history of black women in america: labor


The Myth of Black Women’s “Withdrawal” From Labor After Slavery


 In her seminal book, Ar’n’t I A Woman?, historian Deborah Gray White writes that “race, class, gender, sexuality, and other identity variables do not exist independently. Nor do they compete for supremacy, but reinforce, overlap, and intersect with each other.”48 Yet that is exactly what has happened: The telling of American History is as hierarchical and as rooted in competing for supremacy as the society our history arises from.

In the telling of our history, all the blacks and Native Americans are men and all the women are white. And all History is told through the perspectives, prejudices, and blindnesses of the conquering men who live, behave, and teach in a mindset where women don’t matter, especially women of color. As a result, momentous events and historic realities are overlooked, misinterpreted, and retold to present a false history.

One example of a distorted interpretation of black women’s lives is the story that Civil War and Reconstruction-era historians tell that, following Emancipation, black women “withdrew” from the labor force in the South; they wanted to focus on their families, to no longer work under the thumb of white men, they wanted to emulate the respectable domesticity of white women.

For example, historian Eric Foner, in his book Reconstruction, wrote about the “withdrawal of black women from field labor,” a phenomenon that was “widely noticed by white observers in early Reconstruction.” Other whites complained that black women were also “reluctant to labor as domestic servants in white homes, and those who did frequently refused to live in their employer’s residence.”49

According to historian Leslie Schwalm, this widespread belief arose from the work of economists Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch who studied the newly-freed black women’s “retreat from paid work” in selected cotton-growing areas of the South.50 Schwalm questioned the validity of this contention, and pointed out that:

Ransom and Sutch did not address, for example, how variations in family size and household make-up, plantation size, or the process and organization of agricultural production affected the amount of work performed by women in slavery or freedom, nor examine the propagandistic intent of such sources as Freedmen’s Bureau estimates of work.51

What’s more, Schwalm herself had studied the labor of black women in the lowcountry rice-growing region of South Carolina and found completely different results—black women there did not withdraw from labor.52

There was some truth in the changing labor patterns of black women in the Reconstruction-era South, but the widespread falsehood of withdrawing from labor originated with whites who discovered that freedwomen were not willing to be silent and subservient. In fact, black women were particularly unwilling to put up with the abuse they endured when they were enslaved. In the words of one former slaveowner after a woman asserted her right to attend political meetings, “Never before had I a word of impudence from any of our black folk, but they are not ours any longer.”53  In fact, the myth of black women’s withdrawal from labor was part of the growing demonization of black women: This was the origin of the racist myth that black women were “lazy” and wanted to be taken care of like aristocratic white women.54

As a result, a false and naive history written by white men with narrow perspectives, deep prejudices, and an interpretation of the world that marginalizes females was accepted by historians who still fail to dissect the origins and assumptions of the “withdrawal from labor” narrative.

If we further dissect—and decolonize—this myth, we learn that the two men who originated this story, Ransom and Sutch, confined their study to the one crop that freedwomen and freedmen often did not want to grow: cotton.55

There were a variety of reasons for this:

First of all, picking cotton was the most brutally labor-intensive, back-breaking work of all the crops grown in the South.56 It represented, more than any other crop, the brutal drudgery and violence of slavery.

Secondly, it was not a food crop, so whether the freedperson was working as a tenant farmer or under salaried contract, part of their pay was a share of the harvest. Payment for their labor, therefore, was partly dependent on a crop they couldn’t even eat when the prices were down too low to make any money.

Thirdly, in 1866 and 1867, there were widespread crop failures of corn and cotton, which were particularly devastating for the freedwomen and freedmen who were unfortunate enough to be growing cotton.57

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—there was the issue of unequal pay for women. As historian Gerald Jaynes pointed out: Freedwomen, because of their gender, were paid less than freedmen.58 Leslie Schwalm cited Jaynes as explaining that since women were paid lower wages for the same labor as men, they were economically better off putting more of their time into the unpaid labor for the family (e.g., cooking, cleaning, growing the family’s food crops, child-rearing, etc.). Black women knew far better than white men where their labor was most valuable; as Schwalm quoted Jaynes, black women’s “withdrawal from the wage labor force and increased work in independent gardens and cash crops [was] a logical and rational choice.”59


Related Pages:
“In the Quiet, Undisputed Dignity of My Womanhood”
At the Intersection of Race and Gender Hatred
The Illegitimacy of Devaluation
The Black Women’s Club Movement
19th Century African American Feminist Women
Primetime Misogyny