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224 Chapter 15 GOSSARDGIRLSAREGOODGIRLS LABORACTIVISMATA1949GARMENTFACTORYSTRIKE Carly S. Woods and Kristen Lucas The year 1949 marked a dramatic conclusion to a turbulent decade in the small blue-collar town of Ishpeming, Michigan.1 Iron ore was first discovered in the region in the 1840s, and the town’s largely immigrant population lived and died by the mines. For a full century, there was much labor strife—wildcat strikes, slowdowns, picketing, union busting, and scab labor—but no official union. As a wave of unionization swept the country following World War II, the men who worked in the mines finally succeeded in gaining collective bargaining rights and union representation by the United Steelworkers following a celebrated 104-day strike in 1946. Within this same period, a lesser-known women’s labor movement was brewing in Ishpeming. The six hundred employees of the H. W. Gossard factory —which specialized in the production of brassieres, corsets, and heavy bone girdles—were demanding a collective voice, too, and in November 1948, voted to unionize. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU ) sent labor leader Geraldine Gordon to organize a strike. Ultimately, the strike lasted 113 days, longer than the men’s strike of only three years earlier. Labor historians have noted the importance of ILGWU-supported activism in other locales throughout the twentieth century, but the Ishpeming strike is underappreciated outside of the region.2 As the first women’s labor movement in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and one in which women factory workers who manufactured undergarments for other women were organized by a woman labor leader, this episode is ripe for feminist rhetorical analysis (“Gossard Strike”). This chapter tells the story of the Gossard Girls, as they affectionately called themselves, tracing the intersections and tensions in their gender and class identities during the events of 1949. Before their activism, they were valued as what we label “good girls”: working-class community members who were doing what was considered gender-appropriate work in a shifting post- 225 Gossard Girls Are Good Girls war landscape.3 This identity was challenged by Ishpeming’s weekly paper, the Iron Ore, which attempted to discredit their labor efforts with accusations of anti-Americanism and communism. Turning to more sympathetic publications and firsthand accounts, we examine how the Gossard Girls sought to defuse such accusations by positioning themselves as harmless housewives and girls-next-door. While it would be easy to characterize their approach as simply playing into traditional gender roles of the period, we argue it was part of a more complicated rhetorical strategy that allowed them to engage in playful performances on the picket line. In reasserting their familiar, goodgirl image, the women were provided the cover they needed to express more pointed arguments about gender and labor. Their actions ultimately resulted in better-paying employment beyond the home. GOODGIRLS,GOODWORKERS Founded in Chicago in 1901, the H. W. Gossard Company was a major producer of high-end women’s undergarments. Its initial foray into the lingerie market was with a unique design for a front-lacing corset. Henry Williamson Gossard discovered the corsets in Paris and purchased 150 for resale in the United States. At a time when the average corset was priced between 35¢ and $1.50 ($10–40 in 2016 dollars), Gossard initially priced his at $25 ($670 in 2016 dollars) (Peterson; W. Roberts 637). Even at their exorbitantly high price, the corsets sold out quickly. Realizing the potential, Gossard promptly established the H. W. Gossard Company in Chicago, patented the front-lacing corset, and began mass-scale production. The corsets were popular because women no longer had to enlist the assistance of a “personal maid” or “husband” to fasten them (Peterson). The deleterious effects of corsets on women’s bodies had been intensely debated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Gossard’s model promised to improve health while simultaneously corralling figures into desirable shapes (Fields 47). As Gossard explained, the new design “gives greater freedom of carriage, and moulds itself as the Creator intended” (qtd. in “Twenty-fifth Anniversary”). By 1920, Gossard corsets were priced more moderately (as low as $45 in 2016 prices) and demand skyrocketed (W. Roberts 637). Gossard built several new factories around the Midwest. Ishpeming—a mining town looking to widen its industrial base—was an ideal place to expand. The Gossard Company opened its Ishpeming factory doors on April 20, 1920, providing sewing and production jobs to the community. While Gossard promoted the “freedom of...


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