- A Life of Historical Writing, Auto/Biographical Writing, and Accounts of Women Workers in Traditional and Nontraditional Occupations
Alice Kessler-Harris opens her collection of essays, Gendering Labor History, commenting on the contradictory impulses she feels, between a sense of pride in the increased attention to gender in labor history over the last forty years and, yet, disappointment that "we have accomplished so little after so long"(1). Kessler-Harris's concern that labor history still conjures up images of male workers may be too pessimistic; her own immense contributions to the field, as well as the books under review here, offer evidence that feminism has altered the questions posed by labor historians, moving gender and race from the periphery closer to the center of labor history writing. The four other books reviewed emphasize different methodological approaches, from the use of oral history to literary analysis, each one enlightening and expanding our understanding of women's labor history. Yet they also indicate continuities with past writing in terms of the broad questions addressed, about women workers' self-definitions, women [End Page 293] and trade unions, the gendered and racialized nature of class formation, the gendered division of labor, and the connections between production and social reproduction.
Kessler-Harris's collection of previously published essays is an impressive testament to the contribution that she has made to the creation of gender and labor history (indeed, to a "melded" feminist working-class history), to the trajectory of historical writing in the United States, to historiographical debates, and to new interpretive paradigms in women's and working-class history. Her writing has been pathbreaking, not only opening up new areas of research, but also helping us to rethink taken-for-granted assumptions and categories of our analysis, pushing the field in new directions.
The personal bookends that frame the beginning and end of this book situate Kessler-Harris's intellectual evolution as a historian and indicate the political commitment that has animated her writing, manifested not as an agenda, but as a responsibility to ask feminist questions and to speak to contemporary public issues that are profoundly shaped by our understanding of the past. Although the book is organized thematically, it also reveals a chronological evolution of themes and debates that emerged over time for feminist labor historians. But rather than imagining this as a "whig" trajectory which moves onward and upwards, with one approach surpassing the previous one, I prefer to think of Kessler-Harris's writing starting from a core of questions—about women, work, culture, gender, and power—and moving always outwards, in circles that sometimes overlap, sometimes not.
Explorations of a gendered working-class culture, analyzed in terms of received and changing traditions in concert with the social relations of class, gender, and ethnicity, characterize some of Kessler-Harris's early essays on women in the garment trades; her descriptions of women activists' attempts to build a meaningful community, the difficult balancing of familial and political demands, and the countervailing pull of feminist versus labor allies are all insightfully analyzed and evocatively presented. Shop floor and union cultures are linked to another circle of Kessler-Harris's research; questions about sex stratification, the sexual division of labor, and the gendering of work. From the workplace, culture, job stratification...