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Beyond BLS

Beyond BLS briefly summarizes articles, reports, working papers, and other works published outside BLS on broad topics of interest to MLR readers.

February 2023

Who was Sadie T. M. Alexander?

Summary written by: Lawrence H. Leith

By nearly any standard, Sadie T. M. Alexander had a remarkable life and career. In 1921, she became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in economics. Because of her race and gender, however, Alexander was unable to find work in academia, so she went to law school and became the first woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Although she specialized in family law, Alexander was also involved in the civil rights movement throughout her long career, which began in the 1920s and ended in 1982, when she retired. She is now remembered mostly for her pioneering work in civil rights law, particularly her advocacy for the rights of African American women. But Alexander also produced important work examining the labor market experiences of African Americans. In a recent article titled “Sadie T. M. Alexander: Black women and a ‘taste of freedom in the economic world’” (Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 2022), Nina Banks provides a valuable retrospective of Alexander’s work in the field of economics.

Banks begins her article by describing the historical context in which Alexander lived and worked. Born in 1898, Alexander came of age during the Progressive Era, which began in the late 1890s and ended around 1920. White women generally experienced improvements in their social and economic status during the era, especially after the ratification of the 19th Amendment (1920), which gave women the right to vote. By contrast, Black women experienced worsening economic conditions throughout the era, mainly because segregationist laws and policies were prevalent at the time. Many reforms improved conditions for White women but not for Black women, most of whom worked in domestic service or agriculture, which had little union representation. Black women also had much higher labor force participation rates than their White counterparts during the period. In 1900, for example, the rate was about 40 percent for Black women compared with 15 percent for White women. As Banks explains, the prevailing views about the respective roles of women and men were changing in the Progressive Era, with greater emphasis on women—especially White women—fulfilling the role of housewives and mothers.

Banks spent years researching Alexander’s life and work and discovered a “treasure trove” of her speeches and writings that focused on the economic status of African Americans. In an early research project as a graduate student, Alexander assisted other researchers as they interviewed a sample of 190 Black women and girls about their background, training, and work experience. In 1930, she published one of the first scholarly articles on the labor market experiences of Black women. In that article, Alexander examined three major effects of industrialization on employed Black women: (1) how the new market economy affected Black women’s home production; (2) how Black women’s participation in the paid labor force affected other aspects of their lives; and (3) how Black women’s employment in the industrial economy benefited them, their families, and the national economy. Alexander supported Black women working in industrial jobs to increase their economic independence and political influence. In a speech called “The Emancipated Woman,” which she delivered many times in the 1930s, Alexander argued that women had experienced “a taste of freedom in the economic world” that had compelled them “to demand equality in the political world.” Because those changes applied mostly to White women, however, Alexander encouraged these women to use their newfound power and influence to extend the benefits to more Black women.

In the last third of her article, Banks discusses New Deal legislation enacted during the 1930s and how Alexander responded to it. As in the Progressive Era, many of the New Deal reforms benefited White workers more than Black workers, largely because the new policies often excluded domestic and agricultural workers. In 1930, more than 60 percent of employed African Americans worked in domestic service, and 27 percent worked in agriculture. Black men experienced higher rates of unemployment than White men during the Great Depression, which led to large numbers of Black women seeking gainful employment to help support their families. Throughout the 1930s, Alexander continued to give speeches and publish articles discussing these issues, even while practicing law full time. She argued that the relatively high employment rates among Black women in the 1930s were a direct result of the economic difficulties Black men faced during the period. With these and other examples, Banks shows that Alexander made important and lasting contributions to the field of economics, producing some of the earliest studies of the labor market experiences of African American women and men.