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Radical History Review 80 (2001) 51-75
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Medical Examination, Labor Organizing, and the Evidence of Sexual Difference
Daniel E. Bender
In 1914, the largest and most important union in New York's garment industry, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), decided to conduct a systematic survey of the health of Jewish immigrant garment workers. Through their role in the Joint Board of Sanitary Control (JBSC), the body charged with the sanitary inspection of New York's garment workplace, the union's leadership requested the assistance of the United States Public Health Services (PHS). The union decided on the survey shortly after Congress passed an important piece of progressive legislation increasing the role of the PHS in the study of "industrial hygiene" and the "health of workers." In the first such study, between April 13, 1914, and November 1, 1914, doctors of the PHS with the help of JBSC officials and ILGWU leaders examined the 2,000 male and 1,000 female workers. Over 90 percent of the examined workers, all of whom volunteered for examination, were Jewish. 1
The medical inspections produced two significant conclusions. First, the PHS discovered that garment workers were desperately and dangerously unhealthy. PHS doctors diagnosed on average 4.36 defects or diseases per worker, with approximately the same numbers for men and for women. 2 Second, they found that male and female garment workers faced very different forms of occupational illness. Women's most common defects involved their gynecological and reproductive systems. [End Page 51] The PHS argued that such ailments threatened their domestic roles after they left work at marriage. Men's most common complaint was coughing, which hinted at tuberculosis, the illness the PHS cited as the biggest threat to male garment workers. Tuberculosis, the PHS claimed, might undermine male workers' ability to earn family wages. 3
Neither conclusion truly shocked Jewish garment workers. Jewish garment workers, both male and female, had long considered themselves as enfeebled and represented their work as a confrontation with occupational illness. 4 Indeed, in the PHS survey, 69.7 percent of garment workers (men and women in about equal numbers) reported physical ailments, and most had more than one complaint. 5 Male and female Jewish workers saw their illnesses as emanating from their contrasting experiences at work. They claimed to have different roles in the garment workshops. Male workers viewed their work as lifelong, whereas women considered their garment wage work as temporary. For the overwhelming majority of Jewish women, marriage meant the end of garment wage labor. A survey conducted three years before the PHS inspections found that only 8 percent of married Jewish women contributed to the family income. 6 Male Jewish workers demanded--and female Jewish garment workers accepted--that men serve as breadwinners. Mabel Hurd Willet, an observer of Jewish garment work, noticed that male Jewish workers pursued extraordinary measures to keep their wives at home: "The Jewish man is unwilling to have his wife go out to the shop or factory to work and will toil to an unlimited extent himself rather than permit this degradation." 7 The PHS confirmed for these workers that the evidence of such predetermined roles could be found by looking at their bodies.
The PHS survey stands as a critical document in the history of Jewish immigrants' garment work, labor organizing, and gender relations. The ILGWU and the JBSC promised to use the survey's results "for the purpose of determining if possible the effect of their work upon [workers'] health, and with the facts thus gathered as a basis, to recommend necessary changes in working conditions. 8 Public health officials found the evidence of sexual difference in the differing health complaints of male and female workers. For two decades, the ILGWU and the New York Jewish labor movement used the PHS survey as the basis for subsequent medical inspections. They cited its seemingly undeniable scientific facts to develop organizing strategies designed to reverse the physical effects of work and to respond specifically to the contrasting concerns of men and...