LaGuana K. Gray
As an organized discipline and field of study, women’s history benefitted tremendously from the demands and contributions of second-wave feminists during the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, it was flourishing, encouraging the study of more and more aspects of women’s lives, including their paid labor. Comprehensive, exceptional works like Alice Kessler-Harris’s Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States, published in 1982, and Jacqueline Jones’s 1984 book Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to Freedom, set a high bar for the study of women workers. Accepting the challenge, in 1985 Dolores Janiewski built upon her predecessors’ efforts, crafting an excellent community study of Durham, North Carolina and offering an even more focused analysis of the work of southern women in particular. Janiewski’s Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community demonstrated that women’s paid labor merited greater scholarly historical examination.
Sisterhood Denied is a study of both black and white women, and Janiewski was lauded by reviewers for the way she delved into the especially understudied history of southern black women’s post-emancipation labor. Two decades after its publication, when I began my dissertation on the paid labor of black women in the South, the book was one of the first—and most often—recommended for my research. Janiewski, through her story of the women of Durham, inspired me and others to take up the charge of telling a story of the South, “through the experiences of the women who contributed to the region’s wealth while remaining poor themselves.”1 Her work examined how a “new,” industrial South was built in part on women’s labor, explored women’s lives at the intersections, and analyzed the potential for and disconnect in women’s relationships with labor unions, leaving a path for scholars of southern women workers to follow.
Like many historians of the New South, Janiewski described the post-Civil War shifts from rural to urban life in detail, but she did so from the perspective of women. Farming was beset by “low prices, indebtedness, weather, and biology,” trends that impacted most farms, but devastated ones headed by women in particular.2 This, combined with the further devaluation of women’s labor on farms headed by men, made urban life even more appealing to women in the countryside around Durham. One result was that “between 1890 and 1930, Durham became a city where women, particularly black women, outnumbered men.”3 Janiewski probably could not have chosen a better city in which to examine the rise of industrial labor in the New South. Durham exploded after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Workers there experienced some of the most rapid changes and burdensome demands of New South industrialization.
Although the book pre-dates Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pioneering use of the term “intersectionality,” Janiewski endeavors to study how race, class, and gender intersected in southern women’s lives to shape how and where they worked and how and why they were kept apart, at home and in the workplace.4 She carefully documents the gendered commonalities of their experiences: how agricultural mechanization and crises pushed some women out of farm labor; how they transitioned to the tobacco and textile plants in the burgeoning city; how they coped with the demands of a day that left most of the work of caring for family and home on their shoulders. Of the latter, she noted, “Before the morning whistles beckoned factory hands to work and after the machines had ceased for the evening, women labored in small frame houses, shacks, and rows of identical mill housing.”5
Despite these shared experiences, differences between black and white women abounded. Yes, women of both races left farming for factories, but black women were subject to the tendency of defeminization and thus given more arduous, dirtier jobs, for example, those in leaf and stemming departments. Said one black woman employee of L&M Cigarettes, “[O]ver there on the cigarette side . . . [t]he white women . . . wear white uniforms. . . . And you’re over here handling all that sweaty tobacco.”6 While family work fell on all women’s shoulders, some black factory women had the additional burden of doing similar work in the homes of white people. Commonalities could not hide the way facets of Durham women’s lives were still thoroughly segmented by race, a reality reflected in the title of Janiewski’s book. It was a segmentation that was often deliberate—wielded and enforced, according to Janiewski, by “capitalists and patriarchs” in ways that impeded the development of class and gender solidarity for the working women of Durham.
That struggle to build solidarity troubled women workers in other ways. Janiewski begins the book with a story of Labor Day in Durham in 1934. An observer noted the gathered crowd’s “spirit of unionism” and that “women sometimes spoke more forcibly in support of the labor action than men.”7 This, along with collective action that year, Janiewski suggested, may have symbolized “the birth of a class,” as evidenced by persistent union activity in Durham in 1939, 1940, and 1941. Alas, that was not the case. The unions themselves often replicated the segregation between races and genders, to their own detriment. Combined with their inability to “link the personal and the political, the private and the public work places,” this severely hampered their attempts to successfully organize women and proved yet another case of sisterhood denied between black and white women.8
Janiewski’s pioneering book has largely weathered the test of time. In the years since its publication, scholarship on southern women’s work has expanded, although it is still under-represented in the historical record. Janiewski’s book remains an important model, her assertions and conclusions still invoked in newer works. It and her larger body of work’s influence on other path-breaking volumes like the multi-authored Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World and Robert Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South is apparent. Sisterhood Denied is a classic of southern labor history and women’s history, well worthy of this timely re-issue.
LAGUANA K. GRAY is Associate Professor of History at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
1. Dolores Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985), 4.
2. Ibid, 54.
3. Ibid, 55.
4. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique or Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): 139–167.
5. Janiewski, 127.
6. Ibid, 125.
7. Ibid, 3.
8. Ibid, 177.