Confronting the "Tough Stuff" in American History
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Reviews in American History 31.3 (2003) 425-429



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Confronting the "Tough Stuff" in American History

Robert H. Zieger


Evelyn Nakano Glenn. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. x + 306 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.

From the beginning of the republic, and even before, elite-generated ideas about race and gender decisively shaped definitions of American citizenship and labor. Through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, statesmen, legal experts, and cultural authorities influenced other whites to embrace these definitions and the institutions that embodied them, offering in exchange a share in the privileged status that whiteness and maleness brought. Even so, the actual practice of citizenship and the workings of labor markets were far from uniform throughout the country. Thus, in the period from 1870 to1930, ethnic Mexicans experienced civic marginalization and economic exploitation in different ways in the Southwest than did African Americans in the Confederate South. Meanwhile, in Hawaii still another regime of subordination and resistance emerged from the interaction of Anglos and Japanese migrants there. In each of these areas, local circumstances, differing applications of supposedly universal legal doctrines and cultural understandings, and the everyday behavior of ordinary people operated to create diverse, though always subordinative, race-gender-labor-citizenship regimes. 1

Unequal Freedom offers a fluent, thoughtful, and engaging account of the ways in which racialized and genderized labor markets and citizenship patterns functioned in these three areas. Readers will likely be most familiar with the story of racial subordination in the South during the era of Jim Crow and least with that of Japanese and other Asian migrants in Hawaii. All, however, will profit from Glenn's careful accounts of all three regions, based as they are on her extensive reading in the historical, anthropological, and sociological literature as well as in published documentary sources

Glenn emphasizes three themes common in all of these cases. She highlights the repressive and subordinative policies and practices that implemented racial and gender hierarchies; the distinctive local and regional character of the institutions and practices—in education, law enforcement, [End Page 425] and the use of public space—that implemented racial and gender subordination; and the determination of victimized groups to resist dominant groups' claims of superiority and to create organs of protest and community advancement. Thus, Unequal Freedom is both an indictment of America's historic mistreatment of those defined as ineligible for citizenship and an edifying story of human agency and activism.

Glenn lays the groundwork for her three case studies in two broad chapters outlining American approaches to both citizenship and labor during the country's first century. Through the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, liberal doctrines of citizenship marginalized women and, increasingly, blacks. Political and cultural leaders "constructed a fundamental opposition between independence and dependence," reserving only for those they deemed economically and morally independent the benefits of citizenship (p. 21). Thus they excluded women and blacks, the former because of their putatively dependent domestic circumstances, the latter because of their enslavement. Indeed, by the 1850s, legal doctrine and everyday practice were stripping even "free" blacks of citizenship claims, as new state constitutions narrowed eligibility for voting along racial lines. The relationship between citizenship, or lack thereof, and labor was reciprocal—since blacks and women were not worthy of citizenship, their work, no matter how necessary, could not be regarded as dignified or independent. And since by definition they performed no autonomous and independence-gaining labor, they were unworthy of citizenship.

The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the onset of large-scale capitalist industrialism reshuffled the deck but did not change the rules. Indeed, at one point Glenn makes the seemingly startling claim that "blacks actually lost ground in the nineteenth century," although it would appear that she means the first sixty-two years of the century, since later she acknowledges that "blacks probably had more genuine political influence during Reconstruction than at any time before or after" until the 1960s (pp. 32, 37). And she also notes: "Between 1865...