Comparing the Freedom of White Women and African-American Women in the 1920s and the New Deal Era

945 words | 4 page(s)

Over the course of time in America, there have been many movements for freedom for various groups. Perhaps the most prominent of those was the Civil Rights Movement, a 1950s and 1960s effort among black people to gain more rights in the South and beyond. Women have also struggled for their rights, beginning with suffrage and moving toward working and reproductive rights. On some level, the striving for rights has been an issue related to intersectionality. The experience in America for a white woman has been different than the experience of a black woman, even if the two have some overlap because they both implicate the women’s rights movement. One can especially look at the 1920s and the New Deal era to see where differences may lie in the rights that white and black women had. While women in general had to fight for their freedom during these periods, white women tended to enjoy more freedom than black women during both the 1920s and the New Deal era.

The 1920s for white women brought about significant growth in freedom and rights. First, white women made up the entirety of the women’s suffrage movement, which finally concluded successfully with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This amendment gave women the right to vote, but that right was truly only for white women. White women had excluded black women from their efforts, and the advocacy did not make a place for black women, either. At the end of the day, white suffragists were often engaged in their own forms of racism, not wanting to share the stage with black women, who faced even more oppression as a result of their dual identities. Though the 19th Amendment technically gave all women the right to vote, black women were largely excluded because of Jim Crow (Foner). Jim Crow was a pervasive societal force that made it difficult for all black people to vote in many of the states around the country. Black women were subject to literacy tests, to violent resistance, and to poll taxes that made it impossible for them to exercise their rights. This represented a fundamental gap between the two groups in terms of freedom.

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In addition to that, the 1920s provided a vehicle through which many white women experienced social freedom. The “Flapper” movement was a social movement where white women began to dress more progressively, showing more skin and asserting to the white men who controlled society that they were not going to be stopped. This led to more movies with leading ladies and women suggesting that they were alright living outside of the normal conventions they might otherwise face. Black women were not really a part of this movement. Because society was still very much segregated, the concerns of black women when it came to the Flapper movement were simply ignored. However, black women did experience some growth in intellectual and social freedom through the Harlem Renaissance. Many black female writers emerged during this time, putting down their thoughts on paper and exploring the black female experience. Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was one of the most influential writers of this time, and her words were quite impactful. It is true that white female rights movements were exclusionary, but black women were not victims. They rose up and had their own freedom movements in gaining more intellectual and social freedom.

The New Deal presented a complicated situation when thinking about freedom for black and white women. First, the New Deal provided an opportunity for women in general to get out of their previously domestic roles. However, the initial New Deal programs were not aimed at women at all, and had to be reworked by Eleanor Roosevelt, who did not like the discrimination she saw in them. Over time, more of the programs accepted women. In fact, one of the reforms provided more of the opportunity for labor unions to operate freely within the country. This was a good thing for white women, as hundreds of thousands of them joined the unions and gained more protections on things like their working conditions and the number of hours they could be made to work. One of the fundamental elements of the New Deal, however, was the way in which the programs discriminated against black people of both sexes (Foner). While the New Deal was supposed to be a freedom movement that provided people of both sexes with the opportunity to grow in their financial lives, it did not turn out this way in application. Instead, the administrators often came up with creative reasons why black candidates could not apply or be recommended for jobs and services. Black women faced an especially rough uphill climb. This was true because black women had to stare down two forms of discrimination. Sex discrimination and race discrimination ensured that many black women still remained “domestics” if they wanted to work. They were often at the mercy of white homeowners who employed them.

Ultimately the movement forward for rights for women has been disjointed. Not all women gained rights at the same time, and in some respects the early women’s rights movements contributed to racial discrimination. White women gained rights at a faster rate than black women throughout history because the intersection between sex and race created an extra hurdle that the black women had to clear, and the women’s rights movement in general did not concern itself much with the plight of these women.

  • Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History: Seagull Fourth Edition. Vol. 1. WW Norton & Company, 2013.
  • Foner, Eric, ed. Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History. Vol. 2. WW Norton & Company Incorporated, 2008.

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