Women, Race & Class: American History

Title:Women, Race & Class
Author: Angela Y. Davis
Date of Publication:1981
LC Call Number: E 185.86 .D383 1983

Race, Women and Class is not at all what I expected, and I wish that Davis had used a different title to give me a better idea of what the book would be about. What it is: a history, mostly, of women’s movements in the United States and their intersection with other social justice movements, often with Marxist analysis included. I’m really glad this was included, because I keep coming across these references to what the early women’s movements were like and the schisms of race and class that were introduced fairly early on, but this is the first time I’ve looked into a really detailed history and analysis of the movement. When I began reading, I expected it to move quickly from there into an analysis of the current situation, as several other books had done, so it was pleasant to find that it was actually concerned with giving the history, although the second half of the book is more argumentative and more concerned with contemporary events.

I really appreciated Davis’s historical analysis of the economic forces that lead women to get involved in activism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She shows how women of all classes had been important contributors to the economy prior to that period, which I think is something that often gets missed. I’m thinking back to The Second Sex, when Beauvoir appeared to give a fairly detailed analysis of the role of women in culture generally (an ambitious and perhaps somewhat suspect goal, but, well, Beauvoir) and she went on about marriage customs and women as chattel and so on in a rather ahistorical way. Here, of course, we are dealing with a much more specific historical period, but Davis gives a very different picture of women (other than slaves, who must be and are analyzed separately) as productive workers within a home-based economy, an economy in which labor was performed primarily for the benefit of one’s own household. In this economy, although there was certainly a division of labor, there wasn’t a division between valued, higher-prestige work in some sort of organized system for a wealthy employer and “housework.” Rather, families worked to create goods that had value, using most of the products of their labor themselves. Davis argues that the advent of the Industrial Revolution devalued the work that women had formerly done, because much of that work was now automated: weaving, candlemaking, baking, etc. Women were still involved in the production of these goods, but instead of middle-class skilled workers who produced these things on their own terms, they were now poor and immigrant unskilled workers who labored for an employer under exploitative conditions. Davis does not really address how industrialization affected men’s work differently; I’m sure that much of the work that they had previously done was also automated, but they didn’t seem to lose prestige and economic relevance the same way that women did. In any case, this may paint too rosy a picture of the preindustrial period, but I am intrigued by the idea that, first of all, industrialization put women at an economic disadvantage relative to men, and second of all, that both the Victorian ideology of motherhood and the push for women’s rights was a result of the diminished importance that women had in society under the new industrial system. It’s something I’d like to read more about (suggestions welcome).

In any case, Davis argues that society attempted to make up for this loss of economic prestige by offering women this ideological role of the angelic and all-nurturing mother, but that this role actually can work both for and against the dominant ideology. Because of its unspoken emphasis on middle class whiteness, it encouraged women to see the women of color who worked for them (both slaves and servants) as fundamentally different from themselves and in general encouraged a paternalistic attitude. Davis describes one white woman’s efforts to improve conditions for factory workers while overlooking the conditions under which she employed a housekeeper in her own home. On the other hand, being cast as the guardians of morality, along with having more time available to them, helped many women to become anti-slavery activists on moral grounds and later to become part of the women’s suffrage movement. Women led the anti-slavery movement, and Davis provides some explanation of this.

One of the things that becomes clear as we go through this history was something that I actually first discovered many years ago when reading about the Gold Rush: a person can be an abolitionist and still be racist. In the book I’d read on California history, I found that although Californians voted not to allow slavery, they also had a heated debate about whether or not they should exclude African Americans from entering the state. In Davis’s book, which is more concerned with the more easterly part of US history, she shows that the suffragists, although many of them had been active in the abolition movement, ended up employing essentially a Southern strategy to attract Southern white women to the movement by refusing to deal with any of the issues faced by the newly emancipated African American women. There was, at the time, a debate about whether black men or white women should get the vote first, and Davis shows that the votes of white women were considered, at the time, an antidote for the changes that the votes of black men might bring about. This was of course encouraged by racist white men, and middle class women bought into it because it was useful to them, but this was really a mistake because it drove a wedge between “women’s rights” and all the civil rights that the African American population of the US was fighting for at the time. In any case, the early suffragists wanted the support of racist white men and racist white Southern women more than that of African American women activists.

Davis shows that this history has had a profound effect on the feminist movement, affecting not only the suffrage battle but also such seemingly unrelated issues as reproductive rights. To Davis, this is can all ultimately be traced back to capitalism. I think she needs to make a stronger case for this particular point; it’s a short book and mostly full of history, and it seems like there are a lot of cultural and specific historical factors at work which Davis describes very well. This is not an argument with her conclusion, but I’d like a further explanation of how monopoly capitalism forwards these interlocking oppressions in the current historical period. I thought ending with a call for socialized housework was… kind of odd.

In any case, this is quite a short book and as such, it’s raised a lot of questions that I’d like to read more about: Frederick Douglass’s work in the suffrage movement, the effect of the Industrialized Revolution on women in the economy, the role of women in the Socialist movement, and several other things. She also recommends specific works; the one that I find the most interesting is Sarah Grimke’s series of letters, The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. Talk about feminist classics!


Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “Women, Race & Class: American History

  1. Excellent review. Yes, that economics history is important and too often ignored. I think Davis is basically right but she slights some other areas. I value Marxism, but am not a disciple. My favorite on women in industrialization is Ruth Swartz Cowan, MORE WORK FOR MOTHER, meant literally and not rhetorically. An easy enjoyable read. Gerda Lerner’s biography of the Grimke sisters is a classic and devotes much attention to what they wrote. Sara Evans, BORN FOR LIBERTY, is a good balanced account of feminism that blends economic and political factors. I just finished a book about the global women’s movement, 1880-1920, with a fine article linking class, women’s rights, and politics and will review it soon.

    I haven’t followed through on a feminist anthology to read together because none really engaged me. Now I have found one that does. DECENTERING THE CENTER, edited by Uma Narayan and Sandra G. Harding. Bloomington, Ind. : Indiana University Press, 2000. You can take a look at its table of contents online. I recognize and respect several of the contributors. And its is reasonably cheap. I am interested in standpoint theory, especially for dealing with diversity and competing “truths”. We might start with a chapter or so a month in February after Feminist Classics ends. I don’t know if FC will continue since participation has dropped. This book might be an alternative.

  2. Thanks, Marilyn. I’m definitely interested in that. As for FC–I can at least finish out the one book that remains!

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