A Decent Living Out of Our Work: Black Women's Labor Activisim in St. Louis, 1929-45

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2009

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation argues that ideas about and responses to black women’s work and labor activism were central to the scope and trajectory of the struggle for racial and economic equality in St. Louis from the Great Depression to the post-World War II period. Largely excluded from organized labor and New Deal legislation, food, domestic, defense, and garment workers formed collective relationships with employers through community organizations and social networks. In building their own labor struggle through partnership with local chapters of the National Urban League, the March on Washington Movement, and the Communist Party, domestics and industrial workers carved out a space for themselves in a growing, predominantly white, male labor movement. Asserting their rights first as those “entitled to live” during the Depression years and a decade later as the final arbiters determining whether the U.S. lived up to its democratic ideals, black working-class women assumed identities as labor activists and so disrupted the masculinist ethos driving black labor politics during the period. As black women linked dignified work, which they defined as employment free of the vestiges of slavery, to living a fuller life, they became for organizers a symbol by which to articulate the social misery many poor people suffered and to call for changes to the social and political order. Black women workers’ political activities and labor narratives, uncovering an intricate tapestry interlacing notions of gender and understandings of citizenship, were critical sites upon which visions of improved livelihoods were constructed. Still, race and gender discrimination prevented black women workers from securing substantive gains. In addition, black women confronted various ideologies, practices, and discourses that often misapprehended their political subjectivity, which both limited and facilitated the transformative potentialities borne out of their oppositional politics. Black women’s workplace activism with, through, and in community-based reform efforts and justice struggles became a primary means to expand definitions of the working-class and the labor movement, transform urban politics, and construct a sturdy platform upon which to build a powerful case for their standing as American citizens.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Andrea Friedman

Committee Members

Jean Allman, Iver Bernstein, Mary Ann Dzuback, Margaret Garb, David R. Roediger


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K71834FX

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