Common Hour explored women’s history by specifically focusing on the relationship between the fight for consumer rights as well as civil rights on Monday, Mar. 26. This session, presented by Professor Julia Sandy, was entitled “Unreasonable, Unruly, and Unsafe: Women’s Activism in PostWar Harlem.”
The talk examined black women’s activism in Harlem and revealed the ways in which women assumed a public, and sometimes controversial, role in the black freedom movement in New York City. Interestingly, the women of the Consumers Protective Committee (CPC) did not consider themselves feminists, but rather activist housewives who turned a domestic duty into a civic duty.
The fact that a majority of the women were housewives drew attention to status and gender, legitimizing their position in this controversial issue. In her talk, Sandy focused primarily on consumer rights campaigns and the CPC.
The committee, founded in 1947, formed in response to the unnecessarily high prices and exploitative nature of business practices in the local area. This unruly practice took shape from the civil rights movement and racial discrimination. African Americans experienced shortchanging and “pull-ins” brutish tactics used by Anglo-Americans to maintain their status as the superior race.
In response, these women engaged in public protests such as picketing and other street based protests in waves of activism throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s.
Women then adopted the support of men and male ministers who brought the cause to the forefront of newspapers and public interest. Although men often supported and even encouraged women’s activism, tensions still mounted in communities where women engaged in overt public work.
Harlem was no exception and the CPC soon found itself under attack from local ministers, labor leaders, and businessmen. In turn, this divided local newspapers and the cause experienced harsh criticism. Ultimately, the CPC managed to arrange a settlement with local merchants and businesses preventing further discrimination. This led to further legislation and an influence in civil rights on a government level, which provided civil justice for New Yorkers.
Examining the work of the CPC allows us to explore competing conceptions of women’s public role and also how women challenged and benefitted from traditional gender expectations.