From la Adelita to the suffragette, from la chica moderna to the factory girl dressed in red shirt and black skirt—the colors of the anarchist—women’s mobilization in the midst of Mexican Revolution was, to a large degree, rooted in their workforce participation. The evolution of gendered occupational segregation of the workforce, sex-typing of occupations, and gendered wage differentials marked women’s experiences and the way they organized to take control of their lives and to shape working conditions and politics. While women’s employment nationwide contracted during the period 1890–1930, it was nevertheless a moment of significant cultural change in the recognition of women’s work outside of the home. Women shifted public debates over their right to work and mobilized around the issues of maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, and respect for seniority. Across the workforce, women fought for the application of the rights afforded by the Mexican Constitution (1917) and then, in the 1930s, by federal labor law. By the fact of their work and because of their activism, women shifted the conversation on the rights of women—single or married, mothers or not, and regardless of personal beliefs or sexual morality—to dignity at work and the right to combine a life of work with other activities that informed their lives and fulfilled their passions.
Susie S. Porter
A resurgence of writings on labor in India in the 1990s occurred in a context when many scholars in the Anglo-American world were predicting the end of labor history. Over the last three decades, historical writing on labor in India has pushed old boundaries, opened up new lines of inquiry, unsettling earlier assumptions and frameworks. Teleological frames that saw industrialization leading to modernization were critiqued starting in the 1980s. Since then, historians writing on labor have moved beyond simple binaries between notions of the pre-modern/modern workforce to critically examine the conflictual processes through which histories of labor were shaped. With the opening up of the field, a whole range of new questions are being posed and old ones reframed. How do cultural formations shape the specificity of the labor force? How important are kinship, community, and caste ties in the making of working class lives and work culture? What defines the peculiarities of different forms of work at different sites: plantations and mines, factories and domestic industries, the “formal” and the “informal” sectors? What were the diverse ways in which work was regulated and workers disciplined? What were the ritual and cultural forms in which workers negotiated the conditions of their work? How does the history of law deepen an understanding of the history of labor? Studies on mobility and migration, on law and informality, on culture and community, on everyday actions and protest have unraveled the complex interconnections—global and local—through which the lives of labor are made and transformed.
A study of social movements advances a people’s history of the United States, providing a window into the ways ordinary people often took extraordinary measures to make laws, workplace conditions, the educational system, the quality of home life, and public spaces more open and responsive to the needs and concerns of marginalized groups. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the early 1800s came a host of social ills that prompted individuals to form organizations that enabled them to operate as a force for social change. As the Native American Chief Sitting Bull is purported to have said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but together we form a mighty fist.” The 1800s through the early 21st century provides numerous examples of people acting together as a mighty fist. As early as 1824, workers in textile mills in the Northeast United States enacted work stoppages and strikes in reaction to wage cuts and deplorable working conditions. The movement to abolish slavery in the mid-1800s provided a way for disenfranchised black men and women, such as the eloquent Frederick Douglass and Maria Stewart, as well as white women, to speak and organize publically. In the area of labor, female and black workers, excluded from the more formal organizing of trade unions through the American Federation of Labor, organized their own labor meetings (e.g., the National Labor Convention of the Colored Men of the United States), unions (e.g., the Women’s Trade Union League), and strikes (e.g., the Uprising of 20,000). By the late1800s through the 1930s, American socialism and the Communist Party, USA, influenced the philosophy and tactics employed by labor activists, many of whom were factory girls who played a formidable role in mass walk-outs in the Progressive Era. Struggles for workplace and civil rights continued throughout the 20th century to undo Jim Crow and segregation, to advocate for civil rights, to advance the rights of women in the workplace, and more recently, to fight for the rights of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender communities, undocumented workers, and immigrants, and to fight against the police repression of black and brown communities and against imperialism and globalization. Activists’ tools for resistance have been as diverse as their causes and include petitioning formal legislative bodies, picketing and rallying, engaging in work stoppages, occupation of public spaces (e.g., sit-downs, walk-outs, occupying squares and parks), and most recently, using social media platforms, blogs, and other forms of Internet activism to facilitate empowerment of marginalized groups and progressive social change. The Internet has provided an important tool for facilitating international connections of solidarity in struggle. Although what follows focuses specifically on movements in the United States from roughly the 1800s to the present, efforts should continue to focus on the ways movements join forces across and around the globe.