By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
March 8 is recognized as International Women’s Day (IWD.) The United Nations endorsed IWD in 1945 and provides this history: “International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.”
In North America and various other places, it is taken for granted that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be. More than 100 years ago, when the celebration of IWD began, that was not the case. Most people thought that a woman’s place was in the home, particularly the kitchen, if she did not have domestic help. Supposedly, this mindset was first documented in the play Seven Against Thebes, written by Greek playwright Aeschylus in 467 BC.
In Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction published in 2000, David Wiles writes of the confrontation between the ruler and the women of Thebes which led to the infamous edict: “In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, the male warrior and politician Eteocles condemns the women’s howling as bad for morale, and declares that he will never share a house with anyone of the ‘female race’; the woman’s place is indoors, he insists, and she should express no opinions about the outdoor world of men.”
This sentiment is repeated in the quoting of two proverbs in the 2007 book, Classical and contemporary sociological theory: text and readings by authors Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles: “A woman should leave her home but three times, when she is christened, when she is married, and when she is buried” and, equally outrageous, “The woman, the cat and the chimney should never leave the house.”
This popular sentiment did not hold true for most African-American and African-Canadian women whose place was more than likely toiling in the home of a White family, even after slavery was abolished in Canada on August 1, 1834 and in the U.S. on January 31, 1865. This history is documented in several books including Cooking in other women’s kitchens: domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 published in 2010 by White American author, Rebecca Sharpless, and these by African-American authors: Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (Jacqueline Jones 1985); Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Thavolia Glymph 2008) and To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors (Tera Hunter 2000.)
This reality was not confined to the Southern U.S. In her 2001 work, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940, Vanessa H. May writes about the reality for African-American women in New York: “In the Depression’s cut-throat competitive labor market, black women were left with the lowest paid and least stable jobs in this already low-status occupation. For many black female domestics in New York City, that meant standing in line in one of the 200 ‘slave markets’ that appeared on street corners throughout the five boroughs, but particularly in the Bronx. African American women waited for housewives to stop and offer them a few hours’ work, sometimes for wages as low as ten or fifteen cents an hour. Employers’ racism and greed, along with the workers’ obvious desperation, made street market workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Employers were notorious for lengthening workdays by secretly turning back their clocks or claiming a domestic’s work was undeserving of pay.”
The image of happy and contented female African-American domestic servants was so pervasive in the minds of White women that even those attending universities in the late 20th century held the same views. In her 2009 book, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, bell hooks writes of her encounter with one White female student:
“I was lecturing on Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye and referenced the history of black women working as domestics in white households. A white female student raised her hand to disagree when I suggested that often black maids served white families with apparent good cheer and then returned to segregated black communities venting their rage and anger at ways they were exploited. The student kept repeatedly stating that their maid was a beloved member of the family, who loved them as though they were her own. I questioned her about whether she had ever talked with the maid about her feelings, about race, about love, and her answer was no. I then suggested that it was unlikely she knew what the maid was really feeling. The student cried. She accused me of being racist and seeing racism everywhere.”
Even though IWD is supposed to celebrate/recognize the history of women, the reality is that it is mostly a celebration/recognition of the history of White women. There are women from various African communities who deserve recognition; some are well known while others are not known outside of their communities.
This African Proverb: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter,” makes a profound statement about the lack of widespread knowledge of our African sheroes. Fortunately, some of the stories of these women’s lives have been documented. Makeda Silvera’s 1989 book, Silenced: Caribbean Domestic Workers Talk with Makeda Silvera, gives voice to Caribbean women who immigrated to Canada as domestic workers. The experiences of some of these women as they laboured in the homes of White Canadian families are heart-rending and can rival the dreadful experiences of African-American domestic workers told in books like Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, published in 1968 and Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, published in 1996.
Some of our sheroes include Viola Desmond who challenged the White supremacist segregation policy that sought to relegate her to the balcony of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946. Her story is now fairly well known because of several books written about her experience including Sister to Courage published in 2010 by Desmond’s younger sister, Wanda Robson. In 2010, Desmond received a posthumous official apology and free pardon (which acknowledges her innocence) for the criminal conviction in 1946. The crime was essentially sitting in a seat reserved for White Canadians. In 2012, Desmond was honoured with a postage stamp.
During her struggle (which she took all the way to the Supreme Court) to have the guilty verdict against her overturned, she was supported by Civil Rights activist, Carrie Best, who publicized the case in The Clarion, which was established in 1946 by Best and was the first African-Canadian-owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia.
African-Americans also used their media to publicize their plight. Civil Rights activists, Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, wrote an expose of the Bronx Slave Markets, which was published in the November 1935 issue of the magazine The Crisis founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910 as the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) The Crisis remains the official publication of the NAACP in 2012.
This article would not be complete without mention of the women of Buxton, East Coast Demerara, Guyana who put their lives on the line (literally) when they clambered onto the train line (tracks) and stopped the colonial governor in his tracks. Buxtonians were determined to speak with the governor who was the representative of the colonizing British government in British Guiana at the time. The governor had been refusing to repeal an unfair taxation of the land the villagers had bought just a few years after they had been freed from slavery. Following that impromptu meeting at the train line, the governor did repeal the tax.