Gender, Race, and the Policies of the Labor Department

By Boris, Eileen; Honey, Michael | Monthly Labor Review, February 1988 | Go to article overview

Gender, Race, and the Policies of the Labor Department


Boris, Eileen, Honey, Michael, Monthly Labor Review


Gender, race, and the policies of the Labor Department

Promoting equal job opportunity for women and minority men, of little concern in the Department's early years, made headway in the 1960's and 1970's EILEEN BORIS AND MICHAEL HONEY

When Congress established the Department of Labor in 1913, both women and minority men faced limited employment opportunities. Throughout the Nation, white women in the labor force found themselves in low-paying industrial, clerical, and retail positions. Most Afro-Americans remainded in the South where they worked as sherecroppers and agricultural laborers or, if female, domestic servants. But, lured to the North by better-paying industrial work and the labor shortages of the World War 1 years, blacks would soon begin that mass exodus called the "Great Migration."(1)

(1)For a discussion of labor market segmentation by race and sex, see William Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982); and Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982).

While race and gender stood as key determinants of occupation, neither the employment status of women nor that of minority of men was among early DOL priorities. The first years of the Department were taken up with other matters, particularly the conciliation of labor disputes. Moreover, the Department took its modern form at the very time that President Woodrow Wilson, under congressional pressure, segregated Federal eating and restroom facilities by race and phased most blacks out of the civil service.(2)

(2)See John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 5th ed. (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), pp. 227-318. On the early history of the Department of Labor, see Jonathan Grossman, The Department of Labor (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1973), pp. 3-30.

Early departmental program reflected cultural attitudes towards both white women and Afro-Americans, and thus reinforced the existing division of labor by race and sex. They also suggest how the Department, and the Government as a whole, addressed the need of women seperately from those minorities, with the problems of minority women often getting lost between the two. The United States Employment Service, and agency of Labor Department, established a women's and girl's division at the end of 1916 "to guide (women) in desirable industry and avoidance of occupations and places where evil conditions exist." With its emphasis on "suitable" employments and its concern with labor standards such as minimum wages and maximum hours (known as protective labor legislation), this division embodied an attitude that would persist until the late 1960's: (White) women workers required protection on the job because their biology supposedly made them different from men, and thus only certain employments were appropriate for the mothers of the nation.(3) (3)For the history of protective legislation, see Judith Baer, The Chains of Protection: The Judicial Response to Women's Labor Legislation (Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1978). See also U.S. Department of Labor, Fourth Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office), pp. 62-64.

The social place of Afro-Americans similarily shaped DOL treatment of them. During the early years of the Great Migration, the U.S. Employment Service assisted blacks who sought employment in the North by advising them on available jobs; later, complaints from southern employers, who feared losing their abundant labor supply, led the agency to "withdraw its facilities from group migration."(4)

(4)Reports of the Department of Labor, 1917 (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1918), pp. 79-80.

With the onset of World War 1, the Nation hurried to mobilize its labor power while simultaneously increasing productivity. …

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