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Journal of Women's History 13.2 (2001) 159-168
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The Politics of Consumption: Women and Consumer Culture
Alison J. Clarke. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. x + 241 pp.; ill.; no bibliography. ISBN 1-56098-827-4 (cl).
Nan Enstad. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xii +266 pp.; ill.; no bibliography. ISBN 0-231-11102-9 (cl); 0-231-11103-7 (pb).
Margaret Finnegan. Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. x + 222 pp.; ill.; no bibliography. ISBN 0-231-10738-2 (cl); 0-231-10739-0 (pb).
Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. xiii + 323 pp.; ill.; maps. ISBN 0-691-04477-5 (cl).
Since Western nations began building consumer economies, the con- suming woman has been constituted as an object of dread and ridicule, fear and desire, a figure whose wants and needs some seek to suppress, others to incite. At the same time, consuming women have ranged between home and marketplace, crossing boundaries that demarcate private and public, self and family, production and reproduction, and feminine and masculine. These two aspects of consumption--how women are constituted as objects and constitute themselves as subjects--are not unrelated. Because consumption remains uncontained and uncontainable within the ideological boundaries of Western capitalist societies, women's participation in consumer culture offers rich opportunities for historical analysis. 1
The four books under review here investigate the relationship between gender and consumer culture by focusing on the various ways that women have interacted with commodities. Together, these studies yield a fuller understanding of the gender and class politics of consumption. While the authors offer distinct methodologies and theoretical orientations, they agree that by buying, selling, and using things, women invested goods with meaning, gave structure and voice to their own identities, and reshaped the world around them. Each author touches on the relationship between consumerism and women's activism, but they differ over whether [End Page 159] women's participation in consumer culture is liberating or oppressive, as well as over whether this is a meaningful question.
In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, Nan Enstad establishes working-class women's consumption as a foundation for their gender and class identity and politics. Her departure point is striker Clara Lemlich's complaint during the 1909 New York City shirtwaist strike that working girls had no protected place to hang their hats: "Sometimes a girl has a new hat . . . but it's pretty sure spoiled after its [sic] been at the shop . . . . We like new hats as well as other young women. Why shouldn't we?" (8). Enstad reads this striker's reproach, together with the evidence of dime novels, fashion, female adventure films, and journalistic representations of shirtwaist strikers, to offer an imaginative and often brilliant analysis of the ways that urban working women "formed subjectivities in relationship to commodities" (13). The identity that they created, which Enstad terms "working ladyhood," articulated their uniquely gendered and classed brand of radicalism, and provides a lens through which we can understand their consumption behaviors as political.
Enstad's approach arises out of a scholarship that recognizes the limits on corporate capital's ability to control the uses to which commodities are put and the meanings that goods have for consumers yet she is attuned to the industrial practices, economic pressures, and cultural forces that actually produce commodities. 2 She traces the processes of rationalization that shaped and standardized the cultural products available to working women, yielding flimsy French-heeled shoes, formulaic dime novels featuring a virtuous working-class heroine who discovers her secret inheritance and marries a rich hero, and serial films that ignored the collective labor activism in which working women engaged, showcasing instead individual working girls engaged in improbable feats of derring-do...