Black women and the pay gap — we do what we have to do

Julianne Malveaux

It took Black women until Aug. 3, or 19 months, to earn what a White man earns in a year.  Most years, Pay Equity Day happens in March (this year on March 24), when ALL women must work to make as much as White men. Ain’t I a woman, though?  It takes me five months to catch up with White women.  Too often, this fact is ignored, but this year, the National Council of Negro Women and others are reminding the nation that Black Women’s Pay Equity Day is as important as any other recognition of pay inequities.

There is a level at which this is acutely personal to me.  My mom, Proteone Marie Alexandria Malveaux, made her transition on June 17 and was funeralized on July 24.  She was a phenomenal woman, and she was, always, a worker.  Although she had studied music and had an undergraduate and graduate degree in social work, she was also a teacher, professor, entrepreneur, and legal assistant.  I’ve talked about all these things when I talk about my mother, but I rarely talk about the several years she spent as a postal clerk and what I learned from that.

My parents had one of those “rocky road” divorces that involved intense disputes about money.  We couldn’t live on what Mom earned as a teacher (remember, in the early 1960s, teachers, mostly women, had earnings considered “supplemental income,” especially if they were married).  So she got a better paying job at the post office (as filmmaker Robert Townsend said, “there is always work at the post office”). 

Working at the post office stretched her (and me, as her eldest) in all kinds of ways.  Her shift required her to leave the house before day in the morning, 4 or 5.  I woke up to lock the door was “in charge” until all five of us got out of the door. I didn’t mind. I had quiet time in the house to myself, occasionally I snooped through mom’s papers, and I might fry myself up some potatoes before the others got up for their cereal.

Still, I can’t forget how hard mom struggled to pass the postal exam. Back before computers and scanners, postal clerks had to connect an address with a zip code. Many people didn’t put their zip code on their mail, but the clerks had to know it and pass a test to show it.  We spent some evenings drilling Mom on addresses and zip codes, over and over again, until she passed with a score high enough to earn a raise.

When I was in my 20s and studying women and work, Proteone told me that she could say a few things about work.  She shared about working as a maid with a family with a rather handsy patriarch and how she had to duck and dodge his advances, going so far as to fake passing out when he got too close.  And she told me about working as a postal worker. Do you remember, she said? And I did. I remembered the early mornings of awakening, of the smell of her coffee tickling my nose. I remembered being told to “behave” as I locked the door. Years later, I asked her how she did it.

“It was hard,” she said. “It would have been harder to see my children go without.”

We never missed a meal or an educational opportunity.  We might have missed some toys, but you can’t miss what you can’t measure.  We had an exceptional childhood because my mom did her best to support us, running us all over the city on the bus because she didn’t drive, enrolling us in cultural activities, and (sometimes) supporting our political involvement.

Dorothy Irene Height often said that “Black women don’t do what we want to do; we do what we have to do.”  

I think of my Mama, a Mississippi-raised middle-class hat and glove-wearing diva working in the post office so that my siblings and I could eat, and I think of the many ways that Black Women’s Pay Equity Day is so meaningful. Too many Black women have earned too little for working too hard and so much.  Too many Black women have experienced not only unequal pay but also unequal and unreasonable working conditions.  And we have been forced to work to facilitate other women’s ability to work.  For example, 40 percent of the certified nurse’s assistants (CNAs) during COVID-19 were Black and Brown. Their work made life easier for others, but it was rarely recognized. Instead, it was insistently expected.

We, Black women, do what we have to do to support our families and the nation. Maybe we can get some recognition for it.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, founder of Economic Education, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University at Los Angeles.  Contact her through or

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