Insight into the Lives of Southern Working Women

Elizabeth Higginbotham. Photo by Ann BellElizabeth Higginbotham. Photo by Ann Bell
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library

In early October 2012, 14 heavy cartons arrived at the library, bringing a new collection that speaks volumes about issues of gender, race, class, mental health, and mobility. A gift from Elizabeth Higginbotham, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, the cartons contained surveys from a groundbreaking study that she and her principal coinvestigator, Lynn Weber—now a professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina—designed and conducted from 1983 to 1987 in Memphis, Tennessee. The research took place at the University of Memphis Center for Research on Women, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The study, “Social Mobility, Race, and Women’s Mental Health,” focused on 200 professional and managerial women, both black and white, all living and working in the Memphis area. These women were raised in either working- or middle-class families, and most went directly from high school to colleges or universities, primarily in the South. They were divided into three age groups (those born in 1946–1950, 1951–1955, and 1956–1960), providing insight into the educational experiences of women in the days of segregation and in the initial years of public-school integration.

The 200 surveys open a window onto vivid details of these southern women’s lives. Each survey, numbered to protect the interviewee’s privacy, is 99 pages long, includes 275 questions, and fills a thick folder: clearly, this project required a major commitment of time on the part of participants, and they took it very seriously. The survey includes women in a range of middle-class occupations—librarian, teacher, accountant, social worker, pharmacist, lawyer, computer systems analyst, reporter, industrial engineer, administrator—enabling scholars to do comparative work. “It is hard to find studies that have black and white women in the same occupations,” says Higginbotham. “This study was designed to look at the intersection of race, class, and gender, especially women’s employment in either traditional female or traditional male occupations.”

Photo by Heather LathamPhoto by Heather LathamThe women answered questions about social-class background, family, marriage, religion, and education. Some of them were reticent; the answers of others spill out and fill the pages. But spare or wordy, all the surveys still convey, some 20 years later, the care with which the women answered and the importance they attached to their responses. Early in the survey, there are questions about parents: Were they union members? Did they talk to you about their work? Do you recall your feelings about the type of work your mother and/or father did? One woman, a white librarian whose mother was a doctor, recalled resenting that her mother was often not home: “I wanted to have a mother who would be the one sewing the clothes for me so I could have the matched hair bands to go with the outfits,” she wrote. “Or a mother who would be home when I got home from school.”

Many of the questions are about work: transition from school to work, challenges in the workplace, support networks at work and outside work, discrimination, progress, the impact on social life, and sources of satisfaction at work. Sometimes yes/no questions about supervisors, coworkers, and employers elicited far longer, candid answers.

Higginbotham, Weber, and their graduate students analyzed the data from these richly evocative surveys and published their findings in more than half a dozen thought-provoking articles. They and other scholars have built on this early work to uncover, define, and explain continuing issues of work, race, gender, and mobility. These surveys still have much to tell us. As Higginbotham notes, “There are many topics that people can explore using the stories of these women’s lives as well as mental health measurements for depression and well-being. We know that women continue to struggle to survive in many workplaces and also establish some balance in their personal lives. Looking at how women faced these challenges in the 1980s can help with theorizing about them today.”

We at the library are delighted that these surveys will soon be accessible to researchers here—and so is Higginbotham. “Lynn Weber and I, along with a team of graduate students, worked very hard to gather and analyze this data,” she says. “As I have pulled together the material for the Schlesinger Library, I can see how there are dissertations embedded in this collection and hope that the new location will make it inviting for scholars.”

Elizabeth Higginbotham, whose current research focuses on employment issues for professional black women, is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Too Much to Ask: Black Women in the Era of Integration (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), in addition to many articles, and a coeditor of Women and Work: Exploring Race, Ethnicity, and Class (Sage Publications, 1997). 

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