Because Race Matters: How Women’s Historians Have Dealt with the Race Question

by Nydia Swaby

Academics are often inspired by the work of their predecessors and peers; this is especially true within the field of women’s history. Historians that acknowledge racial difference in their work share a collective understanding that examining race should be central to historical research and writing. Intellectual historian Elsa Barkley Brown and labor historians Dana Frank and Dolores Janiewski address racial difference in their scholarship and have inspired younger generations of historians to do the same. Through their scholarship Barkley Brown, Frank, and Janiewski demonstrate that in order to adequately represent the lives of women in any context, historians must acknowledge the ways in which race has shaped their subjects’ lives, and in doing so they may uncover a wealth of information that would otherwise go unrecognized.

In “What Has Happened Here: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics,” Elsa Barkley Brown considers why feminist historians are hesitant to acknowledge racial difference. According to Barkley Brown, some feminist historians and political activists fear that incorporating racial difference will muddle their attempts to “produce and defend women’s history and women’s politics” in support of a unified women’s movement.[i] However Brown insists that considering racial differences might be the way to establish a women’s community that is bonded in intellectual and political struggle.[ii] Brown takes that argument one step further and proclaims that it is unacceptable for historians to simply acknowledge racial differences. They “need to recognize not only differences but also the relational nature of those differences,” meaning that even when historians are examining the experiences of white women, they should also explore the impact race has had on shaping their lives.[iii] Barkley Brown agues that middle-class white women’s lives are not just different from working-class white, Black, and Latina women’s lives; middle-class white women live the lives they do because working-class women and women of color live the lives they do.[iv] Or as Dana Frank so poignantly stated in “White Working-Class Women and the Race Question”, “[r]ace is not just a question of difference, moreover: It’s about domination, and white women enjoyed racial privilege precisely because [women] of color were there holding them up.”[v]

White privilege is largely understood as benefiting white men, but Dana Frank’s essay highlights the ways in which it also benefits white women by drawing connections between institutionalized white privilege and white women’s role in sustaining it.[vi] For example, white working-class women often deployed collective action to exclude Black women from the labor force. According to Frank, there are dozens of examples of informal collective actions in which white women simply refused to work with women of color or walked out in protest of their employment.[vii] White working-class women also used all-female trade unions to exclude women of color.  In some cases they banned women of color from joining all together. In others, they reinforced the subordinated status of women of color by ensuring that white women held positions of power within the union. Frank’s analysis of white working-class women and the race question provides important insights on the ways in which they experienced and exercised racial privilege. Frank also suggests that historians do not know enough about white working-class women and the race question and encourages them to learn more.

Dolores Janiewski asserts that research into the segmentation of the labor market can provide important insights into the constructions of differences between groups of workers. In “Southern Honour, Southern DisHonour: Managerial Ideology and the Construction of Gender, Race, and Class Relations in Southern Industry,” Janiewski notes that employers have symbolically placed white women in a higher class than women of color. Drawing on antebellum ideologies that placed whites at a higher social – class – bracket than that of whites, Southern textile and tobacco manufacturers in the late 19th century systematically reinforced a social and racial hierarchy in which the labor force was divided spatially and ideologically.  For example, white men were the only population who could acquire managerial positions while Black workers, particularly women, were responsible for the menial work such as keeping the factories clean. White women, on the other hand, were given the less degrading but more challenging responsibility of tending to the machines.[viii] Both industries gained relatively cheap labor by hiring white women and children, but they effectively kept wage levels down by acquiring the even cheaper labor of Black men, women, and children.[ix]

We live in a racially constructed society in which women of color have been restricted to a subordinate status to that of white women. This has serious implications for both women of color and white women, and historians should consider this when writing about their experiences. From Janiewski’s perspective historians must consider the development of racial and gender inequalities so that they can better explain how and why racial and gender differences have become so deeply entrenched in the labor force. The theory of contemplating racial difference can be applied to a wide range of historical scholarship, but not all women’s historians consider racial difference in meaningful ways.

In “Disciplined and Punished: Poor Women, Bodily Inscription, and Resistance Through Education” women’s studies scholar Vivyan Adair examines the relationship between state power and the lives of poor women and children. Relying on the research and writings of other scholars as well as personal anecdotes, Adair analyzes the complex systems of power that create poverty through the reproduction of both social and bodily markers. According to Adair, poor women and children who are impoverished are seen as immoral, unintelligent, chaotic, and deserving of their condition.[x] Their physical bodies, from the clothes they wear to the untreated scars on their skin, are marked with the scarlet letter of poverty. While Adair makes a compelling argument, connecting Foucauldian theories of bodily inscription to the disadvantaged lives of poor women and children, she fails to address the impact race has had on shaping the lives of the poor. She does mention race as being “clearly written on the body of the poor single mother” and notes that the “Welfare Queen” is “imagined as young, never married, and black.”[xi] But she doesn’t explore the significance of these statements nor does she draw conclusions on what this means for poor women and children of color. Furthermore in her personal anecdotes about what she experienced as a poor single mother, she fails to acknowledge that as a white woman, her body isn’t marked by race in the same manner as her Black counterparts.

While Vivyan Adair may have endured “bodily signs of [her] own public punishment” because of her impoverished status, what she experienced differs significantly from what women and children of color did and still do.[xii] By not acknowledging her own racial privilege, Adair paints a picture of poverty as universal, something people of all races experience in the exact same way. Her essay gives the impression that impoverished white, Black, and Latina women encounter the same setbacks when accessing resources like welfare, government assisted housing, and education, when they don’t. For as Cheryl I. Harris argues in “Whiteness as Property” regardless of one’s economic status, “whiteness retains its value as a ‘consolation prize’: It does not mean that all whites will win, but simply that they will not lose, if losing is defined as being at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy.”[xiii]

When historians write about the setbacks white middle-class women had when climbing the corporate ladder, the hardships white working-class women endured in blue-collared positions, or the social and bodily markers of punishment impoverished white women are forced to bear, it’s important for them to note that what Black middle-class, working-class, and poor women encountered differs significantly as a result of the discrimination they experienced based on the color of their skin. It’s not enough to say that ‘women’ were and continue to be oppressed in the workplace or by the state because the fact is, white women and Black women are oppressed in very different ways and for very different reasons. Historians Elsa Barkley Brown, Dana Frank, and Dolores Janiewski demonstrate that acknowledging racial difference is a critical element in painting a more complete picture about the lives of women. When we acknowledge racial differences and the relational nature of those differences, we can learn so much more about the ways in which women have been oppressed and even how they contributed to the oppression of others. At the core we’re all women, but lead different lives. That should be explored and celebrated, not hidden no matter how divisive the story seems to be. ▢

Nydia Swaby is a second year Women’s History graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College and works at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Her research focuses on women of the African diaspora and their fight to gain racial and gender equality.


[i] Elsa Barkley Brown, “What Has Happened Here: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics,” Feminist Studies, vol. 18, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 295, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3178238 (accessed September 14, 2009)

[ii] Brown, 297

[iii] Brown, 298

[iv] Brown, 298

[v] Dana Frank, “White Working-Class Women and the Race Question,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 54 (Fall 1998): 97

[vi] Frank, 81

[vii] Frank, 91

[viii] Dolores Janiewski, “Southern Honour, Southern DisHonour: Managerial Ideology and the Construction of Gender, Race, and Class Relations in Southern Industry,” Work Engineered: Towards a New History of American Labor (1991): 308

[ix] Janiewski, 308

[x] Vivyan Adair, “Disciplined and Punished: Poor Women, Bodily Inscription, and Resistance Through Education,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 27. No. 2 (2002):  29

[xi] Adair, 39

[xii] Adair, 28

[xiii] Frank, 83 quoting Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106 (1993)” 1758-59

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One thought on “Because Race Matters: How Women’s Historians Have Dealt with the Race Question

  1. WoW!! Loving the conclusion paragraph in this article!! My grandmother tells stories about working an assembly line in Michigan that will support these findings. The social discrimination that she faced as a Black women, regardless of equal and often superior performance, gave her daily work environment a more oppressive feel than her white co-workers’. That distinct struggle, as well as her survival and eventual triumph, always make me feel stronger as a Black woman in the workforce today, better-prepared to face the same challenges fifty years later with grace and dignity. Thank you for sharing this, Nydia!

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