Federal Offense: A Complex History of Female, Native American, and African American Civil Servants

AHA Session 257
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 302 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Eric S. Yellin, University of Richmond
The Audience

Session Abstract

Public sector employment is an understudied source of labor and institutional history. Moreover, the tensions between the stated, anti-discriminatory policies of the federal government and the continuance of discriminatory patterns has implications for other areas in which women, Native Americans and African Americans worked in large numbers from the Civil War to World War II. This panel wrestles with and develops an intriguing inquiry: while these federal employees labored for the American government, its principles, its maintenance and prosperity, why is it that the very same entity inconsistently extended full benefits of American citizenship to those who literally worked for it? Attendees will learn more of three nuanced cases in women, Native Americans and African Americans.

In the Civil War era, at a time during which concepts of equality were debated and the women’s rights movement was dormant then fractured, women entered the federal workforce, demonstrating to politicians and the country that women were capable and valuable members of the public. In the pockets of possibility and places of negotiation for gender equality in the civil service in the 1860s, however, there was immediate resistance. The manner in which the government ultimately employed women reinforced on a national stage the notion that in labor, a woman’s gender mattered more than her abilities, intelligence, experience, or skills. 

After Reconstruction and when the federal government was ready to move forward united again to develop the country while governed by principles of manifest destiny, further investigation shows the ways in which Civil Service non-discrimination and Indian preference brought hundred of African American teachers to the Navajo Nation, but also brought both groups into competition with one another over federal jobs.

Lastly, after the Wilsonian era leading into the postwar era, World War II provided unprecedented employment opportunities to both women and African Americans, who were previously limited to domestic and agricultural opportunities, especially in more rural areas. Yet, once part of the federal workforce, many African Americans still had to place pressure on federal agencies to fulfill in practice the equitable principles it espoused in theory for all federal workers.

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