- Working Women and the Contested Meanings of Equality
Historians of women’s work have long pondered the combination of cultural assumptions, family structures, and social policies that have relegated women to the status of second-class workers. Two new books by Nancy Woloch and Michelle Haberland reveal the complex and contested meanings of equality for female workers. Woloch focuses on the history of social policy, whereas Haberland delivers a social history more focused on workers’ experiences. Despite these different approaches, the books dovetail in demonstrating how state and federal policies shaped and reshaped the labor landscape, drawing on intertwined assumptions about gender, race, and occupation; and bowing to pressure from reformers, unions, and businesses to regulate labor and commerce in particular ways. Both books move beyond better-known stories of industrialization in the Northeast and Midwest during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era to encompass developments in the West and the South, and to draw a longer temporal arc, tracing the story up through the end of the twentieth century.
Nancy Woloch narrates the rise and fall of “protective” labor legislation for women, explaining how, when, and why the laws came into being, whom they served, what they accomplished, and when they began to unravel. It is a fascinating story of “false hopes and unintended consequences,” as reformers who genuinely hoped to improve working women’s hours, wages, and working conditions created a shaky edifice of “protection” that, in fact, reinforced women’s secondary position in the labor force (p. 262). Laws setting maximum hours, mandating minimum wages, and prohibiting night work left uncovered [End Page 305] the most vulnerable workers—disproportionately immigrants and women of color employed in households, agriculture, or in canneries. Woloch focuses on the laws and those who advocated and implemented them: the “personnel of protection,” who included reformers, legislators, judges, bureaucrats, and union representatives.
The first five of eight chapters tilt toward a familiar cast of characters, including figures such as Florence Kelley, Josephine Goldmark, and Louis Brandeis. Woloch synthesizes several decades’ worth of historical, legal, and social scientific scholarship as the context for a close reading of more than a century of legislation and court decisions. However, she declines to wade too deeply into debates on the gendered nature of the welfare state advanced by numerous scholars, including Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work (1997); and Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood (1995). Woloch neither celebrates nor condemns Progressive Era reformers for seeking new limits on capitalist exploitation by reinforcing gender difference; neither does she engage much with comparative examples of protective labor legislation drawn together by Ulla Wikander, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Jane Lewis in their edited volume, Protecting Women (1995). Perhaps because the U.S. story is so complicated, Woloch forgoes theoretical or transnational considerations; but given the depth of her knowledge, she might have advanced some bolder historiographical claims.
One of the knottiest questions in A Class by Herself revolves around the contradictions inherent in “equality” and “difference” as strategies for addressing women’s inequalities in the labor force. Women struggled to earn a decent wage while remaining responsible for the unpaid family labor of housework, cooking, and childcare. By and large, reformers who championed protective labor legislation emphasized women’s domestic responsibilities and social value as mothers. Chicago sociologist Annie MacLean declared in 1910, “’the woman is worth more to society as the mother of healthy children than as the swiftest labeller of cans’” (p. 22). Defending protective labor legislation for women against feminist challenge a decade later, former cap-maker and Women’s Trade Union League leader Rose Schneiderman stated: “’Those of us who have worked in the factory or store know that there is only room for one at the top and the rest must...