Reframing the History of Women's Wage Labor: Challenges of a Global Perspective
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Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 186-206



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Reframing the History of Women's Wage Labor:
Challenges of a Global Perspective

Alice Kessler-Harris


When the United States embarked on a war against the Afghanistan Taliban in fall 2001, its apparent motive was to eliminate a regime that had harbored those it believed to be responsible for the devastating destruction of 11 September. To justify its actions, the American administration provided a long list of grievances against the Taliban, none of them more persuasive than its pernicious treatment of women. One of the reasons it was going to war, it argued, was to free Afghanistan's women who had been closely sequestered within households, denied even rudimentary education, and dismissed from jobs. Without the possibility of earning a living, women's health had declined, maternal deaths had soared, and women were reduced to absolute dependence and penury. Americans responded to this story with alacrity. Ignoring several centuries of their own past tradition, they expressed outraged sympathy over rules that restricted girls and women to the home. They waxed particularly indignant at regulations that prohibited education for girls and refused even highly trained women access to paid employment.

It is not surprising that the U.S. administration should have made effective use of the confinement of women to evoke a sympathetic response. The history of colonialism reveals that Western nations have frequently invoked women's plight to disrupt traditional power structures and to open recalcitrant regimes to capitalism. 1 What is surprising is the empathetic response of an American public that has long been ambivalent about the tension between individual rights and family responsibilities among women. Astonishingly, "freeing the women" became one of America's major justifications for war—jobs for woman rapidly became the measure of female liberty. As National Public Radio correspondent Anne Garrels put it in December 2001, after the bombing had all but ceased, Afghani women believed that "Jobs are the first step towards restoring their freedom." 2

The story and the comment suggest something of the importance of re-thinking women's labor history—a process now well under way. When women's historians (myself among them) began to write about women's wage work in the early 1970s, our vision, like that of most historians, was [End Page 186] bounded by the intertwined borders of family and nation. Whether we were writing about Europe, the United States, Africa, or Asia, our questions tended to emerge from theoretical frameworks rooted in the Western Enlightenment and the practical lessons of the Western industrial experience. We wanted to know how women were incorporated into wage labor and, following Engels, whether women's wage work had any emancipatory potential for women. We explored the consequences of industrialization for the relationship between family work and paid labor for women, and we focused on the extent to which economic autonomy, political and civil liberties, and agency available to women were caught in larger economic developments. 3

Whatever our own positions on these issues, we could hardly imagine women's wage work without raising questions about family life and assessing the relationship of the different roles of women and men to individual mobility and achievement. 4 If the notion that women lived in "separate spheres" lacked verisimilitude among historians of western women's work, the powerful vision of an enduring tension between wage work and unpaid home work for women nevertheless infused the patterns we imposed on the structure of the labor force, demanding explanations when men and women functioned in seemingly unorthodox ways. Our own gendered expectations inescapably infused historical interpretations, infiltrating our descriptions of how each sex contributed differently to capital accumulation and the demands of industrialism. 5

These interpretations melded into those of nation-building. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century nationalists thought of families as the building blocks of capital accumulation from which more advanced civilization derived. In their view, the spread of "civilization" justified national accumulation of colonies, which would help to sustain the place of the "mother country...