Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry (review)
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Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry. By Tiffany M. Gill. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Pp. 192. $75.00 cloth; $25.00 paper)

Tiffany Gill's Beauty Shop Politics focuses on an often-overlooked area of entrepreneurship research: the connections between black women's business ownership in the hair industry and their involvement in social and political activism. In a study that traces the historical origins of black women's work in the hair industry over most of the twentieth century, Gill contends that an important dynamic of black business ownership has been frequently ignored and makes the compelling claim that black women's entrepreneurship in the beauty business offered fertile ground and opportunity for activism on various fronts. Gill compiles extensive archival data to make a persuasive, convincing argument.

Gill examines various time periods of black women's historical involvement in beauty work, covering the familiar and less-well-known figures associated with this trade. She reviews the contributions of luminaries in the beauty industry like Madame C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Pope Malone, as well as everyday figures like Elizabeth Cardozo Barker and Christine Moore Howell. The women in the latter group are less well-known than the former, but they were significantly affected in various ways by the rise of the beauty industry and its ability to offer black women who faced educational, economic, and social oppression, rare opportunities for advancement, upward mobility, and the chance to engage in various types of activism that would positively affect their communities. Ultimately, Gill argues that the beauty business was one of few that provided black women with what sociologists refer to as a "protected market." Because of social norms, black women entrepreneurs in this field faced no significant [End Page 433] threat and competition from whites, making the hair business one that offered black owners the freedom, agency, and financial reward that enabled them to take on the risks and rewards of social activism.

A significant strength of Beauty Shop Politics is its attention to the ways in which famous figures associated with black leadership and progress were explicitly or implicitly tied to the hair industry. In reading Gill's book, it becomes clear that very few "race leaders" were completely disconnected from the various women associated with the beauty industry. Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson, A. Phillip Randolph, Septima Clark, and Mary McLeod Bethune are just a few of the historical figures who were either directly (in the case of A. Philip Randolph and Mary McLeod Bethune) or indirectly (Martin Luther King) connected to important, high-profile women in the black hair business who offered them financial, social, or political support for their endeavors. Thus, one of the strengths of Gill's work is that it adds an important dimension to historical knowledge and analysis of black resistance movements. These leaders did not operate in a vacuum, nor did they spread their messages simply through speeches and lectures in public spaces. Rather, black women empowered by the hair industry provided direct financial contributions, key information, and social networks that played a critical role in spreading these leaders' messages and helping to foment mass movements.

While this is an important contribution of the book, this argument would be stronger if it acknowledged some of the theoretical and empirical contributions of other researchers in various fields. In particular, Gill's analysis of black women salon owners' activism is largely reminiscent of the concept of "bridge leadership" that Belinda Robnett offers in her study of black women's leadership roles in the civil rights movement. Additionally, some of Gill's descriptions of black women's involvement in the beauty industry seem to veer a bit away from the links to activism, particularly in chapters three and four. Overall, however, Gill has written an interesting, important book that will contribute much to students of history, political activism, and ethnic and gender studies. [End Page 434]

Adia Harvey Wingfield

Adia Harvey Wingfield teaches sociology at georgia State University in Atlanta, georgia. She is the author of Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy...


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