The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. By Dorothy Sue Cobble. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. xiv, 315 pp. Cloth, $29.95, ISBN 0-691-06993-X).
Reviewed by Lynn Y. Weiner
This important and exhaustively researched book by Dorothy Sue Cobble, an historian at Rutgers, establishes the centrality of "labor feminism" to the U.S. women's movement. The Other Women's Movement recognizes the contributions of mid-twentieth century organized women workers to the long struggle for gender equality, and in doing so revises our understanding of women's political history.
Many historians have argued that, following a period of social activism which extended from the progressive era through the 1930s, a period of political inactivity and ineffectiveness set in -- not only for the women's movement but also for social reform generally. Recent historical work suggests, however, that social justice activities in the period between 1940 and 1960 actually provided a continuity of reform and set the stage for later political success in a variety of civil rights initiatives. The struggles of women unionists - and there were some three million of them by the early 1950s -- shaped the debates over rights, wages, and sex discrimination that would follow. Seeking "full industrial citizenship," labor women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment advocated by the National Woman's Party and later by the National Organization for Women, and supported protective labor legislation along with equal pay for equal work. If the 'first wave" of feminism concentrated on political suffrage, and the "second wave" on equal rights and individualism, then in between these waves was a remarkably buoyant period of reform activity focused on the economic and family needs of working-class women.
Why do many historians fail to appreciate the contributions of these activists? Cobble argues that the "equal rights teleology" of many histories of women paints these women as anti-feminist because until the 1970s, they did not pursue an equal rights strategy. Instead they advocated for sex-based labor laws that regulated women's wages, hours, and working conditions. Labor feminists recognized that some sex-based policies were discriminatory and should be overturned. But they also thought that differential laws were needed to protect working women from such practices as mandatory overtime. They believed that gender differences should be accommodated, and that the "masculine pattern" was not the same as theirs (pp. 7-8).
In the 1940s, this new generation of female union leaders devised a politics of work and family linked to higher wages and shorter hours of work. They promoted government and employer policies friendly to working mothers, such as day care programs and paid maternity leave. They advocated for a presidential commission on the status of women (unsuccessfully until the 1960s) and for federal legislation ending "unfair sex discrimination." They raised concerns about the need to value women's unpaid labor in the home. They did not choose to define equality by male standards alone.
The President's Commission on the Status of Women, created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, was rooted in these efforts and led to such legislation as the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But the reinvigorated feminist movement that followed intensified the conflict between those women supporting and opposing the ERA. Some labor feminists believed it was time for labor law to protect men and women workers equally, and went on to help found the National Organization for Women with Betty Friedan. Myra Wolfgang, a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, was among those who bitterly criticized the class assumptions of the new feminism, arguing that "equality for some women should not entail misery for others" (p. 180). By the 1960s, there was a clear divide between the new feminists of the "second wave" whose interests were individual rights, and the labor union women striving to improve working conditions for industrial, white-collar, and service workers.
The impact of class on feminist objectives is revealed at every turn. To protest the 1968 Miss America pageant, middle-class feminists stuffed bras, high-heeled shoes, and girdles into a "freedom trash can" (and gave rise to the legend of the bra burners). Less well-known but equally telling is the story of the "Woolworth bra." In 1971, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America coordinator Anne Draper used a cheap bra from Woolworth's to show the California Industrial Welfare Commission how the bra, purchased for the amount allowed in the state's cost-of-living calculations, had quickly fallen apart (pp. 180-81). The Miss America protest illustrated the oppression of women through commodification and psychological bondage, and brought to the fore issues of personal and sexual liberation. Draper's presentation graphically portrayed the inadequacy of the "poverty wage." Both were feminist statements.
The text is rich with stories about individual labor women activists, some well known to historians and others more obscure -- Myra Wolfgang, Addie Wyatt, Caroline Davis, Olga Madar, Katherine Ellickson, Myrtle Banks, Millie Jeffrey, and many others. These accounts, along with 25 wonderful photographs and illustrations, deepen our understanding of feminists and feminism, and reflect the social, racial, and ethnic diversity of the labor feminist movement.
Cobble hopes to reinvigorate 21st-century feminism. She urges labor activists to recognize the changing nature of a female workforce increasingly employed in white-collar and service jobs. At the same time, she suggests that the feminist movement become as concerned with class and racial injustice as it is with gender, arguing that a more class-conscious feminism would rightly view the decline of organized labor as a feminist issue with dire consequences for women - including unjust income distribution, poor job quality, and abysmal family policies. In order to be effective, she concludes, the 21st-century feminist movement must recognize the multiple versions of its past.
The Other Women's Movement successfully links the political efforts of mid-twentieth century working women to the development of second wave feminism, while making the case for often competing forms of feminist activism. This engaging and nuanced book will be of interest to students and scholars interested in labor, gender, social, and reform history in the twentieth-century United States.
Lynn Y. Weiner is a professor of history and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Roosevelt University, as well as the executive director of the Center for New Deal Studies. She has written a book on the female labor force in the United States, a prize-winning article on the history of the La Leche League, and numerous other articles and reviews. Her current project is a history of the PTA.
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