- Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis by Keona K. Ervin
Keona Ervin's well-researched Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis is a welcome addition to a growing number of works that examine black people's struggles for economic justice during the twentieth century. Its most important intervention is its focus on the labor activism of a community of black working-class women in the industrial city of St. Louis from the 1930s–1960s. By centering the experiences and activism of black women, Ervin deepens our understanding of the Black Freedom Struggle in the border south. Ervin argues that black working-class women's activism was not simply "contributory" but "generative," meaning that not only did black working women add their voices and bodies to the frontline of economic justice struggle, they also redefined the nature of the struggle and inspired the political activism of other members of the black community in St. Louis, notably middle-class black professional women. With this focus on the generative activism of black working-class women, Ervin demonstrates how black working-class women understood their struggles for economic justice as labor. Ervin also makes the case for the centrality of black working-class women as both bridge leaders and "visible, formal architects of black freedom agendas" (p. 17). Finally, Ervin illustrates the ways in which the tradition of black working women's economic activism during the 1930s–1960s can be directly linked to the anti-poverty struggles of the late 1960s.
Gateway to Equality shines most in Ervin's ability to narrate black working-class women's economic justice activism. For example, Ervin's analysis of nut factory workers succeeds in demonstrating the crucial role black women played in the battle for worker rights and implicating the state for its failure to regulate manufacturing companies, which would then create an open, inclusive industrial labor environment. In addition to traditional archival sources, Ervin [End Page 131] creatively analyzes the lyrics of blues songs to highlight the cultural influence of black working women's activism. Additionally, Ervin uses illustrative chapters that assess the labor activism of domestic workers, housewives, youth activists, and industrial workers. These chapters illuminate the relationship between black working women and the Communist Party, examine how black women authored labor unionism to include themselves, discuss how young black women demanded mainstream businesses hire black workers, and assess how black female industrial workers used their voices to formally register their complaints of unfair treatment and expose discrimination. In this way, Gateway shines a much-needed spotlight on a community of black working-class women who sought to transform the urban industrial landscape.
While there is no doubt about the significance of Gateway's contributions, two areas deserve greater attention. First, there is still the tendency to situate black working-class women's activism primarily within a labor union framework. Gateway is significant because it expands our understanding of the possibilities of black women's activism, but situating this activism solely within a labor union context continue to narrow the scope of possibilities for black working women's economic activism. First, labor union activism has the benefit of being able to be traced in the archives and it is no small feat to restore black women's generative activism, there is the danger of missing other forms of black working-class women's economic activism when the narrative only revolves around or near the labor union or union-like organizations. Second, while Gateway aptly demonstrates the ways in which middle-class professional black women were inspired by the activism of black working-class women, there seems to be a missed opportunity to deepen our understanding of the relationship between these two groups of black female activists. In chapters where both groups of women appeared, instead of bringing their activism together, they are treated separately. These points are less of a critique...