SLATE: Rethinking Work-Life Balance for Women of Color – Upspoken

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SLATE: Rethinking Work-Life Balance for Women of Color


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By Kimberly Seals Allers | March 5, 2018


Editor’s note, April 18, 2018: The original version of this article contained two sentences from an article in the Guardian without quotation marks or proper attribution. This is not up to Slate’s standards and we regret the error. The post has been revised with attribution and a link to properly credit the Guardian and its writers, Molly Redden and Jana Kasperkevic.

The pushback against institutionalized work patterns and the movement for work-life balance is an emerging, yet critical wing of feminism that is long overdue. But this wave can’t ignore the unique circumstances of women of color nor the socioeconomic dynamics of how white women came to even begin to have the conversation about work-life balance in the first place. Throughout history, white women have used the labor of women of color to reduce their own domestic burden and free themselves up for corporate and civic pursuits. Simply put, the labor of Black, Hispanic and Asian American women has raised white women’s standard of living.

So if we’re talking about work-life balance, let’s be clear that many white women of means have achieved that balance standing on the backs of women of color.

After all, women of color’s participation in the labor force has always outpaced that of white women. As early as 1900, 26 percent of married black women were employed, compared to only 3.2 percent of white women. Asian American wives also had high employment rates, according to Evelyn Nakano Glenn in “Cleaning Up/Kept Down: A Historical Perspective on Racial Inequality in ‘Women’s Work.’ ” And there was a time when the only work options available to women of color were doing the work that white women of means did not want to do. White women needed us and we needed them.

So we breast-fed your babies. We raised your children. We cleaned your houses. We did your laundry. We cooked your food.

By 1920, for example, black women comprised 82 percent of the female servants in the South; native born white women made up 15 percent and foreign born Whites accounted for the remaining three percent. In southwestern cities such as El Paso and Denver, approximately half of all employed Mexican women were domestic or laundry workers. In 1930, half of all employed Japanese women in the San Francisco Bay area were private household workers, according to Glenn. The cultural norm was concretized and repeated. Today, women of color and immigrants dominate the domestic worker ranks, comprising some 54 percent of that workforce compared to 46 percent whites. Yet, the 2012 Domestic Workers Survey found that white domestic workers had the highest median wages compared to women of color.