Matthew L. Basso, Meet Joe Copper: Masculinity and Race on Montana's World War II Home Front.
Matthew L. Basso, in Meet Joe Copper, argues that the masculinity of home front men was threatened during World War II, when soldiering took precedence over breadwinning as the ideal masculine trait. According to Basso, in his three study sites, Butte, Anaconda, and Black Eagle, where many men were employed in war-necessary industry, "a period of stable masculinity" came to an end, causing "working-class men to modify their behavior to meet the standards of home front masculinity," (6) complicating home front race and gender relationships well into the postwar years. In focusing on the home front, Basso offers an alternative to the majority of World War II masculinity scholarship, which contends that the war offered men, whose masculinity as breadwinners was challenged during the Great Depression, an opportunity to assert their masculinity through military service. However, as Basso rightly recognizes, this view privileges military experiences while neglecting those of home front men.
Basso's text is broken into three parts, "Defining Whiteness and Working-Class Masculinity, 1882-1940," "Copper Men and the Challenges of the Early War Home Front," and "Making the Home Front Social Order." The first part examines the dynamics of gender and, as Basso terms them, racial-ethnic identities as they were locally constructed. It covers the ways in which men and women, various classes, immigrant groups, and races interacted in order to understand how white privilege and social norms were established and propagated in the decades leading up to the war.
Focusing on wartime propaganda and military draft debates, part two discusses how the war redefined masculinity and the increasing power of the government to define and impact copper men's masculinity, as the Anaconda Copper Company (ACM) and the government turned to female, nonwhite, aged, or disabled persons to fill labour shortages within the copper industry. Additionally, Basso illustrates how copper men deployed their working-class masculinity in order to protect their occupations in the face of deferment and labour shortage debates. Here Basso argues that Butte, Black Eagle, and Anaconda disrupt the popular narrative of increasing women and minority men in wartime industry, as Montana copper men directly challenged these employment initiatives, which they perceived as a threat to "the mine's white male status." (130-131)
In part three, Basso looks at wartime crisis (a wildcat strike in Butte, local soldiers posted near Black Eagle and women in smelter jobs in Black Eagle, and the fight to exclude women and minority men from production jobs in Anaconda) in each city, which reveal long-held beliefs about race and gender and the ways in which copper men worked to protect their local gender and racial-ethnic order.
In the final chapter of the text, Basso carries his history into the postwar years, arguing that when returning veterans entered working-class jobs, they integrated themselves into home front definitions of masculinity "that home front men carried from the Great Depression through the war and into the postwar." (15) In doing so, Basso more fully accounts for the role of working-class masculinity in shaping postwar norms than previous scholarship has.
One of the greatest strengths of Basso's text is his attention to paradoxical constructions and intersections of race, class, and gender in the American West and in the United States. Embracing these paradoxes complicates simplistic or popular narratives of World War II home front politics. Basso illustrates that during the war, the nation held a vision of masculinity that sometimes drastically differed from that of the Montana copper men. For example, the public called the masculinity and patriotism of copper men into question when they fought against ACM and government policies that attempted to curb labour activism, including persuading workers to sign a no-strike pledge. However, gendered constructions in which autonomy and independence from the company were central to a working-class masculine identity meant that participants in wartime work stoppages understood their actions as patriotic assertions of '"working-class Americanism'" rather than contrary to national ideals. (133) Here Basso illustrates the tension between two contradictory narratives of masculinity, demonstrating the fluidity of the identity and calling into question the popular construction of World War II masculinity that dominates scholarship into the present.
Additionally, Basso examines the intersections of gender and race identities and the sometimes seemingly paradoxical relationships between these identities. For example, Basso discusses the seemingly contradictory relationship between Montana copper men and national labour movements, including the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill). Mine Mill fought against workplace discrimination and supported the inclusion of minority men in labour rights campaigns across the nation, and yet Montana copper men engaged in battles to exclude minority men from participation and employment. The refusal of white miners to work alongside African American miners during the war demonstrates, according to Basso, "the limited hold the Popular Front's class-based racial progressivism had on Butte's white ethnic men." (161) Rather than uniting with African American miners along labour lines, Butte's white miners, familiar with the ACM'S use of racial-ethnic stratification to fracture union power, walked off the job. The national press again understood white miners' refusal to work with African Americans as unpatriotic, as they failed to comply with Executive Order 8802, which prevented discrimination based on race in the national defense program. The local press, however, made sense of this contradiction in claiming that Butte miners' actions were not based in racism but rather in their belief that the government failed to protect Butte workers when it brought in outside soldier-miners rather than returning Butte soldiers to fill labour shortages. Additionally, Butte miners feared that the inclusion of African Americans was an ACM plot to fracture union activism. Far from a defense of their actions, Basso presents a coherent assertion that although Montana copper men's actions and similar actions of home front men across the nation are frequently left out of the World War II narrative, they had significant impact and are necessary to historians' understanding of race and gender relations during and after the war.
An important contribution to both gender and western history, Basso successfully traces a narrative of World War II gender and race politics that runs contrary to the national narrative and demonstrates that wartime and postwar power relations were rooted in decade-sold gender and racial-ethnic hierarchies. However, Basso's analysis of white males' anxieties about and resistance to changing norms largely neglects men of colour in Montana. In his discussion of the 1942 wildcat strike in Butte, for example, Basso touches on the actions of Black soldier miners only in order to support his definition of ideal World War II masculinity, and his claims about the ways in which white copper men challenged this definition. He claims that African American soldier-miners defended their right to stay and work in Butte by appealing to wartime definitions of masculinity in arguing, '"if we are worthy of wearing the uniform ... we are sufficiently worthy to work with the Butte Miners in all the mines here.'" (185) Here Basso seems to assume that the definition of ideal wartime masculinity, and men's responses to that definition were the same across race lines, neglecting to provide an equally nuanced analysis of nonwhite masculinity and the ways in which Black soldier-miners may have deployed their masculine identities in order to protect or advance their own status. Basso's early assertions that masculinity is unfixed and contestable would have benefited from closer analysis of racialized masculinity.
Natalie F. Scheidler
Montana State University
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|Author:||Scheidler, Natalie F.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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