- A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s by Nancy Woloch
The Feminist Majority—a US organization dedicated to women’s advancement—recently announced that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is “moving forward again!” This renewed interest in constitutional guarantees of women’s equality renders Nancy Woloch’s award-winning book especially timely. A Class by Herself is the only history to analyze single-sex protective labor legislation from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth, and it stands as both a warning to the reviving ERA movement and a spur to it.
Because women-only labor laws were for many decades the primary obstacle to the ERA, the history of the amendment has been closely bound to that of labor law. In fact, the early opposition between ERA and single-sex labor protections expressed class divisions that, in some cases, continue to bedevil feminists. Since the ERA was originally promoted by a small band of elites closely tied to employers and would, in that period, have hurt many wage-earning women by undermining single-sex protective labor laws they treasured, the amendment is part of the history that alienated working-class women from self-identified feminists. Overcoming class divisions among feminists will require more democratic consultation than produced the original ERA. Woloch’s meticulously researched study thus warns against organizing for a constitutional amendment without effective consultation among a full range of American women.
Woloch writes her story as a dramatic battle between equality feminism and protective labor law with equality feminism the victor by the 1990s. Indeed, Woloch concludes that, even though the ERA was never ratified, single-sex protective labor legislation bit the dust in the late twentieth century. A “de facto ERA” (268) emerged through statutory law—especially Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), which forbade employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, or religion, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978), which prohibited employment discrimination based on pregnancy—as well as a series of court decisions against restrictions on women’s employment. The identification of a de facto ERA might spur interest in constitutional guarantees for women’s equality because, in the current political climate, laws that can be revoked and court decisions that can be reversed seem like flimsy supports for women’s economic well-being.
Woloch’s sweeping history asks important questions: why did single-sex labor laws emerge in the first place, what were their effects, and why did they decline after 1960? For many readers, the origin story will be familiar. Single-sex protective laws originated in 1893 with efforts by Florence Kelley and a cadre of Illinois activists to limit the hours of women’s industrial labor. Their motive was both to overcome the unique [End Page 115] disadvantages women faced in the workplace and to provide an opening wedge for labor laws that protected men and women alike. While courts rejected protective laws for most men, reformers successfully pressed the case for women-only laws in Muller v. Oregon (1908), a Supreme Court victory for differential legal treatment that set up conflict with the ERA (first introduced in Congress in 1923 and regularly reintroduced until passage in 1972).
According to Woloch, protectionists’ opening wedge strategy succeeded. She argues that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which aimed to set minimum wages and maximum hours for women and men, represented the culmination of protectionists’ efforts. She insists simultaneously that even as Muller helped to birth “modern labor standards,” it stymied “sexual equality” by situating women in a class by themselves (55).
Wage-earning women generally rejected the latter argument, believing instead that equality of result could sometimes be achieved through differential treatment. Indeed, working-class women advocated single-sex protections into the 1940s, when support waned but by no means disappeared. The reason many women, even after passage of the FLSA, continued to support state-level single-sex protections was that the majority of women workers were not...