"Employers Still Ask ‘Can You Type?’": Southern Women and the Fight to End Inequalities in the Workplace

Katarina Keane

In the years following World War II, increasing numbers of Southern women moved into the waged economy, making workplace justice integral to the women’s rights movement. Changes wrought by the infusion of federal funds into the region during and after the war, however, opened new positions and brought greater numbers of women–black and white–into waged labor. These new positions offered both opportunities and dangers. Many women increased their own and their families’ economic well-being through paid employment even as they received less compensation than men and discriminatory work assignments, experienced sexual harassment, and faced barriers to promotion and to more remunerative jobs. These experiences inspired a variety of Southern women to launch campaigns for greater justice in workplaces across the region.

In addition to organizing in feminist organizations such as NOW, women also founded business organizations as means of improving their status.  Organizations such as the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the Feminist Action Alliance helped women transition into the workplace in the 1970s and 1980s.  These organizations helped women navigate the business environment, sponsored employment conferences, and published directories of professional women and their businesses.  They also often operated job information and referral services to connect their members to businesses seeking to hire new employees and to assist companies achieve their affirmative action goals.  They launched lawsuits to secure their equality.  And, finally, some women opted to create their own businesses.

This paper suggests both the limitations and the possibilities of feminist organizing around workplace justice in the South.  Women in the region were waging an uphill battle.  Long-held traditions excluded women from certain occupations, laws restricted their access, and unions were weak.  Even so, campaigns for workplace justice in the South existed, revolving around the issues of dignity, justice, and equality.  Gaining access to positions with higher pay and winning respect in the workplace were therefore the first steps toward achieving equality.