Comparing the Daily Lives of African American Women in the 1940s and Today




For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America, Black women were an after-thought in our nation’s history. They were the mammies and maids, the cooks and caregivers, the universal shoulder to cry on in times of trouble. Often overlooked and undervalued, Black women were just ... there.
African American women have come a long way. In the 1940s, women were treated as second-class citizens and Blacks faced discrimination everywhere they looked. They were not taught to be proud of being Black (Dressier, 1985). They had a hard time going to school. Black children were not taught Black history. African Americans were not able to have a sense of pride about themselves or their culture (Farley & Allen, 1987).
In this paper, I will try to describe and compare the lives of African American women around the time of World War II, a period of great change in the U.S., with their lives today. Due to the enormity of this subject, I am limiting my scope to the discrimination and the resulting economic hardships African American women in particular have endured.

Discrimination in Daily Life
In 1940, it was very difficult for Blacks to get a job due to discrimination. Naomi Craig, an African American and former World War II defense plant worker, describes that when she graduated from high school, she could not get a job. “I went to the offices of the different insurance companies. I was a crackerjack stenographer, and I was smart, but I was colored. When I would go down for a job, the girl in the office would look at me and then call for the employer. He’d come out; he’d say, ‘Uh, uh Miss Jennings, um, yes, well the job is filled.’ I’d go home and call right back. ‘Is there a position open as a secretary in your office?’ ‘Yes there is.’ By my voice, he didn’t know that I was colored because I spoke the same as anybody else. So I said, ‘I was just down there.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Oh were you the Miss Jennings that was down here?’ I said, ‘Yes, I was.’ He said, ‘Oh, well one of the girls...’ I said, ‘You said the job was open.’ He said, ‘Well, one of the girls has decided that she’s going to take it.’ And this was the run-around that I got” (Dressier, 1985).
“When we first worked there was no such thing, for instance, as a coffee break. And there was no such thing as leaving at five o’clock if there was still work to do. I stayed many a night until six o’clock or two o’clock on a Saturday because the work had to be done. You didn’t get paid for that. There was no such thing as overtime. We were very used to long hours. I was used to working two nights a week until ten o’clock and every other weekend. And if I didn’t work the full weekend, I would work Saturday one week and Sunday another week. So there was no such thing as a five-day week. In those days as soon as a woman married, she lost her job (Dressier, 1985).”
“When I went to the school department where they were giving out jobs to help people they said to me, ‘Naomi Jennings, you’ve done very well, haven’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I have.’ She said, ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we don’t have any jobs for you as a secretary or a stenographer.’ Because these jobs were going to white girls. I said, ‘There’s nothing for me?’ She said, ‘I have a little job for you taking care of these twins if you want to take that.’ I said, ‘No, thank you.’ And I went out. You know I was crying. I cried all the way home. I got home and I said to my mother, ‘I’m never going to be able to work.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because they’re only giving out jobs to white people.’ She said, ‘That shouldn’t be.’ I said, ‘it shouldn’t be, but it is’ (Dressier, 1985).”
When the war came, women went to work for the first time in factories and driving trucks. If a delivery truck came to your