Events

The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America

February 08, 2004 // 11:00pm

Speaking on a program organized by the Division of United States Studies and co-sponsored by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Dorothy Sue Cobble traced the fights of women laborers from the early twentieth century struggle for a "provider's" wage for working women to the efforts of organized Playboy bunnies to obtain a decent salary. Her The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America focuses particularly on women labor organizing drives in the 1930s and 1940s. The labor movement, she pointed out, was not composed entirely of men—nor was the women's movement composed entirely of upper-class women. And, contrary to general belief, feminist reform was not dormant in the years between 1920, when women won the vote, and the women's liberation movement that began in the 1960s. Labor women kept it alive, and their efforts were as important as Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique and the bad behavior of the men of the New Left at bringing the 1970s drive for gender equality into existence.

Initially, women workers did not view sex discrimination as the only, or even the most important, problem in achieving workplace justice. They were far more concerned with changing the nature of working class jobs. By the 1930s, many women were protected by minimum wage and maximum hour guarantees, and the fight was to extend those protections to workers generally and to redefine fair labor practices.

Women labor leaders focused on improving women's standing in the working world in three distinct areas. First, they sought to facilitate the combination of women's responsibilities to work and family, advocating paid maternity leave, universal health care including the cost of childbirth, and a host of other social service programs. Second, the movement attempted to secure an equal and decent "family wage" that would allow workers, men or women, to cover the costs of raising a family. Third, it struggled to end the long-hour day, a cause that was of particular concern to working women. In the 1940s, labor organizers began lobbying to shorten the work week, work year, and work life of most wage employees, providing "lumps of leisure." The cause of shortening the work day was of less concern to those male advocates, but it was emphasized by women labor organizers, who were well aware of the "second shift" – the cooking, cleaning, and childcare they had yet to do after their shifts ended each day.

Heidi Hartmann, founding president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, called Cobble's book a crucial contribution to the intellectual history of the women's labor movement, and predicted that it will become an indispensable resource for further study in the field. She emphasized the importance of understanding the role of labor unions in keeping the women's movement alive between the end of the first wave of feminism in 1920 and the beginning of the second wave in 1960. Many of the current "radical" ideas about, e.g., paid maternity leave, were part of the union women's agenda in the early twentieth century. The argument between the pro- and anti-ERA forces, she added, with the former demanding equal treatment and the latter fearful that "equal" treatment would ignore issues such as the need for maternity leave, dates back to the introduction of the ERA in the 1920s. She also noted that Cobble's research raises sobering questions about what women's infrastructures have been lost—in their haste to eliminate the women's auxiliary network, for example, have the structures that would have protected the movement until the beginning of the third wave been eroded? We are currently experiencing a low moment for feminism on the national level, she stated, which is being kept alive only by a combination of Women's Studies department, women philanthropists, international organizations, and state and local governments.

Karen Nussbaum, assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO and former director of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Labor, echoed the praise for Cobble's book. As a practitioner of women's labor advocacy, Nussbaum spoke about the importance of recreating the kind of grassroots organization that the women's labor movement had assembled during the 1970s in the 9-to-5 campaign for "Raises, Rights, and Respect." "There were many times throughout history when women's activism saved the labor movement," she said, pointing to the current move of women into unions, but women have not achieved institutional power within the movement. She believes, she told the audience, that there is hope for a new women's labor movement today, but it must coalesce around a larger social justice agenda, it must be organizationally independent of the male-dominated labor movement, and it must work in concert with government agencies such as the Women's Bureau. What is needed, in short, is a revival of the kind of "insurgent consciousness" traced in Cobble's book.




Drafted by Philippa Strum and Ann Chernicoff

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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