Neglected Book

Shaw, Stephanie J., What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do: Black Professional Workers during the Jim Crow Era (1996).

While never dismissing the damaging aspects of life under Jim Crow or of sexism, Shaw shows her subjects in all their strength and competence, as people who grounded their lives in "socially responsible individualism" and achieved much for their communities. Shaw's exhaustive research in personal papers shows the shaping influence of the formative years of these women; I can't think of any more fully realized account of childhood socialization as it was lived and not just prescribed. Family and community connections take their place in Shaw's analysis, as do education and consumption. We meet women who are ambitious and eager to take leadership positions, but we grow to know them not just as individuals but as members of a dense web of connections in a cruel period of history.

Recommended by Susan Porter Benson, University of Connecticut

Susan Porter Benson teaches women's and working-class history at the University of Connecticut. She is completing a book, Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar USA, to be published by Cornell University Press in 2003. Her next project will look at working-class women's ideas about wage-earning, 1925-1935.