Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America.
DOROTHY SUE COBBLE's book on "labor feminism" in the post-World War II years has already been highly praised, and rewarded with the Philip Taft Labor History Book Prize for 2005. The commendations come well justified. This is an important book in the field of labour history, one which sets out a fresh perspective on the labour movement in the post-war years, and one which will undoubtedly shape debates in the field for years to come. A compelling look at a generation of women activists whose contributions have been marginalized to date in both women's and working-class history, The Other Women's Movement is characterized by immense breadth and depth in its research, and sophistication and nuance in its argumentation.
For at least the last decade, feminist historians, Cobble among them, have been contesting and revising the "June Cleaver" popular image of these post-war years, challenging the notion that Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique spoke about, or to, working-class and African American women. While other interventions in this debate have often concentrated on localized topics or specific unions and occupations, Cobble's book offers a much broader, national study, with sustained attention to race, class, and gender in the making of women's union politics. The Other Women's Movement is a masterful account of a generation of activist women dedicated to the labour movement and to the feminist ideal of removing sex discrimination in the workforce. They campaigned for "economic" or "full industrial citizenship" (4) for women, promoting goals quite different from those espoused by liberal equal rights feminists of the time. For one thing, the labour feminists' strategies to achieve equality involved women's participation in civil rights organizations and the trade union movement, alongside working-class and African American men who, in fact, often dominated the top leadership of these groups.
Cobble, however, points out that feminist historians need to look at leadership differently, exploring the second tier of female leaders in the labour movement, especially those dedicated to alleviating the burden of low wages and uncertain working conditions for wage-earning women. She sets the context for the emergence of "labor feminism" well, looking at structural changes in the workforce after the war, as well as the political influence of a renewed labour movement after the 1930s, with industrial unionism offering a "vocabulary and ideological flame-work" upon which women could base their demands. (15) A new group of labour feminists dedicated to gender issues was built from a cross-class alliance of working-class women and college-educated labour researchers and leaders, located both in large industrial (and male-dominated) unions like the UAW [United Automobile Workers] and more female-dominated unions like the ACW [Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America]. This cross-class alliance resembled earlier coalitions of middle-class "social feminists" and working-class trade unionists of the pre-World War I era--for example, the Women's Trade Union League--and Cobble suggests that her labour feminists were inspired by this earlier generation of women of the Women's Trade Union League era, though these connections are not explored at great length. For the post-World War II labour feminists, it was now the state, in the form of the Women's Bureau, which provided an important social and intellectual glue for their efforts, linking labour feminists nationally through regular conferences that built a common political esprit and fostered the connections necessary to lobby for their goals.
Cobble also provides informative biographical accounts of some of the major figures of this group, from the better known Caroline Davis of the UAW to the fiery organizer of waitresses, Myra Wolfgang, and importantly, she indicates the critical role that African American women, like the UPWA's [United Packinghouse Workers of America] Addie Wyatt and Gloria Johnson of the IUE [International Union of Electrical Workers], played in this coalition, not only as organizers but as catalysts for others to embrace civil rights issues. Her coverage of specific issues, such as the campaign for equal pay for work of comparable worth is always judicious and thorough; she puts the demands of the labour feminists in their historical context, highlighting the reasons why this generation of women leaders focused on the issues and tactics that they did. Most, as she shows, did not challenge the sexual division of labour, nor were they ready to demand an altered division of caring labour in the home, even for overburdened working mothers. Their strategies stressed the elevation and re-valuing of women's labour, both economically and socially, with attention to the different needs of working women as mothers. Because of this emphasis on both women's equality and difference, labour feminists faced off politically with equal rights feminists in the National Women's Party, still intent on promoting the Equal Rights Amendment.
One of the compelling chapters in the book is the discussion of this conflict and its final denouement; it was a heated and passionate debate that pitted middleclass, professional, white women against working-class activists intent on keeping protective legislation for working-class women. Cobble provides an excellent account of the way in which white liberal feminists and their allies drew on racism to further their cause, and the public debate Cobble describes between Betty Friedan and Myra Wolfgang provides a powerful picture of competing feminist visions, dispelling the myth that feminism was a homogeneous movement by any stretch of the imagination. Another important legacy of Cobble's book is its role in further dispelling the notion that feminism had only two "waves" in the 20th century, in between which there were simply troughs of inaction and apathy. This post-war period was not one of the doldrums for working-class feminism, quite the contrary, and as Cobble suggests, these labour feminists provided a basis upon which future generations could build--even though their feminist politics would prove to be quite different.
Though this is a story of the post-war years, the Cold War has something of a ghostly presence in Cobble's book, certainly acknowledged, but not given the attention or explanatory power that other labour historians have awarded it, in explaining shifts in union politics in these years. Some historians have even suggested that the Cold War sapped the energies of unions and prevented coalitions that might have strengthened the demands for gender justice. Cobble may well disagree, but it would have been interesting to see this issue debated more openly.
The labour feminists Cobble brings to life might be characterized, by and large, as respectable radicals; as she notes, they were "left-liberals, concentrated in CIO unions that shared an anti-communist agenda and favoured close ties with the Democratic Party." (28) Although they certainly challenged prevailing economic and social values and institutions, save for a few, they looked to a more moral capitalism and a system of "mixed" social provision, both state and privately funded, as the solution for working women. Cobble is clearly sympathetic to this energetic and committed generation of women leaders and activists, with their stress on a pragmatic politics of reform, working within the trade union movement and lobbying the state to alleviate the oppressive working conditions facing women workers. The frustrations that this generation of feminists sometimes faced from an entrenched white, male union leadership are explored less fully, perhaps in part because these women, dedicated to the labour movement, did not openly discuss these problems out of a sense of union "loyalty." Some younger women in the next generation of activists, in the 1960s and early 1970s, were far more critical of the union leadership and bureaucracy, turning to grassroots and Left tactics, at least for a time. Although they were dismissed by the labour feminists as "sectarian" (203-204) and unrealistic, one hopes that a future study might examine this next generation of labour and socialist feminists with more sympathetic insight, offering the same kind of careful contextual analysis that Cobble gives the post-World War II labour feminists.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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