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African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

Article

African American Women and Feminism in the 19th Century  

Teresa Zackodnik

What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.

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Black Girlhood in 20th-Century America  

Miya Carey

Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.

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Black Women and Beauty Culture in 20th-Century America  

Maxine Leeds Craig

Black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, and black women’s exclusion from mainstream cultural institutions, such as beauty contests, which defined beauty standards on a national scale. Though mainstream media rarely represented black women as beautiful, black women’s beauty was valued within black communities. Moreover many black women used cosmetics, hair products and styling, and clothing to meet their communities’ standards for feminine appearance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black press, which included newspapers, general magazines, and women’s magazines, showcased the beauty of black women. As early as the 1890s, black communities organized beauty contests that celebrated black women’s beauty and served as fora for debating definitions of black beauty. Still, generally, but not always, the black press and black women’s beauty pageants favored women with lighter skin tones, and many cosmetics firms that marketed to black women sold skin lighteners. The favoring of light skin was nonetheless debated and contested within black communities, especially during periods of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, social movements fostered critiques of black aesthetics and beauty practices deemed Eurocentric. One focus of criticism was the widespread black practice of hair straightening—a critique that has produced an enduring association between hairstyles perceived as natural and racial pride. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, African migration and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet contributed to a creative proliferation of African American hairstyles. While such styles display hair textures associated with African American hair, and are celebrated as natural hairstyles, they generally require the use of hair products and may incorporate synthetic hair extensions. Beauty culture provided an important vehicle for African American entrepreneurship at a time when racial discrimination barred black women from other opportunities and most national cosmetics companies ignored black women. Black women’s beauty-culture business activities included beauticians who provided hair care in home settings and the extremely successful nationwide and international brand of hair- and skin-care products developed in the first two decades of the 20th century by Madam C. J. Walker. Hair-care shops provided important places for sharing information and community organizing. By the end of the 20th century, a few black-owned hair-care and cosmetics companies achieved broad markets and substantial profitability, but most declined or disappeared as they faced increased competition from or were purchased by larger white-owned corporations.

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Black Women’s Internationalism from the Age of Revolutions to World War I  

Brandon R. Byrd

Black internationalism describes the political culture and intellectual practice forged in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. It is a historical and ongoing collective struggle against racial oppression rooted in global consciousness. While the expression of black internationalism has certainly changed across time and place, black liberation through collaboration has been and remains its ultimate goal. Since the emergence of black internationalism as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and during the Age of Revolutions, black women such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and evangelist Rebecca Protten have been at its forefront. Their writings and activism espoused an Afro-diasporic, global consciousness and promoted the cause of universal emancipation. During the 19th century, black women internationalists included abolitionists, missionaries, and clubwomen. They built on the work of their predecessors while laying the foundations for succeeding black women internationalists in the early 20th century. By World War I, a new generation of black women activists and intellectuals remained crucial parts of the International Council of Women, an organization founded by white suffragists from the United States, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global organization formally led by Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. But they also formed an independent organization, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR). Within and outside of the ICWDR, black women from Africa and the African Diaspora faced and challenged discrimination on the basis of their sex and race. Their activism and intellectual work set a powerful precedent for a subsequent wave of black internationalism shaped by self-avowed black feminists.

Article

Chicago  

Ann Durkin Keating

Chicago is a city shaped by industrial capitalism. Before 1848, it was a small commercial outpost in Potawatomi country, and then it expanded with the US economy between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Between 1848 and 1929, Chicago grew from under 30,000 to more than 3 million, fueled by the construction of railroads, warehouses, and factories. Working-class immigrants built their own neighborhoods around industrial sites and along railroads, while a downtown dominated by skyscrapers emerged to serve the needs of corporate clients. Since 1929, Chicago remained an industrial powerhouse and magnet for Black and Latino migrants, even as its economic growth depended more and more on commerce and the service industry.

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Female Slaveholders in British America  

Christine Walker

Women actively contributed to the expansion of chattel slavery in British America. During the colonial era, female inhabitants living in every region claimed by Britain, from the northernmost colonies to the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, held other people in bondage. As enslavers, women exercised their authority over captives in various capacities. Female slaveholders treated enslaved people as personal property that could be bought, sold, or rented out in the marketplace. They commanded enslaved people to perform diverse types of labor. Some worked in households as servants, cooks, and laundresses, while others labored in taverns, shops, fields, and on waterways. Women also bequeathed captives to descendants, often preferring to transfer enslaved people along female lines. Inheritance became an important mechanism for women to maintain control of, and benefit from, slaveholding. Finally, women exercised their authority by subjecting enslaved people to a spectrum of abuses ranging from corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and transportation, to starvation and execution. Early modern gender inequalities intensified women’s participation in slavery, offering them an alternative form of support, profit, and command. By offsetting the economic, legal, and social limitations imposed by patriarchal societies, slaveholding thus empowered women.

Article

The 1960s  

Robert O. Self

Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed. The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas. The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification. To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order. Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.

Article

Southern Textile Worker Struggles in the 20th Century  

Joey Fink

The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.

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United States Colored Troops  

Holly Pinheiro

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.

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Washington, DC  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

Since its founding as the nation’s capital in 1800, Washington, DC, has been typified by an atypical urban history—a city that was home to the federal government and a diverse population of local inhabitants. This local–federal dynamic has shaped nearly every aspect of its history. The central industry has always been the federal government, local governance has ebbed and flowed, and federal officials have exerted authority in moments of political strife. Washington is the only major US city devoted to administration rather than commerce, industry, or finance. At times, policies in the nation’s capital were envisioned as programs that could be implemented across the country, while at other moments, Washington fell behind other cities. As the nation’s capital, Washington has attracted a diverse group of residents, giving the city a distinctive, cosmopolitan presence. Washington began as a Southern city, and then shifted to become a Northern one, and by the mid-20th century, it became national and global. Since its founding, multiracial Washingtonians waged sweeping campaigns for social justice, often inspiring national movements but were tempered by the persistent lack of statehood, an ongoing struggle.

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Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States  

Catherine A. Brekus

Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.

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Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.

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Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements  

Christina Greene

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.

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Women’s Rights, Abolitionism, and Reform in Antebellum and Gilded Age America  

Faye E. Dudden

The U.S. women’s rights movement first emerged in the 1830s, when the ideological impact of the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening combined with a rising middle class and increasing education to enable small numbers of women, encouraged by a few sympathetic men, to formulate a critique of women’s oppression in early 19th-century America. Most were white, and their access to an expanding print culture and middle class status enabled them to hire domestic servants; they had the time and resources to assess and begin to reject the roles prescribed by cultural domesticity and legal coverture, or the traditional authority of husbands. A critical mass of these rebellious women first emerged among those who had already enlisted in the radical struggle to end slavery. When abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke faced efforts to silence them because they were women, they saw parallels between their own situation and that of the slaves. The Grimkes began to argue that all women and men were created by God as “equal moral beings” and entitled to the same rights. The ideology of the women’s movement soon broadened to encompass secular arguments, claiming women’s part in a political order ostensibly based on individual rights and consent of the governed. At Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and at subsequent women’s rights conventions, the participants articulated a wide range of grievances that extended beyond politics into social and family life. Almost all the leading activists in the early women’s movement, including Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were trained in “the school of antislavery,” where they learned to withstand public or familial disapproval and acquired practical skills like petitioning and public speaking. The women’s rights activists’ efforts were complicated by questions about which goals to pursue first and by overlap with other reform efforts, including temperance and moral reform as well as abolition and black rights. Women and men related to the movement in a range of ways—activists were surrounded by a penumbra of non-activist contributors and an interested public, and much grassroots activity probably went unrecorded. After the Civil War destroyed slavery, Reconstruction-era politicians had to define citizenship and rights, especially the right to vote. Realizing this opened a rare window of political opportunity, the women’s movement leaders focused on suffrage, but their desperate efforts uncovered ugly racism in their ranks, and they betrayed former black allies. Disagreeing over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the vote to black men only, the women’s movement fell into two rival suffrage organizations: Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, which did not support the 15th Amendment, faced off against the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Stymied in their political moves, the suffragists then found their judicial strategy, the “New Departure,” checkmated by a conservative Supreme Court. By 1877, the moment of radical opportunity had passed, and though the women’s suffrage movement could count a few marginal successes in the West, it had stalled and was increasingly overshadowed by more conservative forms of women’s activism like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.