- Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland by Stephen Meyer
Many of us who work on gender, labor, and automotive history have benefitted from Stephen Meyer's work and have been anxiously awaiting this new book, Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland. [End Page 429] Meyer's smart, insightful, readable book was worth the wait. It provides an in-depth exposition and analysis of the varieties of working-masculinity in the automobile industry, primarily in the region in and around Detroit, Michigan, throughout the first half of the twentieth century (a concluding chapter addresses the second half of the twentieth century). Meyer is interested in the ways men constructed and expressed working-class masculinity as a result of their experiences in the workplace and in working-class organizations. Meyer is sensitive to the impact that race, age, ethnicity, skill-level, and the passage of time had on masculinity. Central to his analysis is the distinction between "rough" and "respectable" male working-class culture. These existed simultaneously and were historically and socially contingent. The nuanced treatment of these dichotomous expressions of masculinities is one of the strengths and contributions of this book.
The skilled craftsmen of the nineteenth century workplace embodied the characteristics of respectable masculinity—autonomy, independence, and control in the performance of work tasks and in relationship to supervisors (20). Jobs at Fordist, mass production automobile enterprises challenged ideas of masculinity derived from the artisanal workshop. Meyer uncovered an amazing set of accounts of university students who did stints in these production facilities and described their experiences. University of Chicago student Andrew Steiger reflected on his experience in the Detroit automobile plants in 1927: "the workers are just a mechanical unit in a production process over which they exercise no control. The worker is valuable as long as he performs a given set of muscular motions upon a regular schedule—so many number of seconds per piece." The toll on the workers' bodies forced many workers to leave at forty, unable to support their families. Meyer concludes that this "work regime went against the essential elements of skilled-worker manhood" (19).
In response to this fundamental change in the labor process, as well as the industrial union battles of the 1930s and the disruptions of World War II, some workers created and expressed a rough masculine culture. Fighting, "screwing and boozing" manifested as expressions of this rough masculinity both at work and in the burgeoning city of Detroit, a lively border city during Prohibition. Working-class men's desire to reclaim their manhood at work sometimes resulted in the "generalized demeaning and sexualizing of women" at work and at home (33). Definitions of working-class manhood were at stake as workers engaged in shop floor and union contestations—between corporate spies and unionists, between union organizers and the company strong men like Ford's Harry Bennett, between strikers and strikebreakers, between factions within the unions (including an active Ku Klux Klan) and between the different unions themselves (the UAW-CIO and the UAW-AFL). Meyer's nuanced presentation complicates what could be a simplistic, and negative, essentializing of this rough masculinity. Certainly there are colorful shop floor tales of boozing, drug taking, horseplay, gambling, fights over race, authority, and sex (this book is not a boring read!). But Meyer suggests that some of these behaviors should be understood as the "weapons of the weak."1 "Frequently," he concludes, "auto workers used the new forms of masculine culture to resist the routinization, degradation, and monotony of the disciplined work routines" (116).
After 1941, once the last big automaker (Ford) signed with the UAW, the UAW institutionalized itself on the shop floor, creating and establishing what [End Page 430] Meyer describes as a densely masculine, primarily white, environment (111). The appearance of women and African-Americans in the mass production shops posed a threat to this dense white masculine culture. When women temporarily entered these spaces to contribute...