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African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

Article

Chicago  

Ann Durkin Keating

Chicago is a city shaped by industrial capitalism. Before 1848, it was a small commercial outpost in Potawatomi country, and then it expanded with the US economy between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Between 1848 and 1929, Chicago grew from under 30,000 to more than 3 million, fueled by the construction of railroads, warehouses, and factories. Working-class immigrants built their own neighborhoods around industrial sites and along railroads, while a downtown dominated by skyscrapers emerged to serve the needs of corporate clients. Since 1929, Chicago remained an industrial powerhouse and magnet for Black and Latino migrants, even as its economic growth depended more and more on commerce and the service industry.

Article

Domestic Workers in U.S. History  

Vanessa May

Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.

Article

Gender Rights and American Employment  

Katherine Turk

Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages. Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship. In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.

Article

Home-Based Labor  

Eileen Boris

Home-based labor has persisted over time and space but has varied in processes performed, earnings gained, and working conditions. Women and men have made and assembled goods, copied and manipulated data, minded dependents, and conducted enterprises in their residences or entered other people’s homes as domestic workers and caregivers. They have done so as unwaged family laborers and slaves, as employees, and as the self-employed. From rural outworkers in early America to urban immigrant homeworkers into the 20th century, from New England to the South and Puerto Rico, mothers and daughters sought to generate income along with engaging in unpaid work for the family. Most found it impossible to combine caring and earning without lengthening the workday into the night. Concentrated in seasonal and fashion industries, in which workers were paid by the piece, homeworkers were at the mercy of national and global markets. Though a family survival strategy, home-based labor challenged the ideology of separate spheres, the separation of home from work that made such labor invisible. Trade unionists joined women reformers to campaign against the home sweatshop for violating domesticity and undermining the male breadwinner wage. The resulting protective laws—minimum wages, maximum hours, and limits on child labor—rarely included home-based work, while the tenement location complicated enforcement of labor standards. New Deal reforms banned the most pervasive forms of industrial homework but excluded the often home-based domestic and agricultural sectors in which African Americans predominated. By the 1990s, new campaigns against the sweatshop linked the local and the global, while domestic workers organized to fight for inclusion in standards related to wages, working hours, and health and safety. Emerging after World War II, white-collar, home-based labor only expanded with the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding new forms of surveillance, such remote work continued to extend the working day, especially for women with care responsibilities.

Article

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America  

Anna Suranyi

Indentured servitude was a constitutive factor in the development of colonial America and helped shape patterns of immigration, labor relationships, citizenship, and the economy of the colonies. During the 16th through the 18th centuries, about 320,000 indentured servants, primarily from England but also from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the British colonies in the Americas, making up about 80 percent of white immigrants. About three-quarters of them were male, a quarter were female, and approximately a tenth were children. Most indentured servants were impoverished individuals, aged 18 to 25, who had agreed to a term of four to seven years of servitude with a payment of “freedom dues” at the end, but some were shipped or “transported” overseas involuntarily by the government, as vagrants or to serve criminal sentences, or were trafficked into servitude by kidnappers. Even those servants who had nominally agreed to indentured servitude had little understanding of what awaited them on the North American continent, because the indenture relationship gave their masters and mistresses much greater control over servants’ lives than employers had in Britain. Once indentured servants began their term of labor, many found themselves in abusive situations, with women and children particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. However, their circumstances were better than that of enslaved people of African ancestry, as a consequence of the limited duration of indentured servitude as opposed to lifelong enslavement and because indentured servants possessed legally and culturally defined rights as members of British society that were unavailable to the enslaved, including guidelines regulating their terms of labor, protections against abuses, and the ability to sue in court if mistreatment occurred. After servitude was completed, indentured servants were expected to join colonial society, and while many remained in dire poverty, some prospered.

Article

Southern Textile Worker Struggles in the 20th Century  

Joey Fink

The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.

Article

Women’s Movement and Women Workers, Post-1945  

Dennis Deslippe

Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains. In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.