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Working Women

Introduction  Task  Process  Resources  Evaluation  Reflection


During the time of the Great Migration, southern black women were excluded from virtually all areas of employment except domestic service. As domestics, they worked long hours away from home, cleaning someone else's house, washing someone else's clothes, and caring for someone else's children. For this, they were paid the lowest of wages. Although there is evidence that many black women wanted to migrate to the North, these women, whether single or married, often did not have the financial means to attain this goal.

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In this webquest you will:
  • Examine how Jacob Lawrence portrays working women in his Migration Series and other paintings.

  • Use the Internet to research the roles and lives of working women during the early twentieth century. Compare your findings with information about working women today.

  • Interview a working woman that you know. Create a written and visual presentation about this woman’s work experience.

  • With the class, present and explore the collective experience of the working women that you interviewed.
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The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South.

The Migration of the Negro, panel 57, 1940-41
Casein tempera on hardboard
18 x 12 in. (45.7 x 30.5 cm)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
© Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation
  1. Look at  Jacob Lawrence's painting, panel #57 from The Migration Series. Move your mouse over the painting and find questions to discuss with your classmates.

  2. Read the information about  Jacob Lawrence's painting, panel #57 from The Migration Series.

  3. Go to http://www.jacoblawrence.org/art04.html, scroll down to the "series" box and choose The Migration Series from the pull down menu. Click on SUBMIT. Click on the small thumbnail picture to see a large image.

    Look at the women in the Migration Series.

    What are they doing?
    What do these images tell you about the lives of African American women during this time?

    Go to http://www.jacoblawrence.org/art04.html, to find more of the artist’s images of working women. For example: Ironers, 1943, Harriet Tubman Series, 1939-40, Firewood, 1942, Home Chores, 1945, Harriet and the Promised Land, Labor, 1967. Choose painting as the medium. To see individual works, type the title of the work in the "title" box and click on SUBMIT.

  4. Research and read some of the writings by and about working women in the bibliography and web resources below.

    What were some of the roles of Southern African American women in the workplace during the Great Migration?
    Did they have the same opportunities as men who migrated to the North? Why or why not?
    How did their lives differ from men’s?
    How were their lives different from the majority of white women?
    What wages did they receive?
    What kind of inequities existed, based on gender and race?

  5. Compare these resources with information about contemporary working women in the web resources below.

  6. Who are the working women that you know?
    In your family? In your community? At school?
    What do they do?

    Interview a working woman that you know. Take notes or record the interview.
    If you can, visit this woman at her job. Make sketches or ask permission to take photographs.

    In your interview, consider the following questions:

    What is her job?
    What led her to this particular job?
    What is a typical day like in her working life?
    How does she negotiate home life and work?
    Does she like her job? Why or why not?
    What would she like to change about her job?
    Do inequities exist in her place of employment? What are they?
    What might she do to address these iniquities?

  7. Use your notes, recording, sketches and/or photos to make a small book or computer presentation about this woman’s job and working life.

  8. Present and discuss your book or computer project with the class.

    Compare the lives of the working women whom you interviewed.
    What is the collective experience of the working women that you know?
    What are their views about their jobs?
    What changes need to be made in women’s employment today?
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Working Women: An Anthology of Stories and Poems, edited by Hoffman and Howe, 1979

Carole Marks, "Migration and the Women Who Serve," Farewell, we're good and gone: the Great Black Migration, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 45-48

Spencer Crew, Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, 1987, pp.42-51



Images of working women.

A Southern black woman’s story of working as a nanny.

Working women’s oral histories.

The Waistmaker’s Revolt, a short play.

Go to working women section.

Quotes about women and labor.

Langston Hughes, Mother to Son.

Margaret Walker, Lineage.


Women in the workplace today.

Wage gap between women and men.

Women in the workplace.

Dolores Huerta.

Sweatshops and women workers.

Women workers-information.

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You will be evaluated on your participation in class discussions as well as your book or multimedia project about a working woman that you interviewed. Your teacher may also choose to create rubrics for evaluation.
  • Class Discussion Evaluation: Refer back to the questions listed in the  Process section.

  • Were you able to explain in your own words what you think the woman in the painting is doing? Did you formulate unique opinions about what the painting might tell you about the lives of African American women?

  • Did you demonstrate an understanding about the kinds of jobs that Southern African American women did during the Great Migration as well as how their lives differed from men and the inequities that existed?

  • Did you make thoughtful comparisons about the working women interviewed by your classmates? Did you have interesting and unique opinions about what changes should be made regarding women’s employment today?

  • Book or Multimedia Project Evaluation: Did you show evidence that you asked appropriate questions? This will be apparent in the text that you write about the working woman you interviewed. For instance, did you include interesting aspects of her job, as well as her personal thoughts and opinions about her career?

  • Also, did you include reflections on life outside her job and information about how she balances her home and work life? Does your book or project also include your own thoughts and opinions about the person you interviewed and her chosen career?

  • Do you have drawings or photographs that illustrate what the woman does for a living as well as possible inequities that exist in her workplace?

  • If you did a multimedia project, is there a purposeful, logical flow of graphics, sound and text that assist in conveying relevant content, not distract from it?

  •  Learning Standards Addressed
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Review and compare your research about women workers and your projects about working women today.

How similar or different is your interviewee’s work experience from the women that you researched?

What issues still need to be addressed?

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©2001 Whitney Museum of American Art