THE CHAINS THAT BIND: ERA and the Southern Black Woman
By Sylvia Crudup Cole
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 19-21
Congress voted recently to extend -the- period for the states to ratify the ERA until June 30, 1982. This action, however, did not have support of many Southern Congressmen. They showed the same hostility to the amendment already shown by Southern state legislators, whose lack of support has so far helped block ratification. Since 1972, 35 states have ratified the proposed federal constitutional amendment and only three are needed for ERA to become law. Of the 15 states left to ratify, 10 of them, astoundingly, are Southern.
Yet, not all the blame for the status of the ERA can be placed on the male-dominated Southern Congressional delegates and legislators. Ironically, Black women in the South, who suffer greater discrimination than their White counterparts because of both racism and sexism and who probably would be one of the prime beneficiaries of a ratified ERA, have done little to support it.
Their lack of support for the ERA is difficult to understand in light of their extremely disadvantaged position. Recent studies show that a great disparity still exists in the salaries of Southern minority employees and nonminority employees in both the public and private sectors. According to a study prepared by the Southern Regional Council which examined the employment practices in
city government in 16 medium-sized Southern cities, Black women were found to be the lowest on the totem pole in all instances. In fact, in 1975 no Black women earned more than $13,000 per year and in all 16 cities combined only 62 earned more than $8,000 per year.
The Southern Black woman is indeed at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Besides low earnings, she is more likely than her White counterpart to work in menial, back-breaking service occupations. Atop that, she is more often the breadwinner in the household. For minority families, one in three homes are headed by a woman, as compared with one out of eight for White women. Among married women, two out of three work because of pressing economic need. However, their annual median income is only $7,831 as compared to $8,376 for White females. This compares to a median income of $10,222 for Black men and $14,272 for White men.
The ERA is supposed to be a tool, as the Civil Rights legislation is a tool, for insuring the rights of groups facing both social and institutionalized racism. If ratified, it could help insure equal fringe benefits in employment, like equal chances for advancement, improved maternity leaves, free and adequate child care and safe and legal abortions, all areas of major concern and significance to Black women. Why then doesn’t the Southern Black woman actively support the movement to ratify the ERA?
According to research collected from indepth conversations with numerous Black women and men, Black women’s lack of support for the ERA is not due to unconcern for their plight, but rather to three deep-seated myths that they are still struggling with about themselves.
They are (1) the myth of Black matriarchy; (2) the notion that Black women are emasculators of Black men; and (3) that they have always been liberated. A fourth factor that comes into play is the fact that the Women’s Movement is often viewed as a White, middle-class issue.
The first myth derived from the fact that a significant number of minority homes were headed by women, especially in the South where Black men found it even more difficult than Black women to provide for families. The idea developed that these female-headed households were deliberately created and perpetuated by the Black woman, and that it was indicative of the domination of females in the Black culture.
This myth has caused many Black women to work hard at freeing themselves of the matriarchial figure by limiting themselves to the traditional role of homemaker. They feel they should not be out front changing people’s lives and attitudes. These women, therefore, will claim limited interest of show outright resistance to women’s rights. The adverse effects of the myth of the Black matriarchy are so deeply ingrained that some Black women fail to even see the need to change their own lives.
Some women fear that rights for minority men will be diminished at the expense of minority women. This fear is even more highly expressed in areas like the South where only recently minority males have begun to gain access to positions of power in greater numbers. (An SRC study on the employment practices in Atlanta city government revealed that Black males in significant numbers have moved into the kind of government jobs that historically were held only by White males, but Black women were again left behind in low-status, lowsalaried positions).
As Women’s groups have often pointed out, there is a direct correlation between what women are trying to achieve and what minorities are trying to accomplish. Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment could promote relationships based on equal partnership without the need for establishing any dominant party based on irrelevant criteria such as one’s sex. This could thus bring minority women and men closer together freeing them to work on other priority issues.
However, minority women concerned about their plight express the fear that equal rights for women may cause conflict between them and their men. Some outright reject the Movement on this basis alone. One prominent minority woman concerned about unity of her race declared recently that she was Black first and female second. It is unfortunate that minority women should have to feel that they must identify first as a minority and second as a woman. Discussions of this type cause some minority women to feel they should not aspire to high achievement as women in non-traditional areas. The effect on some others is that they should not aspire to high achievement even in traditional areas.
The result of this kind of thinking in Black women is not only a denial of their own competence, submerging their ability and their own real need to aspire, but also promotes a decrease in the availability of minorities who could move into higher level positions. In effect, it contributes directly to limited opportunities for the race.
Thus, unwittingly and unknowingly, minority men and women contribute to the shrinking of the minority resource pool which ultimately decreases opportunities for both. They may inadvertently reinforce the concept of male supremacy for the minority male while trying to promote racial unity.
The other issue which has caused some women a source of conflict is the belief that Black women have always been liberated simply because they enjoyed greater access to the majority culture than Black men. This access was due mainly to the fact that Black women held positions as domestic workers in White homes. The role of being breadwinner for their families caused many Blacks, even Black women themselves, to feel that they were already liberated, thus having little need to press for women’s rights.
The fallacy here comes from a misinterpretation of what liberation really is. Liberation is freedom to choose
– the right to set limits for oneself and not have those limits set by others. It means having the right to choose and to enjoy job and career opportunities. When a woman is forced to work out of economic necessity, she should have equal access to training, education and jobs that allow her to become what she wishes for herself.
The clear mandate which would be provided by the Equal Rights Amendment is critically needed by the Black woman in the South. We need to look at equal opportunity in the South in employment, housing, child care, health care and credit and educational opportunities. Black women in the South are especially vulnerable to discriminatory practices prevalent in the job market. The South can ill afford to avoid or oppose the issue of equal rights. ERA can be a valuable tool for equality on all fronts and it is a movement which the Southern Black woman must join and embrace fully.
Sylvia Crudup Cole is an education consultant with the State Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh, North Carolina.