The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

Sadie T. Alexander

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.

A strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history.

What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.”

In fact, their employment rates were far enough ahead that by 1960 a majority of black middle-class families — 60 percent — had already adopted the two-earner household model. Among white middle-class families, only 38 percent had adopted that model. Landry’s research found that black households embraced the two-earner model in greater numbers even after accounting for circumstances like economic need (whether a husband’s income alone was adequate) and the age of their children (whether they were old enough to be ready for daily separation from both parents). In similar circumstances, married black women were consistently more interested in finding work outside the home than their white peers.

The value of the change that so many black households had already made cannot be overstated. As Coontz has noted, work outside the home has had many benefits for married women: boosting their confidence and social connectedness, and in many cases, giving them more standing in household decision-making. On a more serious note, work outside the home can also help women leave abusive relationships. Women with a limited amount of employable work skills and work experience are often deterred from leaving abusive relationships in the first place, fearing that without the financial resources they currently have, they will be trading abuse for deprivation. Many who leave later return to abusive relationships for financial reasons. The model of two-earner households has been critical to both the emotional and physical well-being of countless women.

As Black Working Wives details, a strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history. In the introduction, Landry noted that many of the women who pioneered the family revolution among black Americans, like Ida Wells-Barnett, were also some of the first Americans to adopt the practice of hyphenating their surnames at marriage, and black women who entered the professions often found support among their male peers. The historically black Howard University was home to one of the first American medical schools to adopt a gender-blind admissions policy and allow men and women to attend the same classes. Howard University’s medical school maintained its egalitarian policies even when the Association of American Medical Colleges cited those policies as grounds for exclusion from its 1877 annual convention.

That egalitarian tradition also took hold in black households in the 20th century. By 1940, four out of 10 middle-class black families fit the two-earner model common today. The accelerated pace of the family revolution among black Americans continued for decades to come, keeping black households years ahead of white households in the change that was taking place. By 1994, 86 percent of two-parent, middle-class black families fit the two-earner model, compared to 76 percent of middle-class white families.

Landry also found more support for the presence of women in the work force among black men compared to white men. Studies dating back to 1960 show stronger support among black men for independent, self-achieving women.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, so Landry also examined the willingness of married men to share the burden of housework with wives who were employed outside the home. Looking at the 1990s, Landry found that while both black and white men usually fell short of assuming an equitable share of housework with their wives, there was more equity in black households. Black husbands put in an average of 13.2 hours weekly doing housework (or 28.6 percent of an average of 46.1 hours weekly), and white husbands put in 10.4 hours (or 25.4 percent of an average of 40.9 hours weekly).

A more recent testament to the egalitarian tradition among black Americans was a 2011 poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that both black women and black men were more likely than their white counterparts to consider sexism a problem. Participants were asked, “How big a problem is sexism in our society today? Is it a big problem, somewhat of a problem, a small problem or not a problem at all?” Eighty percent of black women and 78 percent of black men answered that it was a big problem or somewhat of a problem; 71 percent of white women and 58 percent of white men answered likewise.

Work toward equality is still needed in all segments of American society, but many black Americans have engaged in that ongoing work with a pioneering spirit — one that deserves recognition and should serve as a model and example to all Americans.