- The Boundaries of Women’s Work: Political Battles and Individual Freedoms
During the nineteenth century, the figure of the working woman “served as a way of signifying disorder” because she existed in a world in which the gender of the universal worker and the public work space were male. 1 In contrast, women who remained in the private sphere as wives and mothers seemed to ensure order and protect morality. Feminist scholarship has contributed significantly to labor history by calling into question the public/private dichotomy as an organizing principle. In an influential 1988 essay, historian Joan W. Scott argues that there were fundamental links between gender and class which blurred a clear division between them. Moreover, she reveals that women’s daily roles exceeded the boundaries of the private sphere. 2 Feminist historians have demonstrated that the paradigm of the male worker is inadequate to describe women workers’ experiences. In fact, universal words like “worker” and “skill” are themselves social constructions with important political and social implications. These gendered words fortify the division between the public and private, and blur the degree to which many women actively participated in the public sphere and held political positions despite their domestic responsibilities. Indeed, as historian Kathleen Canning has argued, women’s identities were often formed through their productive work even if they were also wives and mothers. 3
During the last two centuries, the alleged conflict between women’s [End Page 166] roles as wives and mothers and their potential (or actual) role as workers has been debated by government officials, policy makers, employers, clergy, and women. Because women’s employment was often seen as a threat to men’s right to jobs and their responsibility for the survival of families (and hence nations), many states considered and created legislation to curtail or control women’s paid work. The type of policy developed to address the “problem” of women working has varied in time and place to reflect national demographic, ideological, and economic circumstances. While some states emphasized maternity leave, others instituted the family wage or protective legislation. However, policy implementation only roughly mirrored policy design; local officials often adapted national policy to fit their specific political, economic, and social conditions. Moreover, women’s failure to support policy and to conform their private behavior to meet state demands often further confounded policy implementation.
Although their thematic focuses, methodologies, and geographical scopes are distinct, three of the books reviewed here examine the relationship between women’s work and state policy. Each author analyzes state policy goals and working-class women’s lives. Despite vastly different historical and ideological contexts, the authors reveal that similar attitudes toward women’s work prevailed in Soviet Russia, Germany, and Australia. In all three states, policy debates focused on the appropriateness and suitability of women’s work and the need to balance women’s domestic roles with the state’s labor demands. Public morality and respectability recur in conjunction with ideology as themes in each state’s policy. Framing these debates—sometimes explicit, other times implicit—was the way in which the states understood the relationship between the public and private. But while these states sought to define the ideal woman—citizen, mother, and worker—women themselves were never passive in the face of state policy. Instead, Soviet, German, and Australian women accepted and rejected state dictates according to their life circumstances. Using archival sources, personal narratives, and...