- On Gender, Labor, and Inequality by Ruth Milkman
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016
viii + 308 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $28.00 (paper); $25.20 (e-book)
In this scholarly tour de force, Ruth Milkman brings together four decades of sociological research on women workers to paint a portrait of gendered labor patterns from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession of 2007–9. With meticulous research, careful argumentation, and effective writing, Milkman shows how economic actors—especially women workers, unions, and employers—shaped women's employment and key industries of the US economy. As they managed changes in the labor and job markets, these actors both maintained strict job segregation by gender and transformed it, with implications for the dynamism and rigidity of gender roles in society more widely.
This collection of previously published pieces is most in conversation with foundational theories in political economy (especially Marxist theories of class), socialist feminism, and sociological theories of organization. In the book's introduction, Milkman concedes that these bodies of thought may seem "quaint" to contemporary students of intersectionality; and, indeed, most of the macro-level analyses presented in the first half of the book are not well suited to capture nuances in women's experiences related to their identity, racial classification, immigration status, sexuality, or participation in informal job markets. Nevertheless, Milkman argues that during a time of rapidly widening inequality, an understanding of the interactions of class and gender is increasingly relevant, providing a needed corrective to theories that fail to account for social class in the lives of women. The final three chapters of the book explore rising income inequality and class distinctions among women workers correlated with ethnoracial categorization, immigration status, and level of education in more depth. Altogether, the volume brings class analyses into conversation with feminist scholarship, as it more firmly incorporates the experiences of working-class women into sociological theories of gender and inequality.
Over the course of the book's eleven chapters, Milkman examines gendered labor patterns during key transitions of the US economy, from the Great Depression, through World War II, into the postindustrial period, and through the Great Recession. At each juncture, Milkman seeks to uncover not only macro-level labor patterns of women workers but also the key agents driving such patterns, including union leaders, employers, and women workers themselves. The first four chapters explore the role of job segregation by gender in shaping the working lives of women in industry during the 1930s and 1940s—a period that included the Great Depression, the influx of women workers during World War II, and the postwar transition period. Milkman finds that gendered job segregation showed remarkable persistence throughout this period and that job segregation by gender, rather than unequal pay for equal work, was the main driving factor of gender inequality in the labor market. Gendered job segregation was undergirded by perceptions of men's and women's work which deeply shaped the kinds of jobs available to women [End Page 115] throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The association of jobs with one or the other gender persisted during times both of labor surplus and of labor shortage: in times of labor shortage, women workers encountered expanded work opportunities, but these became reclassified as women's work with diminished pay and prestige. In times of labor surplus, manufacturers prioritized the hiring of men for higher-wage positions, often reassigning their association to men's work once again.
The fifth chapter considers the tension between materialist and culturalist explanations for gendered labor patterns with an extended consideration of "the Sears case." The Sears case involves a lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Sears Corporation, alleging that the company discriminated against women in hiring for commission-based sales jobs. Each side brought in a scholarly "expert" to argue in their favor, illustrating tensions among conflicting interpretations of gendered job segregation, and gendered differences more broadly, in academia.
The sixth through eighth chapters shift focus to the gendered composition of labor unions and the role of organized labor in...