Women in the Labor Market: What the History Books Omitted | Critical Conversations


In early January, a TikTok trend featuring women expressing their wish not to work sparked a backlash. People were outraged that women were apparently giving up their right to work – a right that many women have spent decades fighting for. As people debated online, I had a thought: who wouldn’t want a life without work?

Well, maybe it’s more complicated than that.

If you are looking for information on the women’s labor movement, there is usually one overlooked aspect – the movement was racially dominated by white women.

Started by underpaid secretaries in the late 60s, a specific women’s movement was known as 9to5 – which inspired Dolly Parton’s beloved song. 9to5 represented an explosion of awareness in the American public, highlighting the gap between the experiences of men and women in the job market. However, white women and women of color occupied very different positions in the 9to5 movement.

“Women of color were already in the workforce when this desire for work spread to white women,” said Regina Yung Lee, associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies.

Women of color did not have the same privilege of choosing a life without work as most white women.

“Not all women were doing the same kinds of jobs,” Lee said. “Women of color tended to work in different places than white women.”

If you walked into an office building in the late 60s, the floors would be divided in a way that represented the social hierarchy of the time. Male entrepreneurs on the upper floors, white women as secretaries below them, and women of color most often working at the lowest level in junior positions. That being the case, if women of color even made it past the interview stage, which didn’t happen often.

In the 1960s, the job that the average white woman performed was a secretarial role, while women of color often found themselves working in low-end service or as servants in the homes of these white women.

Women of color were also paid less and had worse opportunities than their white counterparts. Thus, a cleavage was created between white women and women of color.

“Women of color have to overcome hurdles that white women don’t,” third-year Leslie Ibarra said. “They can’t experience these obstacles like we do.”

The 9to5 movement was built on the barriers that white women faced, and while many of these applied to women of color as well, the fact remains that white women did not fully consider their norm as different from their colored peers.

“The concerns of feminists of color have been pretty much ignored by [the] white feminist stream,” Lee said.

The main figures of this movement did not have the same position as women of color, and this created a lack of consideration for those who faced racial discrimination in addition to sexism.

“We spend a lot of time talking about race and so we forget to focus on how race affects gender,” freshman Tatianna Tatum said.

This disdain for feminists of color was an essentially unconscious byproduct of a normalized problem that prevails to this day – the problem being that people are quick to forget that racial discrimination exists when they are not personally affected by it.

By being unaware of the intersections of race, gender, and work issues in the late 1960s, white women helped fuel a system of oppression for people of color.

“Women of color are still not getting the benefits that their training and qualifications might otherwise suggest they should be receiving,” Lee said.

Even if we are not exposed to discrimination every day, that does not mean that it does not happen around us.

“It’s the 21st century, and yet I’ve always been denied jobs because I’m not white,” said freshman Mylan Le.

The is not alone in this experience. Racial discrimination in the workplace manifests itself in different ways.

“Less diversity in opportunity puts women of color in a box,” Tatum said. “Here I spend time trying to put others at ease so as not to be discriminated against.”

By failing to support women who experience racial discrimination, women of color are forced to code-switch and adopt a different version of themselves – one that the public has deemed acceptable.

“I feel the pressure to be really nice at work,” Ibarra said. “I change my voice to fit in, and I lose my identity in doing so.”

The work conversation on TikTok isn’t just about women who don’t want to work (because let’s be honest, who does?). It’s about who has the privilege of making that choice. And sadly, most women of color don’t — and historically haven’t compared to white women.

Making the conversation about women not always wanting to work diverts attention from the real problem that the discrimination women face in the workplace is still alive and well.

To think that the debate was simply about whether or not women wanted to work perfectly sums up the privilege I grew up with. It is a privilege that allows me not to suffer the discrimination that my peers face.

This is where the question lies: how to do better?

“The history books should teach us more,” said first-grader Finn Chenevert. “Everything I know about women’s rights comes from my friends, not from my classes.”

The past two years have been a tumultuous time for the United States, but as things return to normal, a new “normal” is developing. Now we can have conversations about issues we may not be exposed to firsthand, verify our privilege, and learn to educate ourselves.

If we realize the lack of transparency in our history of women, race and work, there is hope that we can develop the new “normal” into something truly more equitable for all women.

Contact contributing editor Emma Schwichtenberg at [email protected] Twitter: @emaroswitz

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