Massachusetts just did something powerful for black women in the state. Recently, lawmakers repealed the licensure requirement for hair braiders, a change that will set these enterprising and skilled women free from unnecessary regulations.
Hair braiding has a long and rich history. Dating back at least to 3,500 B.C. in Africa, the art of twisting strands of hair into intricate patterns or simple styles communicated social cues such as a person’s tribe, religion, social status, marital status, and even wealth.
Now, they increasingly serve as a means of self-expression and style. For many women and men, braids tame their hair into manageable, versatile, and protective styles. Natural hair braiding does not use chemicals or dyes, making it a desirable alternative for many.
The tradition of hair braiding has been passed down through generations. In some African cultures, girls learn the art of braiding from their elders and practice it on each other until becoming skilled. In the United States, slavery disrupted the transmission of the practice across generations.
African immigrants to the U.S. with this sought-after skill easily find ready customers. Hair braiding provides many immigrants a lucrative entry point into the labor market.
Until this move, Massachusetts was one of only seven states to require natural hair braiders to be licensed as a cosmetologist or hairdressers. In addition to filing paperwork and paying a fee, hairdressers are required to take at least 1,000 hours of classes. Course material is not limited to hair braiding; indeed, schools do not even teach braiding. Furthermore, the Bay State did not automatically recognize the licenses of out-of-state hair braiders. A braider who moves from another state was required to take all applicable exams and prove that she has met the state’s training requirement.
By exempting hair braiders from these regulations, Massachusetts knocked down a major employment hurdle for many Black women. We can only imagine how many new hair braiding shops will emerge to compete on quality, style, and even price.
Hair braiding joins over a thousand other licensed professions in the United States. The growth of licensure, also known as occupational licensing, over the past six decades has been explosive. In the 1950s, just 5 percent of American workers needed a license to ply their trade, but that has grown to nearly 30 percent today.
In some professions, as in medicine, licensure provides a safeguard against serious harm. In others, they establish consistent standards for professional development and training. But licensure requirements are often arbitrary and unconnected to any health or safety rationale or—in the case of hair braiders—to the relevant skills needed for the job. In such cases, licensure simply protects licensed businesses from competition. This not only reduces job opportunities but leads to higher consumer prices.
The people who bear the brunt of unnecessary licensure are those often excluded from work. Immigrants find that their overseas training or experience does not count toward fulfilling state requirements. Some states place blanket exclusions on people with criminal backgrounds from obtaining a license regardless of whether their record is related to the work they seek. Licensed military spouses, who move every few years to support their spouse’s career, find obstacles to obtaining a new license or proving they can meet the requirements in each new state.
Occupational licensing is one of a few, rare bipartisan issues. In 2020, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis ended hair braiding licensure requirements among many other reforms. And in 2015, the Obama administration urged licensure reform “to protect public health and welfare while promoting economic growth, innovation, competition, and job creation.”
The civil liberties law firm, Institute for Justice (IJ), has been fighting for decades for hair braiders and other entrepreneurs to secure their freedom to work. When IJ examined hair braiding licenses in its report Barriers to Braiding, it found that hair braiding is safe and that complaints against hair braiders were rare—just 130 complaints across nine states in seven years—and did not concern health or safety.
In exempting hair braiding from onerous licensing, Massachusetts removed hurdles to employment for many skilled women and opened new paths to entrepreneurship for them. If other states want to expand their opportunities for women of the African diaspora in their borders, Massachusetts should be their guide.