Woman is a Rational Animal

By Jessica Oros ~

When you think of neglected social scientists, the first names that come up might be Jane Addams or W.E.B Du Bois, both of whom contributed greatly to the budding field of social science by bringing to light the living conditions that minority groups were facing. Through Addams’s work at the Hull House and DuBois’s The Philadelphia Negro project, the social struggles affecting those marginalized people were brought into the public eye, allowing for more advocacy and the gradual improvement of these issues.

However, there are other countless forgotten figures who slipped from the mainstream conversation of social science, all of whom contributed a great amount of research and theory, bringing change to those who they interviewed, studied, and worked to benefit. One such hidden figure is Elizabeth Ross Haynes, an African American social scientist who compiled data on women’s employment and advocated for female education and the improvement of African American women’s labor conditions in the early 20th century.

Born July 31, 1883, to formerly enslaved parents in Mount Willing, Alabama, her early years were nevertheless more fortunate than those of other African American girls at the time. Her home county of Lowndes County was one of the poorest in Alabama, primarily comprised of other African American families[i]. Early on, her parents bought land and began a plantation, eventually saving enough money to send her to State Normal School in Montgomery, where she graduated as valedictorian. She earned a scholarship to attend Fisk University and graduated in 1903, later going on to receive a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University[ii]. Due to her parents’ support of her education, Ross Haynes had great academic success, providing her with a breadth of knowledge that aided her in the research and advocacy she would later undertake. She used her access to education to help provide resources such as job references, words of encouragement, and financial donations directly to students and educational institutions, helping raise the quality of education and academic support students were receiving.

Fisk University, where Elizabeth Ross Haynes received her AB in 1903. Source: Library of Congress.

Her involvement with the betterment of women’s education began with her employment as special worker with the Young Women’s Christian Association. Traveling across the country to college campuses, she engaged directly with young women, providing academic and moral support and acting as a career reference to help them secure higher paying jobs after university. A critical element of her approach to social science was direct interactions with the people who stood to benefit from the research. In a special worker report to the national board of the YWCA in 1909, she wrote, “to get a fair and true idea of the girls themselves, the ones in whom we are most deeply interested, it is very necessary to see them in and through their conditions and surroundings to know what they think and what they do”[iii].

After a couple years of one-on-one support of young African American college women and her marriage to George E. Haynes, Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s work became geared towards more data collection and analysis while she was employed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Her involvement as assistant director of the Negro Economics Division began in 1918, as her husband was director of the department at the time and tasked with documenting the state of African American labor, including wages, working conditions, promotions, and career opportunities[iv]. By mailing out schedules to and visiting employment agencies, Elizabeth Ross Haynes inquired into the life and occupation of employed African American women, compiling a wealth of information about the age, training, wages, hours, and workplace and living conditions of employed women. An overview of the conclusions drawn from this research was published in Two Million Negro Women at Work[v] in 1922.

This piece identified the main areas of work of African-American women—domestic and personal services, agriculture, and manufacturing and mechanical— and provided a summary of the conditions of work and the specific issues faced by these women in these fields. The picture she painted of working African American women was one of resilience in the face of blatant discrimination that placed these women into low paying and labor-intensive jobs with unfavorable conditions due to their perceived inefficiency and low worth. In her account of agriculture, for instance, she described women working long arduous hours in the cotton or peanut fields, rushing to their homes in the heat to cook and serve dinner to their families before returning to work in the sweltering heat. With this point, she conveyed her dissatisfaction with the expectation of double-duty that employed women faced, whereby educated bread-winning women must also be proper homemakers. This further highlights the obstacles that African American women faced, as they were used for cheap labor from the young ages of 12-16, and the eventually addition of a family to their responsibilities trapped them in the vicious cycle of low-paying jobs with very little chance to escape and pursue a higher education.

The primary focus of Haynes’s Two Million Negro Women at Work, however, is the lack of emphasis society placed on training women workers, which she argued led to an eventual lack of success with employment due to their perceived inefficiency. Factory positions were preferred by women due to the higher pay, despite the poor working conditions, but there was often very little training provided. This lack of training, along with a lack of transportation which caused women to occasionally miss work, meant that the employment of many women would be rapidly terminated. Once they were left without factory jobs, African American women were forced to resort to lower-wage jobs such as those in the domestic service field, but again, their lack of training and experience meant they were fired again, perpetuating the cycle of short low-paying jobs and contributing to the harmful stereotype at the time that African American women were inefficient and could not retain employment.

Elizabeth Ross Haynes. Source: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/haynes-elizabeth-ross-1883-1953/

When seeking out new employment, Ross Haynes pointed out that many women faced great difficulty, as employers tended only to hire African American women if they could pay them less than minimum wage, as stated in Two Million Negro Women at Work. The labor of African American women was deemed as not worth as much as that of a white woman, so employers found it acceptable to not provide proper compensation for labor, especially in less standardized job fields such as domestic service where employment regulations were not as developed. Thus, Ross Haynes brought to light the lack of recognition of the effort and labor of African American women and presented evidence to support her argument of the barriers created for African American women, such as lack of training and stereotypes leading to lower payment.

Much of Haynes’s data came from the domestic and personal services field, which she touched on in Two Million Negro Women at Work but analyzed further in her 1923 writing, Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States[vi]. Using the African American social scientist DuBois’s The Philadelphia Negro[vii] project as a reference for data gathering and analysis methods such as schedule-based data collecting during the preparation of this dissertation, she pooled data gathered from employment agencies from 1890-1923 to construct a representative picture of the employment challenges encountered by African Americans and how the job landscape changed over the years. She emphasized an unpopularity of domestic work that was mentioned in Two Million Negro Women at Work, using statistics of the staggering increase in turnover rate of African American women in domestic services. She links this great turnover rate to a lack of training which results in low retention rates as the domestic workers are perceived as being poor workers. This rate of turnover was largely disregarded, being attributed to the perceived lack of efficiency of African American women instead of their lack of preparation due to obstacles they faced such as lack of education resources.

In this piece, Ross Haynes makes a case for the importance of preparation for employment in all fields, including domestic services. She explains that the lack of popularity of domestic work was primarily due to the assumption that it was a field for the uneducated, which seemed to be backed up by data showing that a large number of African American domestic service workers had very little education and were illiterate. Therefore, there was difficulty even proposing standardized training in domestic skills. Her work seemed to take a two-pronged approach, whereby the education standard and support for young African American girls in grade school must be raised and specialized training for work in fields such as domestic or factory work must be provided prior to entering the work force. This way, the issue of low employment rates of African American women could be addressed on multiple fronts, beginning to remove the barriers that stood in the way of employment in higher-paying jobs.

Elizabeth Ross Haynes’s work consisted in advocacy and direct targeted help to those who needed it, such as the women she worked to mentor through the YWCA but was backed by pages upon pages of raw data, schedules, and interviews and letters, adding a qualitative dimension to statistical analysis. Contrary to larger and more renowned figures of social science who may have created large scale community-impact projects, her work took a more personal approach, which could have contributed to why she was not remembered as a large player in sociology. However, it is important to question whether these small-scale projects are a product of her own theory or a product of the times. Other influential sociological figures, such as Jane Addams, a white woman, or DuBois, an African American man, seem to be referred to has having a more lasting impact on the history of social science, but they each had relative advantages over Elizabeth Ross Haynes in race or gender. The point, then, may not be that Ross Haynes did not intend for her work to have larger impacts, as she was involved with organizations which did have extensive reach and influence, but her work may have received less recognition than African American male sociologists, such as DuBois, or white female social workers, such as Jane Addams, due to the lack of emphasis placed on work by African American women at the time.

In a reconstruction of history, we tend to select the moments we believe to be most important and relevant to be remembered. These events, ideas, or figures become part of the narrative of history because society assigns some value to them based on a set of ideals or criteria, whether that be events that affected many people, ideas coming from majority groups, or figures that fit a standard of “influential” at the time. Unfortunately, this creates a very exclusionary historical value that is used to assess what is important. In the field of social science, for example, this means that the figures we remember are those who received the opportunity and resources to make large-scale impacts.

But this does not give a clear picture of society though time. Multiple perspectives, particularly those of marginalized groups such as African American or non-Western women, are essential to understanding the true nature of society. Elizabeth Ross Haynes allowed further insight into the experience of minority groups, which provides a more comprehensive picture of the state of society, but her work was not brought into the mainstream of sociological discussions despite being detailed and impactful. As a result, a push must be made to reevaluate this exclusionary historical value and to rethink what counts as important to history, bringing in individuals from marginalized groups, such as Elizabeth Ross Haynes, into the historical narrative.


About the author:

Jessica Oros is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago majoring in Biological Sciences, originally from the suburbs of Chicago. She is passionate about microbiology, as she is part of an UChicago virology laboratory and a student organization using synthetic biology to address concerns such as sustainable energy and plastic pollution. Despite her focus on biology, she values being exposed to different fields and learning about other topics by taking courses in the liberal arts. Through a course on the history of social science, she developed an interest in the role of African American women in sociology in the early 1900s. After learning that notable African American sociologist George E. Haynes was married to Elizabeth Ross Haynes, whose research in sociology was largely overshadowed by her husband’s work, Jessica wanted to learn more about her the ideas and work of Elizabeth Ross Haynes.



Featured Image: Elizabeth Ross Haynes on the stoop of 411 Convent Avenue. Photos courtesy of Bruce D. Haynes

[i] Information about Haynes’s early life and education is from: Carlton-LaNey, Iris. “Elizabeth Ross Haynes: An African American Reformer of Womanist Consciousness, 1908—1940.” Social Work, vol. 42, no. 6, 1997, pp. 573–583. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23717264. Accessed 8 Nov. 2020.

[ii] Peebles-Wilkins, W. (2013, June 11). Haynes, Elizabeth Ross. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://oxfordre.com/socialwork/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.001.0001/acrefore-9780199975839-e-710

[iii] Ross, E. (1909, March 31). Special worker report to the YWCA. New York: Archives of the National Board of the YWCA

[iv] Staff Picks: The “Division of Negro Economics,” 1918-1921. (2018, February 21). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/blog/2018/02/the-division-of-negro-economics-1918-1921/

[v] Haynes, Elizabeth Ross. Two Million Negro Women at Work. 1922. Women and Social Movements in the United States,1600-2000 Database. Web.

[vi] Haynes, E. R. (1923). Negroes in domestic service in the United States. Journal of Negro History, 8, 384–442

[vii] DuBois, William Edward Burghardt. The Philadelphia Negro: a Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.

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