Black Women’s Centrality to the Class Struggle

June 12, 2021

The Cover of the book 'Gateway to Equality'
Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis
by Keona K. Ervin
University of Kentucky Press
2017

In Gateway to Equality, Keona Ervin explores the lives and activist projects of working class Black women in mid-twentieth century St. Louis, Missouri. Ervin’s book is nuanced and rich, combining acute detail with a lively and clear style of presentation that serves her subject extremely well and makes Gateway to Equality an engaging and compelling read. Before turning to the particulars of Ervin’s account of how Black women in St. Louis agitated for justice and helped build the workers’ movement, it is useful to take a moment here to situate the importance of such an account within a tradition of Black women’s activism and thought rooted in class struggle.

In her 1949 speech, “An End to the Neglect of the Negro Woman!” the Trinidad-born socialist Claudia Jones, then a member of the Communist Party–USA, put forward her theory of the “triple oppression” of working class Black women. Jones argued that these women held a specially significant position within the United States’ political landscape, occupying a role shaped simultaneously by racism, sexism, and class exploitation. Jones wrote:

Only to the extent that we fight all chauvinist expressions and actions as regards the Negro people and fight for the full equality of the Negro people, can women as a whole advance their struggle for equal rights. For the progressive women’s movement, the Negro woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Negro, and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness.1Jones, Claudia, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, ed. (New York: New Press, 1995), 120.

Thus, Jones concluded, the situation of Black women was not an issue of minor note that would sort itself out “after the revolution,” nor was it a matter that could be subordinated to “pure” class struggle devoid of particular attention to race or gender oppression. Centering an analysis of Black women’s lives and developing Black women socialist cadre was instead a necessary precondition for any successful revolutionary practice. To win, the movement needed to take up the demands of the whole working class, many of whom were not only exploited on the basis of class but also specially oppressed on the basis of racial and gender identity in ways that further reinforced economic exploitation.

Angela Davis takes up this line of thought throughout her work, for example in her pathbreaking, Women, Race, and Class, where she argues that it is impossible to understand the positionality of Black women in the United States without understanding that Black women saw their “womanhood” as essentially tied to their economic value as workers. It is within the context of chattel slavery that concepts of “Blackness” and “Black womanhood” first emerged. Thus, Davis writes, “the starting point for any exploration of Black women’s lives under slavery would be an appraisal of their role as workers.”2Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, & Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 5.

Throughout much of US history, to be Black was, if not to be a chattel slave, then to be a member of the working class. Though the Black petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie have grown in recent decades, this remains largely the case today. And far from lacking the appropriate lenses with which to understand race- and gender-based oppression, the socialist movement in the United States has long included the voices of Black women thinkers who have demonstrated the particular usefulness of class analysis and the particular effectiveness of class struggle to liberate those who are specially oppressed. Rather than depicting race, gender, and class-based struggles as wholly separate and conflicting efforts, the experiences of Black women in the workers’ movement demonstrate the essential interrelation of these fights.

Just as the observations of Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, and others would guide us to predict, Black women workers played a crucial role in building the workers’ movement and developing its emancipatory potential.

This is a point beautifully taken up and illustrated by Ervin in Gateway to Equality. Just as the observations of Jones, Davis, and others would guide us to predict, Black women workers played a crucial role in building the workers’ movement and developing its emancipatory potential. As Ervin writes, in activist struggles throughout the mid-twentieth century, “Women merged feminist, labor, Black freedom, and antipoverty agendas to construct broad visions of community empowerment and democratically controlled landscapes.”3Keona K. Ervin, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017), 4.

St. Louis, of course, is a city with special significance in our contemporary racial politics; it is in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, that an unarmed 18-year-old young Black man, Michael Brown, Jr., was gunned down by the police. This event served as a flashpoint for widespread popular protest that would eventually blossom into the Movement for Black Lives. Ervin’s lucid narration and highly detailed archival work offer a window onto the longer history of Black struggle in this town. She links this struggle to processes of industrial super-exploitation that would later be supplanted by deindustrialization and the corporate abandonment of St. Louis’s Black communities, offering her readers a richer context within which to understand the conditions Black people experience in Midwestern towns like St. Louis.

Gateway to Equality is organized as a series of case studies, a style of presentation that allows the reader to sink their teeth into the specific contours of each separate narrative while appreciating the parallels among them. Ervin begins with discussions of food processing and domestic workers agitating for better working conditions, goes on to discuss youth activism organized around desegregating staffing at local retail outlets, and follows this with an account of defense workers’ struggles. She moves on to discuss multiracial unionism among garment workers, and finally, details workers’ battles against racial inequality in the aftermath of World War II. Ervin’s narrative spans the period from the Funsten Nut Strike of 1933 to the St. Louis rent strike of 1969, documenting a period of heightened class-conscious activism that faced new and formidable ruling class challenges with the neoliberalism of the 1970s.

The first of six case studies which make up the bulk of Gateway to Equality focuses on the Black women workers who organized their workplace at the R.E. Funsten Nut Company and led a successful strike for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. In the midst of the Great Depression, and against the backdrop of unemployment rates as high as 75 percent for Black residents of St. Louis, Funsten paid starvation wages to its largely female, predominantly Black workforce, all while continuing to churn out high profits. The strike had the support of the Communist Party USA and drew on the CPUSA’s work organizing the unemployed.

The bosses at Funsten used race to divide workers—segregating the workplace and offering slightly higher starvation wages to white, largely Polish, immigrant workers. But Black women like Carrie Smith combated this, organizing Black and white women together into a multiracial coalition demanding higher wages across the board. Ervin writes, “the strike established Black working-class women as central actors in the battle for workers’ rights. Black working-class women formed the majority of the leadership and the rank and file; they were the face of the struggle.”4Ibid., 24. The activism of nut shellers in St. Louis sparked further working class rebellion.

The second of Ervin’s case studies addresses domestic workers’ organizing. While enduring low pay, grueling work and heightened exposure to sexual abuse and harassment, domestic workers tended to be overlooked by traditional labor organizing efforts. Ervin writes, “Black domestic workers of St. Louis employed the local chapter of the Urban League’s Women’s Division to carve out a space for themselves in a growing, predominantly white male labor movement.”5Ibid., 54. Since the St. Louis Urban League had become by the mid-1930s a clearinghouse for domestic labor opportunities open to Black workers, these workers hoped the League could help seek improvements in their working conditions. As Ervin details, the gains made by this strategy were modest—the Urban League was notably less militant than CPUSA, to put it mildly.

Ervin next takes up the story of the Colored Clerks’ Circle (CCC) who, following in the footsteps of the St. Louis Housewives’ League, picketed retail stores in St. Louis to demand that their workforces be desegregated and that jobs be open to Black workers. This was largely youth-led activism aimed at addressing the concerns of Black women as workers. It represented a departure from bourgeois aspirations of what we might now call the “respectability politics” that permeated much mainstream Black organizing at the time. Ervin writes:

Instead of centering its mission on strengthening black businesses or even on the consumption practices of black “housewives,” CCC activists connected the fight for the economic security of young black women to notions of committed and principled racial advocacy. Conflict with black religious leaders and racial uplift organizations highlighted the disruptive nature of the CCC politics.6Ibid., 95.

St. Louis featured one of the most active chapters of the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) in 1944. Under the aegis of MOWM organizing, Black women linked the struggle against fascism in Europe with the battle against racism in the US. The increase in jobs related to the defense effort offered a reprieve from the crushing economic despair of the Great Depression. However, Black women workers had to agitate in defense of their interests as workers experiencing the “triple oppression” identified by Claudia Jones.

Ervin recounts that even employers who hired Black male workers often refused to hire Black women, so as to avoid having these women working side-by-side with whites. “White working-class women, certainly precarious workers in their own right, perceived Black working-class women as a threat to their livelihood, as evidenced by their fears that managers would replace them,” Ervin writes. Indeed, in one case when Black women were hired at the General Cable Corporation, “more than one hundred white women walked off the job.”7Ibid., 114-15.

The final two case studies in Gateway to Equality draw our attention to the situation of St. Louis garment workers in the 1940s and to Black St. Louisans’ struggles for decent housing in the 1950s. Ervin details how Black women workers in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union realized the promise of the earlier nut shellers’ strike that put Black working-class women’s organizing at the forefront of multiracial working class unity and activism. To do so, Black women workers had to confront damaging stereotypes imposed by employers, union officials, and even “Black uplift” organizations such as the Urban League, which, Ervin argues, tended to pathologize working class Black women’s resistance to poor workplace conditions rather than interpret them as reasonable refusal.

In the postwar period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, “Black working-class women were situated and situated themselves at the center of the overlapping battles that constituted St. Louis’s contribution to the debate over the long-term vitality of American cities.”8Ibid., 145. In St. Louis, as in many cities, the poor housing conditions many Black residents faced served as a pretense for “urban renewal.” These efforts pushed Blacks out of their neighborhoods and served the interests of business, while leaving Black residents displaced and often worse off than they’d been before. While Black workers experienced a number of political and economic defeats during this period, Ervin points to the experiences of Black working class women whose organizing helped lay the groundwork for later outbreaks of struggle, such as the 1969 rent strike waged by tenants of St. Louis public housing.

The content inherent in the category of ‘worker’ itself is determined in great part by Black women operating at the helm of various workers’ struggles.

Ervin draws together these case studies in the history of Black working class women’s activism in St. Louis not only to present them as a narrative—which would be extremely worthwhile in its own right—but as evidence to substantiate the thesis that animates her book. Her argument is that not only must the experience of Black working class women be part of any complete account of workers’ struggle in the United States, but moreover that the content inherent in the category of “worker” itself is determined in great part by Black women operating at the helm of various workers’ struggles. It is therefore inadequate to write theory and history as well as to organize presuming the working class is white and male and then concede here and there that some workers are not. Concretely, when we look at the histories of places like St. Louis, workers’ struggle has always also been struggle against special oppression based on identity categories such as race and gender.

Ervin’s painstaking study is especially significant given contemporary tensions between interpretations of specially oppressed workers’ lives that position themselves, often in opposition to one another, as either Marxist or intersectional. Ervin’s text never wavers from centering the class position of the people whose lives and struggles she places under study. After all, for them too, it was the question of how and under what conditions they would access the necessities of life, that was central.

And yet, that focus does not lead to downplaying their racial and gender identities and how these impacted their lives. Quite the opposite: For while their relationship to capital and employment played an outsized role in determining the conditions of their existence, the interrelation of race, gender, and class are crucial to understanding how, under what circumstances, and with what weapons they waged their struggle for justice. While “class” as a category can be analytically abstracted from “gender” and “race,” class as it is lived cannot be.

The history Ervin relates in Gateway to Equality identifies numerous obstacles to Black working class women’s emancipation dreams. These obstacles sometimes included mainstream Black “racial uplift” organizations such as the St. Louis chapter of the Urban League, the racism of white women including other white women workers, and a broader labor movement that failed to take the concerns of specially oppressed workers seriously. There are many lessons in Ervin’s book for us today as the landscape of respectability politics, “white” feminism, and labor bureaucracy she details in mid-twentieth century St. Louis is all too familiar still. While the text’s central focus is drawn tightly around a certain historical time and place, its relevance is enduring and broad for those fighting for emancipation from economic exploitation and identity-based oppression today.

  1. Jones, Claudia, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, ed. (New York: New Press, 1995), 120.
  2. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, & Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 5.
  3. Keona K. Ervin, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017), 4.
  4. Ibid., 24.
  5. Ibid., 54.
  6. Ibid., 95.
  7. Ibid., 114-15.
  8. Ibid., 145.
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