Breaking Barriers and Staying Resilient: Black Women during WWII
Dionne Brand examines the history of Black female entry into jobs outside of the domestic sphere in “‘We weren’t allowed to go into factory work until Hitler started the war’: The 1920s to the 1940s”. By interviewing various women and archiving their experiences during World War II in Canada, it’s clear that Black women could not access other work fields due to their race and gender. Black men were regulated to labour-intensive jobs while Black women were pigeonholed into domestic work. These jobs did not offer women reasonable pay as some were paid through items of clothing instead of money. As a result domestic work kept Black women stagnant in the early twentieth century due to low income and high work demands however the oncoming war opened up the job market.
Since white men were required to serve for the Canadian forces, industrial jobs were increasing and allowed women to break gender norms and access the mechanical work industry. Marjorie Lewsey mentions this in her anecdote saying, “Really and truly, we weren’t allowed to go into factory work until Hitler started the war, and then they’d beg you, ‘Would you like a job in my factory?’ But we weren’t allowed in [before]. We were left more or less to clean their dirty houses” (Bristow 179).
Black men also considered the war their opportunity to raise their rank in society through economic means as well as educational resources offered to soldiers and veterans. As Black men took these opportunities Black women shared the same beliefs since industrial jobs offered a consistent and higher salary than domestic work. An anecdote from Bertha McAleer expresses this as she says, “When I come to think of it – my goodness, the place could’ve been blown up! You didn’t really think too much about it, not when you’re younger” (Bristow 185). The increased pay outweighed working conditions since it was a means to survive and a job opportunity outside of the tired, unwanted domestic sphere. And even though fighting in the war and working in industrial factories were marketed as a time to step up for the country, most people took these jobs for economic purposes rather than following their patriotic duties.
Factories were often integrated and this gave blacks the opportunity to demystify myths, stereotypes, and ignorant thoughts that white people believed. It also proved Black women’s capability to perform the same amount of work as whites so when the war ended they refused to return to their previous jobs. The absence in domestic workers eventually caused white women to resort to migrant workers for their house chores since Black women had opened up new job markets for themselves after the war and refused to return to their disliked working standards before.
Acknowledging the previous obstacles set in place to bracket Black women into certain jobs, their expansion into different work fields was a product of the war rather than societal changes or governmental policies. Remembering this is essential in understanding why Black women continuously have to prove themselves in the workplace since they were never really welcomed there but rather stayed resilient to keep their jobs in their field. Despite the new jobs being an opportunity giving them the ability to combat stereotypical thought, their agency amended a societal norm rather than removing it all together, allowing it to live on today.
Bristow, Peggy. "'We Weren't Allowed to Go into Factory Work until Hitler Started the War': The 1920s to the 1940s." We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1994. 171-92. Print.