- Striking Beauties: Women Apparel Workers in the U.S. South, 1930–2000 by Michelle Haberland
Michelle Haberland’s study of southern women workers in the U.S. apparel industry is a welcome addition to the existing literatures on southern labor history and the history of women and work. Apparel, Haberland suggests, was a key sector in southern manufacturing that has been obscured by (or conflated with) textiles in much historical writing on southern labor. Because the apparel workforce was much more heavily female (around 80 percent), her book not only chronicles a largely untold story but also provides rich opportunities to examine southern working women’s lives. Moreover, it shows how women’s [End Page 718] history can offer new insights about the histories of economic development, unionization, racial inequality, and industrial decline.
Striking Beauties: Women Apparel Workers in the U.S. South, 1930–2000 takes readers on a tour of southern apparel manufacturing from the start of the Great Depression through the end of the twentieth century. Haberland begins by exploring the industry’s emergence in the South as a sector fleeing northern-based unions starting in the 1930s. She traces the history of union organizing in southern plants—emphasizing gendered portrayals of women’s strike actions—from the 1930s through the 1960s. The book pays close attention to how Jim Crow employment policies benefited white women and how, in the wake of civil rights agitation and legislation in the 1960s, racial integration facilitated union success. It also examines the history of unionists’ appeals to women consumers through union label and boycott campaigns, covering in detail the Farah boycott of the early 1970s and the famous “Look for the Union Label” campaign sponsored by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) (p. 131). The study concludes by considering the recent effects of globalization, which in some ways mirrored the industry’s earlier southward turn.
Striking Beauties is valuable in several respects. Haberland does an admirable job of exploring racial tensions within the southern apparel workforce and showing how greater racial and ethnic diversity in the 1960s and 1970s pushed the major unions (the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America) toward greater inclusivity, although some forms of segregation persisted even in integrated plants. The male-led unions were much slower, she suggests, to recognize that sex mattered; as a result, they failed to address workplace concerns specific to women—such as sexual harassment and lack of pregnancy leave—and followed dominant patterns of depicting women in domestic roles. Haberland makes skillful use of material drawn from her own oral history interviews and employs geographically diverse examples that reveal the range and complexity of women’s experiences across the South. She offers an important reminder that, despite exploitation, factory jobs provided new opportunities that often reshaped women’s social roles.
Haberland might have explored some issues in greater depth. While she underscores the importance of capital flight in shaping the southern apparel industry, it is not clear how the issue affected the outcome of union campaigns. The gendered depictions of southern organizing that she describes parallel portrayals of women’s labor activism in other periods and places; one wonders, then, whether there is a particularly southern cast to her account. More sustained attention to the history of women’s relationships to organized labor would have been helpful—and might have complicated her assertion, especially when discussing globalization, that U.S. unions failed to empower women workers in Mexican plants. Some attention to differences between the men’s and women’s branches of the industry—and between the dominant unions—would have been useful as well. A tighter structure could have minimized repetition in the text.
However, Haberland’s intention “is to reveal the lived experiences” of southern women workers in apparel plants (p. 16). In this aim, she succeeds. [End Page 719] At the same time, her book shows...