Second, Black female slaves who were forced to work in production could spend very little time with their families. As a house slave, many a slave woman was forced to become a "mammy" to the children of her oppressors while her own children were neglected.
Black women were actively engaged in the struggle to overturn slavery. There were individual struggles, like those recounted by an ex-slave whose mother provided a model for her struggle out of slavery:
There were also collective efforts, like those of Harriet Tubman. She was called the "Black Moses" because of her role as a leader in the underground railroad, a secret escape route to the North used by many slaves. Free Black women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were active in the abolitionist movement in the North, traveling and speaking to mobilize support for the struggle against slavery. Thousands of other Black women, whose contributions have yet to be recorded, undoubtedly played active roles in this struggle.
women were also active in the struggle against the special oppression of
women. Many white women were inspired by the fight against slavery. The
struggle against slavery and the women's rights movement had a common
enemy. The same arguments regarding the human rights of slaves were applied
by women in the struggle against their own oppression, especially as they demanded the right to vote and full equality in politics, education,
employment, and marriage. Black
women who were militant anti-slavery activists played active roles in the
Sojourner Truth articulated the thoughts of many Black women:
Indeed, Sojourner Truth continued to speak out on women's rights. In 1867 as Black men were gaining their civil rights, she declared:
Not only did women not get their rights, but Black men soon lost most of theirs in the rural South.
THE RURAL PERIOD
In the rural period, Black women assumed roles in the system of agricultural production that were similar to those of Black men. They were sharecroppers under the tenant system that emerged to replace slavery. Freed from the restraints of slavery, northern industrial capital rapidly expanded into southern railroads, lumber, and cotton and tobacco manufacturing. Because of racist exclusion, job opportunities outside the tenant system were severely limited for Black men, and only 3.1% of Black women were employed as workers in manufacturing and mechanical trades (and 55% of these women were dressmakers outside the factories). The main jobs of Black women outside of agricultural were in traditional areas of "women's work": 43% of black women were employed in domestic service and 52% - almost all of the remainder - were employed in agriculture.
Angela Davis comments in her work on women:
The end of slavery caused significant changes in the family. The new economic conditions in the rural South gave the Black family a boost of a strange sort. The survival of the family now depended on its own ability to produce under the brutal tenant system. For Black men, this meant directing the family as an economic unit and exercising more leadership and authority in the family than was possible under slavery. In The Negro Family in America, Frazier described this transformation from the slave system to the tenant system:
The Black family also developed a set of values and ideas to meet their new conditions. Ideas about sexual relations, illegitimacy, and marriage reflected the legacy of an oppressive slavery and the immediate social needs which existed. As Charles S. Johnson reported in his 1934 study, many "marriages" were quite stable as economic and social units, but many Blacks saw no need to seek the legal sanctions which had not been necessary under slavery. Neither was illegitimacy a recognized concept. All children "born out of wedlock" were accepted without stigma and treated on an equal basis by the family and community. Frazier further explicated the Black family that evolved on the heels of slavery:
Part of the oppression of Black women during this period grew out of the conditions of rural life. Because every available hand was necessary for economic survival, large families were the rule in the rural South. This imposed a tremendous and oppressive burden on Black women. Black women continued as full-time field hands and as full-time housewives and mothers. However, they received no wage payments directly. The resulting economic dependency on men was the concrete basis for the development of ideas about male supremacy (or male chauvinism) that exist even today in this society. Moreover, the male supremacist notion that because women are childbearers they must also single-handedly bear the burdens of childrearing and housework took even firmer hold in this period. Charles S. Johnson, in discussing perceptions of the ideal wife of the rural period, pointed to a man who specified three attributes: "She must be able to work, she must be good looking, and she must be willing to acknowledge him as head of the house." It was a clear articulation of the male supremacist view that the man must be dominant. It is a view that held throughout the rural period and operates to an unfortunate extent even today - in both Black and white families.
Because of the continuing oppression of Black people throughout the rural period, Black women were active in many aspects of the struggle for freedom.
Enfranchisement - Some women (e.g., Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, Ida Wells Barnett, and Mary McLeod Bethune) formed Black suffrage clubs and participated in the women's suffrage campaigns.
Anti-lynching campaigns - Between 1900 and 1914, there were more than 1,079 recorded lynchings of Blacks in the South. Women like Ida Wells Barnett crusaded against lynching. As a newspaper editor in Memphis, she wrote an anti-lynching pamphlet called The Red Record (1895) which resulted in attacks on her newspaper. Her life was threatened and she was eventually forced to leave Memphis, but not before defending herself and going about her work with a six-shooter strapped to her side. As she put it: "I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit." Driven out of the South, she went to Chicago to continue her militant work for Black people's freedom.
The lynchings, as well as the sexual abuse of Black women and attacks on the morality of Black people, motivated women to form the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. The NACW unified Black women and led to the proliferation of women's clubs that addressed not only lynching, but also the social educational, and welfare needs of Black people.
Social uplift programs - Many women dedicated their careers to improving the social conditions of Black people. During the Reconstruction period, hundreds of Black women went South to help establish schools and other institutions designed to aid ex-slaves. Violence was often leveled against Black schools and teachers, especially with the defeat of the Reconstruction governments. But women continued to push for the education of Blacks. Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most well-known educators, and served as an administrator and advisor in Black youth programs during Roosevelt's "New Deal." Countless women in women's clubs and church organizations also volunteered their time to improve health, child welfare, railroad travel and prison conditions, as well as to build community institutions.
liberation movement - During this period, the struggle for Black
liberation increased its level of organization. The Niagara Movement
(1905) led to the NAACP (1909) and the Urban League was formed in 1911.
Organizations of Black women, like the National
Association of Colored Women, played an important role in founding the
Niagara Movement and were important forerunners of other freedom
THE URBAN PERIOD
World War I, which spurred the migration of Black people from the rural South to the city, also pulled Black women off the farms and into the industrial work force. Their experience in the industrial work force during this period was aptly described by Eugene Gordon and Cyril Briggs:
By 1930, only 5.6% of all Black women were employed in manufacturing and mechanical industry (as compared to 25% for Black men). But more Black women had moved into the service sector: over 64% in 1930.
World War II drew more Black women into the war-related industries, but once again many were dropped when the war ended. It was clear, however, that service and industrial work had replaced agricultural and domestic work as the main areas of employment for Black women, with service the primary source.
In 1970, of the 2.7 million Black women in the labor force, 25% were service workers (maids, etc.), 21% were clerical workers (like office clerks and secretaries), 16% were operatives (like factory workers), and 18% were private household workers (like maids and cooks). The special oppression of Black women (as compared to white women) is revealed in statistics showing the overrepresentation of Black women in certain occupations (and underrepresentation in certain others). Though they are only 11.4% of the female work force, Black women comprise 65% of all maids, 63% of all household cooks, 41% of all housekeepers, and 34% of all cleaning service workers. Conversely, Black women represent only 4% of all women lawyers and doctors and 5.5% of all women college teachers. Clearly, Black women (along with Black men) have provided U.S. capitalism with essential labor in some of the hardest, lowest-paying, and dirtiest jobs of all the necessary "shit work" of an advanced capitalist society.
We can also use similar statistics to illustrate the triple oppression of Black women in 1980. Class (economic) exploitation, racism, and sexist oppression have combined to put Black women at the bottom rung on most measures of social equality: below white males, Black males, and white females. Table 24 illustrates this.
Source: Based on data in National Urban League, The State of Black America, 1983, pp. 113, 142, and 152-53.
The integration of
Black women into the urban economy has had a dramatic impact on her role
as a worker and on her role in Black
family life. First, the necessity of working reduces the time that Black
women have to discharge their role as parents. This is even more so with
Black women who are single heads of households. Second, the urban economy
has provided Black women with the economic basis of their independence.
This has freed many Black women from their dependence on Black men that
emerged during the rural period. But this has also increased competition
between Black men and Black women. The historical and continuing
male-supremacy ideology, on the one hand, and the objective economic
independence of Black women, on the other, have in part set the basis for
Black women (and women in general) are punished by existing sexist practices because of their role in the biological division of labor relating to childbirth. For example, an adequate system of sex education, birth control, and family planning is not provided in this society (witness the debate over sex education in the schools and the use of federal funds for abortions). Many young Black women have also been irreversibly sterilized without their knowledge as the price for seeking abortions or family planning assistance! An adequate system of paid maternity leaves is not available. In effect, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that such paid leaves would cost the corporations too much of their profits. The following year, because of the importance of the issue and the pressure of the women's movement, Congress was forced to pass a bill amending Title VII. It mandated that in situations where men were compensated for disabilities, women should receive compensatory pay for pregnancy leaves. However, this applies only to employers who award any disability payments. Low-cost or free daycare facilities still are not available. The point here is that the resources of this society are not allocated to meet the special needs of Black women or women in general - needs which are essential to the very functioning of the society.
Any analysis of Black women must also take into account the historical imbalance in the ratio of Black women to Black men, especially in the urban period. Every census since 1840 has registered more women than men in the Black population. In 1970, there were 1.1 million more Black women than men. Further, this varies by locale. The pattern for any particular region, state, or city is a function of the demand for Black labor in that local (i.e., the available employment opportunities). For example, the ratio of Black men to Black women in Chicago dropped from 104.5:100 in 1920 to 88.7:100 in 1940 as the demands for Black women workers increased leading up the World War II. In a society where marriage is the norm, this presents a special problem for Black women.
There has been considerable controversy over the concept of the Black matriarchy, or female-dominated family. As we have pointed out, concrete conditions have given rise to the increasing independence of Black women. But the concept of "Black Matriarch" has been overemphasized and often discussed without attention to important facts. Joyce Ladner points to one obvious error in these discussions:
She also outlines another fallacy in the Black matriarchy thesis:
For Ladner, the position of the Black man is the fault of the system and not Black women. Lastly, the matriarchal thesis can be faulted because it does not take into account the fact that most Black families consist of both parents, as do most white families. In 1982, 85% of white families and 55% of Black families had two parents. It is among the very poor that the majority are single-parents, for both Blacks and whites, as indicated in Table 25.
The continuing oppression of Black people, and especially Black women, has meant that Black women have continued to be on the front lines of all aspects of the Black liberation struggles throughout the urban period. In the 1930s, Black women were active organizers for CIO unions like the Steelworkers and were active in organizations like the National Negro Congress. Black women led militant protests and demonstrations against unemployment, against discrimination in housing and jobs, and for social welfare legislation. During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, women like Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party inspired oppressed people all over the world by standing up to racist political repression in the South and fighting for her rights. Unheralded, but persistent women like Ella Baker were active in such organizations as the NAACP and SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). She was a veteran civil rights worker who guided the spontaneous student sit-in movement toward organizing the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
As the more radical orientation of the Black liberation movement emerged, women were active militants in such organizations as the Black Panther Party, in community struggles, in organizing opposition to war in Vietnam, and in building anti-imperialist support among Black people for the liberation struggles in Africa. Black women have played and are continuing to play leading roles in developing the anti-imperialist and revolutionary orientation of the Black liberation struggle in the United States.
U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Social and Economic Status of the Black
Population in the United States, p. 108.
Currently, there are significant developments that must be taken into account in discussing Black women and the family. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of families headed by Black women. According to the 1984 Statistical Abstract of the United States, whereas, in 1970 approximately 28% of Black families were headed by women, in 1982 approximately 41% were headed by women. Moreover, in 1982, 47% of all Black children (as compared to 15% of white children) under eighteen were living in female-headed households. Since 1977, over 50% of all newborn Black children were born into families headed by women. Black women and these families suffer a greater share of oppression in terms of income and employment. In 1981, the median income of Black female-headed households was $7,921 as compared to $13,076 for whites.
In addition, the social decay characteristic of advanced capitalism in crisis is increasing the divorce rate among Blacks. All of these forces are beginning to undermine the possibility of strong family relationships. This is especially serious in view of the historical role that the Black family has played in the survival and struggle of Black people for liberation.
The same social crisis, however, also contains its positive seeds. It is creating a greater objective need for and interest in the struggle for Black liberation and social change among Black women who bear a disproportionate burden of the current crisis. The crisis is laying the basis for a collective approach to solving problems that more and more Black women are experiencing along with the entire society.
It is becoming increasingly clear to Black women that their liberation cannot be achieved under capitalism nor in isolation from the masses of working-class Black people. This is a fundamental difference, which distinguishes most Black women from many feminists in the women's liberation movement. Many women (both white and black) in the women's liberation movement in the United States basically accept the capitalist system and simply work toward integrating women into that system on an equal basis. Though they may understand the oppressive nature of patriarchy, many do not see that the capitalist system itself ensures the exploitation of people. This is not how the masses of Black women have analyzed their situation and have plotted the course of their struggle.
in summary, Black women face conditions of oppression and mounting problems that are similar to but also different from Black men. But Black women will continue to go forward to uphold their rich legacy as active fighters for the full freedom of all Black people and an end to their own special "triple oppression". As Frances Beal put it:
1. What role have Black women played in the economy? Compare the work experience of Black women to white women and Black men in each historical period.
2. What is the "triple oppression" of Black women? Illustrate this concept using historical examples and statistics.
3. What is the current status of "matriarchy" in Black family life? Discuss the historical relevance of this concept.
4. How have Black women contributed to the Black liberation struggle? In what ways have Black women been involved in the struggle against the oppression they face?
1. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1983 (first published in 1981).
2. Mari Evans, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1984.
3. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1982,.
4. La Frances Rodgers-Rose, ed., The Black Woman. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980.5. Phyllis A. Wallace, Linda Datcher, and Julianne Malveaux, Black Women in the Labor Force. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980.