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From Working Daughters to Working Mothers: Immigrant Women in a New England Industrial Community.

From Working Daughters to Working Mothers: Immigrant Women in a New England Industrial Community Using both social historical and ethnographic methods, cultural anthropologist Louise Lamphere seeks to explain why so many married women work for wages today, whereas ninety years ago mainly unmarried young daughters did so. This transformation, Lamphere believes, is best explored in the changing lives of immigrant women, since today as in the past immigrants were a large proportion of the industrial work force of the Rhode Island mill towns she studied.

Lamphere's book is the result of a collaborative research project, and an excellent example of the fruits of both interdisciplinary cooperation and comparative study in a scholarly field too often dominated by analyses of single immigrant groups. Lamphere presents rich materials on the lives of Polish, French Canadian, and Irish women circa 1915, on the growth, decline, and reorganization of local industries (with special emphasis on textiles), and on recent migrations of Colombians and Portuguese. Her chapter on women operatives' strategies for everyday resistance in a garment factory yields new information on labor-management relations in a multi-ethnic, highly competitive, and threatened industry.

On a more theoretical level, the book aims "to show how the organization of production and reproduction interact and change" (p. 20) in women's lives. This approach is not new in the study of women workers, but Lamphere's work is a thoughtful example of it. lamphere argues that the employment of wives, unlike that of daughters, results in significant changes in domestic divisions of labor as men become more involved in child care and child-rearing. Business historians will find that Lamphere's work highlights the wide-ranging social changes accompanying women's changing productive roles. But her documentation of domestic adjustment may surprise colleagues in women's studies who often report little change in middle- and upper-middle class dual wage-earner families.

Although Lamphere presents a complex portrait of the changing women workers of Central Falls, the basic argument of her book is a simple one, and it strikes me as overstated. Change in the productive arena is repeatedly invoked as the single most important motor driving change in family and household reproductive activities. Variations in women's wage-earning are attributed not to ethnic cultural values but to "a group's location in a particular niche within the local economy" (page XV). The change from working daughters to working mothers is explained essentially "by looking first at the timing of a group's entrance into the local economy and then at women's strategies for the allocation of productive and reproductive labor in the context of family developmental cycle" (p. 31).

Compared to immigration historians, Lamphere gives little weight to the structure and organization of migration itself as an independent influence on women's choices. (Better attention to the sex ratio, and the related decline of boarding as a mode of female wage-earning might have made this connection more obvious.) Although Lamphere documents the influence of the family development cycle, she never considers the family cycle as important as the productive world in influencing female behavior. Surely, however, the weakened position of industrial male wage-earners coupled with the absence of working-age daughters in young immigrant families explains much about wage-earning rates of married women. Lamphere's preferences may reflect her disciplinary origins: her bibliography indicates she is reacting to recent debates in women's history and women's studies, not to the burgeoning literature on family and ethnic history during the 1980s.

One problem with Lamphere's production-driven interpretation is that she could not document much plant- or shop floor-level change in local industries. Her historical research did not unearth information comparable to the data on the workplace collected during her own employment in a garment factory. Although her chapters on the transformation of the local textile industry will be interesting to historians of business, they tell mainly of corporate reorganization and new industries; they provide few clues as to why these industries today hire married women, and she never suggests that employers actually prefer them. Explanations for the transformation from working daughter to working mother must therefore, I suspect, be found in analysis of the supply of labor, not in industry's demands. As an analysis of the significance, meaning, and consequences of women's wage-earning patterns, however, Lamphere's study deserves a wide audience.

Donna Gabaccia is associate professor of history at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry. She has written From Sicily to Elizabeth Street (1984), Militants and Migrants (1988) and "Immigrant Women: Nowhere at Home?" Journal of American Ethnic History (1991). She is currently preparing a history of immigrant women in the United States.
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Author:Gabaccia, Donna
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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