- Sewing and Exploiting the American Dream
The garment industry is global but the sweatshop is "all-American." The three works reviewed in this essay add scholarly depth to historical and current debates about the repercussions of ready-made clothing and its production. Read together, Daniel Bender's Sweated Work, Weak Bodies, Margaret Chin's Sewing Women, and Laura Hapke's Sweatshop provide an historical and analytical framework that explains the rise, meaning, longevity, and critique of the garment trades from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Though Bender, Chin, and Hapke each address the topic with distinct methodological approaches, the books complement each other in three ways. First, the authors make contributions to women's history by placing gender at the center of their analyses, and by considering how male and female subjectivities intersect with class, ethnicity, sexuality, and race. Second, they show the significant role women played in the intense competitive local markets that became an important part of globalized capitalism. And third, these scholars complicate the notion of the "American dream" by uncovering the ways it was sustained by patriarchy (and the naturalization of male and female roles within this system). With their books, Bender, Chin, and Hapke have made significant contributions to the field.
Sweated Work, Weak Bodies is working-class history at its best, because it perceptively melds a Marxist feminist approach with cultural studies theory to explain change over time. Bender takes readers from the late Gilded Age through the early New Deal period in two parts—the first focuses on the interplay between immigrants, racial identity, and gender, and the second [End Page 180] scrutinizes the discourse of and about women workers as part and product of the sweatshop.
The term sweatshop came into use in the 1880s with the inundation of southern and eastern European immigrants in the United States. Sweatshop was a malleable idea that hinted at a multiplicity of things—all eliciting fear, empathy, anger, and concern. For example, as an idea, it referred to a place of labor, i.e., tenement quarters that doubled as home and workshop. It also highlighted the experience of laboring in cramped, filthy, and loud spaces. And sweatshop connoted a certain type of worker and the way he or she worked. Southern and eastern European immigrants, with family ties in the industry, made up the majority of the labor force. They were tired, exploited, and sick as they sewed a garment piece over and over again. They worked as fast as they possibly could but still barely earned enough money to feed themselves or their children.
The sweatshop idea was also historically constructed. By sustaining gender throughout the narrative, Bender convincingly shows that the ways that the sweatshop was conceived of shaped the debates surrounding reform. The author argues that while multiple groups (male and female workers, Progressives, inspectors, and government agents among them) all agreed that the sweatshop was a problem, they disagreed about the nature, cause, and solution to its existence. Middle-class reformers initially worried that immigrants were the cause of the conditions in the sweatshop. Inspectors, for example, made racist arguments about enfeebled and diseased Jews who not only undermined the potential of American capitalism but were sure to cause its demise. By the early twentieth century, however, the divergent groups came together in a coalition based on gender: "For workers, their bodies bore the scars of class exploitation; for inspectors, workers' bodies revealed their inferior racial status. In forging alliances, workers—led by male unionists—and inspectors exchanged these languages for a shared language of gender" (187).
Anti-sweatshop discourse pivoted around women's presence, position...