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“The Bottom of the Economic Totem Pole”: African American Women in the Workplace

During World War II, a number of states passed legislation to combat salary inequities suffered by female workers. Many unions also adopted standards to insure that female employees received the same salaries as males who performed similar jobs. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, the first Federal legislation guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, prohibited firms engaged in interstate commerce from paying workers according to wage rates determined by sex. It did not, however, prevent companies from hiring only men for higher paying jobs. Despite the fact that Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 further prevented sex discrimination in employment, African-American women as a class remained “at the bottom of the economic totem pole” because of “their dual victimization by race and sex-based discrimination,” in the words of Dr. Pauli Murray, whose testimony to Congress appears below. Dr. Murray, an African-American professor of American studies specializing in law and social change expressed concern that despite previous antidiscrimination legislation, “we are holding on very definitely to the patriarchal aspect of white America.” Murray advocated the position that all antidiscrimination legislation should explicitly prohibit sex descrimination.

Dr. MURRAY. My second question, you raised certain questions on which you wished information the last time. I have some information, particularly on the question of EEO’s position on want ads and at the end of my testimony if we have time, I would like simply to place that in the record.

Madam Chairman and Mr. Hathaway, I am Pauli Murray, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. I must say to the Committee that I put my credentials in my prepared statement partly out of pressure from my colleagues and partly because I hoped they would make the male members of the subcommittee take me seriously.

I teach legal studies, civil rights, law and social change, and a course on women in American society. My task in a college of liberal arts is to expose undergraduates to an understanding of the legal system in its various aspects—the judicial process, the legislative process, and the administrative process, and my appearance before this committee is in the nature of in-service training.

Many of my students are headed for law school. Others plan careers in education, community organization, or social work. All of them, however, are asking themselves the question whether our legal system is flexible enough to accommodate necessary social change. What I have to say to this subcommittee is influenced by my own desperate need to answer this question in the affirmative coupled with the apprehension that in the area of women’s rights, as in other areas of human rights, our lawmakers will respond only when there is violence and disruption of nationwide proportions.

I appear before this subcommittee, however, as a member of the National Board of American Civil Liberties Union to testify in support of the provisions of H.R. 16098 which seeks to extend protection against sex-based discrimination, particularly in education and employment.

. . .

I think there may be an answer to Mr. Hathaway’s question on the probability of women finishing college in what I have just said.

This is our starting point, for in my view it is only as we recognize and hold sacred the uniqueness of each individual that we come to see clearly the moral and social evil of locking this individual into a group stereotype, whether favorable or unfavorable. I have learned this lesson, in part, because I am both a Negro and a woman whose experience embodies the conjunction of race and sex discrimination.

This experience also embodies the paradox of belonging simultaneously to an oppressed minority and an oppressed majority, and for good measure being left-handed in a right-handed world. As a self-supporting woman who has the responsibility for elderly relatives, the opportunity for education and employment consonant with my potentialities and training has been a matter of personal survival.

Moreover, in more than 30 years of intensive study of human rights and deep involvement in the civil rights movement I have observed the interrelationships between what is often referred to as racism and sexism (Jim Crow and Jane Crow), and have been unable to avoid the conclusion that discrimination because of one’s sex is just as degrading, dehumanizing, immoral, unjust, indefensible, infuriating and capable of producing societal turmoil as discrimination because of one’s race.

Mrs. GREEN. Could I interrupt you there?

I talked to Shirley Chisholm yesterday and she tells me very emphatically that she has suffered far greater discrimination as a woman than she has suffered as a black.

Dr. MURRAY. One spends 50 years of one’s life trying to get equal civil rights because of one’s race and turns around and finds one must spend the second 50 years, if you should live so long, to get one’s rights because of sex.

. . .

In matters of discrimination, although it is true that manifestations of racial prejudice have often been more brutal than the subtler manifestations of sex bias—for example, the use of ridicule, of women as the psychic counterpart of violence against Negroes—it is also true that the rights of women and the rights of Negroes are only different phases of the fundamental and indivisible issue of human rights for all.

There are those who would have us believe that the struggle against racism is the No. 1 issue of human relations in the United States and must take priority over all other issues. I must respectfully dissent from this view. The struggle against sexism is equally urgent. More than half of all Negroes and other ethnic minorities are women. The costly lesson of our own history in the United States is that when the rights of one group are affirmed and those of another group are ignored, the consequences are tragic.

Whenever political expediency has dictated that the recognition of basic human rights be postponed, the resulting dissension and conflict has been aggravated. This lesson has been driven home to use time after time—in the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, the violent upheavals of labor, and in the Negro revolt of the 1960’s.

. . .

It seems clear that we are witnessing a worldwide revolution in human rights in which traditionally excluded or alienated groups—blacks, women, youth, various ethnic minorities and social minorities, the handicapped, and so forth—are all demanding the right to be accepted as persons and to share fully in making the decisions which shape their destinies.

Negroes and women are the two largest groups of minority status in the United States. The racial problem has been made visible and periodically more acute because of the peculiar history of black slavery and racial caste which produced a civil war and its bloody aftermath.

The acuteness of racism has forced us to engage in national self-examination and the growing militancy of our black minority has compelled us as a nation to reverse our former racist policies, at least in a formal legal sense. In neglecting to appreciate fully the indivisibility of human rights, however, we have often reacted with the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease approach and not given sufficient attention to the legitimate claims of other disadvantaged groups—poor whites, women, American Indians, Americans of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Oriental origin, and the like. In so doing, we have often set in motion conditions which have created a backlash and which, if developed to an intense degree, would threaten to destroy the gains which Negroes have made over the past few decades, meager as these gains may have been for the masses of blacks.

The fact that women constitute more than 51 percent of the population, the very pervasiveness of sex discrimination which cuts across all racial, religious, ethnic, economic, and social groups, and the fact that women have cause to believe they are not taken seriously—all these combine to make the revitalized movement for women’s liberation in the 1970’s an instrument for potential widespread disruption if its legitimate claims are not honored.

Given the tendency of privileged groups to retain their power and privilege and to play one disadvantaged group off against another, and given the accelerating militancy of Women’s Liberation, there is a grave danger of a head on collision of this movement with the movement for black liberation unless our decision makers recognize and implement the rights of all.

Dr. Ann Harris in her testimony before the subcommittee has referred to attempts to satisfy the claims of black militants at the expense of women in institutions of higher learning. Her statement can be duplicated in incident after incident in Government, private industry, and in education.

Mrs. GREEN. Do any one of the three of you, Dr. Murray, know how many universities still require a higher grade point average for admission for women than for men?

Dr. MURRAY. I am told my university, Brandeis, does. This is sheer hearsay. I do not have any official information. The reason given for this, however, is a very interesting one.

It is said that the women of Brandeis, on the average, make higher scores on the college boards than do the men. So that if the women were admitted in accordance with their scholastic ability, there would be probably a much greater majority of women than of men, and this would then create social problems.

. . .

Men have become enslaved by their dependency as well as their dominance. They pay a heavy price in shortened lives, military casualties, broken homes and the heartbreak of parents whose children are alienated from them. Many men find themselves unable to live up to the expectations of masculinity which men have defined for themselves, and many are now chagrined to find that women are no longer willing to accept the role of femininity which men have defined for women.

Just as blacks have found it necessary to opt for self-definition, women are seeking their own image of themselves nurtured from within rather than imposed from without. I am led to the hypothesis that we will be unable to eradicate racism in the United States unless and until we simultaneously remove all sex barriers which inhibit the development of individual talents. I am further convinced that the price of our survival as a nation is the sharing of our power and wealth—or rather the redistribution of this power and wealth—among black and white, rich and poor, men and women, old and young, red and brown and all the in-betweens.

This requires more than “objectivity.” It demands a sensitivity, a recognition that individual human beings lie behind those depressing facts which have been assembled here. It demands that we women, who are the petitioners before Congress symbolized by this subcommittee, keep before us the goal of liberating our own humanity and that of our male counterparts. It demands from those who hold formal power—predominantly white males—something closely akin to conversion, the imagination and vision to realize that an androgynous society is vastly superior to a patriarchal society—which we now are—and that the liberation of women through legislation, through a restructuring of our political and social institutions, and through a change of our cultural conditioning may well hold the key to many of the complex social issues for which we do not now have answers.


I earnestly hope that this subcommittee will invite representative women from other minority groups and other economic and social sectors of American life to enrich this record with their views and social concerns. I listened to some of these women a few days ago at the Golden Jubilee Anniversary Conference of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor and believe that they can provide the members of this subcommittee with valuable insights with respect to the proposed legislation.

It is my special responsibility, however, to speak on behalf of Negro women who constitute about 93 percent of all nonwhite women, and I wish to call to your attention an article which appeared in the March 1970 Crisis published by NAACP, “Job Discrimination and the Black Women,” by Miss Sonia Pressman, senior attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an expert in the law of race and sex discrimination.

This document presents the special problems of Negro/black women because of their dual victimization by race and sex-based discrimination coupled with the disproportionate responsibilities they carry for the economic and social welfare of their families compared with their white counterparts. All that has been reported here with respect to women generally applies with particular poignance to Negro women who, as Miss Pressman points out, are at the bottom of the economic totem pole.

In 1966 the median income of a nonwhite woman who had completed high school was less ($2,475) than that of a nonwhite man who had 8 years of education ($3,681) or that of a white man who had not completed eighth grade ($2,945). (1969 Handbook on Women Workers, Women’s Bureau Bulletin 294, p. 141.)

Consider the fact that while women generally in the United States are the responsible heads of 11 percent (5.2 million) of all families, in March 1966 nonwhite women headed one-fourth of the 4.4 million nonwhite families.

I might underscore the fact that the women who are the responsible economic heads of their families constitute as large a minority as the black minority.

Nearly four out of ten (or 1,871,000) nonwhite families were living in poverty in 1965. Of the 3,860,000 white families headed by a woman, 30 percent were poor. Of the 1,132,000 nonwhite families headed by a woman, 62 percent were poor. (1969 Handbook on Women Workers, pp. 130–131; Negro Women, p. 3)

Although on the average, Negro women have slightly more schooling than Negro men at the elementary and high school levels, their depressed wages stem from the fact they are concentrated in low-paying jobs as service workers and private household workers. Of the 2.9 million Negro women 18 years and over employed in March 1966, 58.5 percent held jobs as service workers including private household work.

When the fact that the 1968 median wage of full-time year-round household workers 14 years of age and older was only $1,523 is taken into account (see Labor D.C. (WB 70–193), p. 1), we can understand more clearly why protection against both race and sex discrimination is crucial not merely for the Negro woman as an individual, but also for millions of black youth in families headed by black women.

The Negro woman has a higher rate of unemployment, a higher incidence of poverty, a greater proportionately economic responsibility and less overall opportunity than white women or black or white men. If we are genuinely concerned about removing the causes of racial conflict, we must relate the statistics I have just described to the deep anger of black teenage girls and black women.

The comparative unemployment rates by sex, color, and age, 1954–66, are depicted in chart D, “Negro Women,” page 10, which has been introduced as an exhibit. You will note the sharp rise in the unemployment rate of nonwhite teenage girls (14 to 19 years of age) coupled with a sharp drop in the unemployment rate for nonwhite teenage boys and a gradual sloping for white male and female teenagers. The rates of unemployment in 1966 are as follows: White males, 2.9 percent; white females, 4.3 percent, nonwhite males, 6.6 percent; and nonwhite females 8.8 percent.

The rate of unemployment among nonwhite female teenagers, 14 to 19 years of age, was highest of all: White males, 9.9 percent; white female, 11.0 percent; nonwhite males, 21.2 percent; and nonwhite females, 31.1 percent.

. . .

Dr. MURRAY. It is in part, I think, because much of the organization among women today, that is, the organization for action against discrimination, is taking place particularly among the professional and academic women and women in the higher industrial occupations climbing the ladder to higher paying jobs.

The lower economically paid women, I don’t think, are as well organized. They are not often in trade unions. When they are black women, very often they are organized in the welfare rights organizations to some extent, but the tragedy of black women today is that they are brainwashed by the notion that priority must be given to the assertion of black male manhood and that they must now stand back and push their men forward.

What this means, in essence, is that while the militant rhetoric is that we are rejecting the values of white society; on the other hand, we are holding on very definitely to the patriarchal aspect of white America, and I think it is tragic and I stand against it. But it partly explains why these women aren’t coming in here demanding equal opportunities for girls who are threatened with poverty.

. . .

It is important to recognize that while the appallingly low economic status of Negro women is related to lack of educational opportunity, it is integrally related to dual discrimination. A week ago, June 12, I listened to the Honorable Arthur A. Fletcher, Assistant Secretary of Labor, addressing the 50th anniversary conference of the Women’s Bureau and telling the 1,000 women assembled there from every geographical and social sector of the Nation the moving story of how his own mother carried the heavier economic load in rearing her children, although his father worked hard to do his share.

Mr. Fletcher explained that his mother held two college degrees, but was forced to support her family by employment as a domestic worker.

My own struggle for higher education through college and law school apart from scholarships for tuition was financed by working as a waitress, dishwasher, elevator operator, night switchboard clerk, and bus girl in a large hotel in Washington during World War II. In this last job the waiters whom we bus girls served were all Negro males, but they tipped us only 25 cents per night.

Our salary of $1.50 per night plus a second-class meal supplemented by what we could steal from the kitchen constituted our weekly wage. If anyone should ask a Negro woman what is her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, “I survived.”

. . .

Amendment of title VI, Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include “Sex”

I respectfully submit that in light of the widespread discrimination against women in many areas and in light of the need to protect all groups of minority status against actual or potential discrimination, as a rule of thumb all antidiscrimination measures should include sex along with race, color, religion, national origin, age, and other prohibited bases of discrimination. I do not have time to document the assertion that women are discriminated against in housing (particularly single women or women separated from their husbands), in public accommodations, in criminal law, in jury service, as well as in educational and employment opportunities.

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Education and Labor, Discrimination Against Women, 91st Congress, 2d Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).