The Politics of Work: Gender and Labour in Victoria, 1880-1939.
With the general shift in feminist historiography from the study of women to the exploration of gender, new interpretive doors have opened. More than the reconstruction of women's experiences, still a necessary and invaluable exercise, current research has been oriented towards the importance of gender relations to the study of power relations in general. In The Politics of Work, Raelene Frances sets out to examine the ever-increasing body of literature surrounding the work of Harry Braverman on the labour process by focusing on the clothing, boot and printing trades in Victoria, Australia from 1880 to 1939.
Braverman's thesis has fallen on hard times as of late, with good reason, and Frances provides an excellent discussion of the recent literature, both Marxist and feminist, on this topic. In doing so, she indicates the numerous problems with Braverman's thesis about women as a reserve army of labour used by gender-blind employers to replace men and their higher wages. Her approach widens the field within which changes to the organization of work is viewed, suggesting that "it is not possible to accord theoretical primacy to any single factor; the precise weighting of each contribution can only be established empirically." (2) Frances also carefully details the ambiguities of the effectiveness and extent of Taylorism and other strands of scientific management.
As well, her immersion in the numerous debates concerning 'Bravermania' is coupled with a view of feminist debates about the social construction of skill and the position of women within the labour market. For Frances, the nature of work processes under capitalism in these trades "arose out of the interplay between product and labour markets, capital supply, technology, racial and gender orders and the activities of the state." (11) Frances provides a narrative of the dynamic of control and exploitation in each trade through her attention to the uneven but discernable processes of the deskilling, fragmentation and feminisation of work.
For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, men in the clothing trades were able to monopolize higher paying jobs in the factory while women remained primarily confined to outwork at much lower rates of pay. While the gendered division of labour in this trade remained constant during this period, the reorganization of work in the boot industry through mechanization was successful. In this case, working men rationalized the use of machines through the use of the male breadwinner ideal, stressing the importance of their earnings to the maintainence of the working-class family. This resulted in the displacement of female and child labour, a process even more intense in the printing trades, where machines such as the linotype were masculinized, entering the workplace as the sole domain of men. Thus, it is clear that there was no simply link between the presence of women in wage labour and the organization of work.
What should also be clear from the above examples is that women's particular demands were customarily not supported by male trade union hierarchies. While women in the printing and textile trades won their struggle for the establishment of a female organizer after World War One, women in the boot industry remained dependent on male officials. Generally, all women encountered difficulties in getting effective representation of their needs on both a daily basis and in times of negotiations. This resulted in women's increased vulnerability when work was reorganized, as men often settled for limiting the effects of scientific managment on their work at the expense of changes to women's work.
In The Politics of Work, we are presented with a portrayal in which the cycles of the colonial economy and the increase in the involvement of the state are seen very effectively alongside ideas about the male breadwinner, female domesticity, and child labour. Unfortunately, it is the complexity of the thesis that undermines her presentation. With a monograph of this size, Frances has approximately sixty pages to cover sixty years of history in each trade. As a result, we are given few glimpses about how workers themselves actually experienced the transformation of the labour processes in question. Instead, the focus is primarily upon union officials and their struggles with employers, managers and the state. As well, little space is devoted to detailing the prevailing gender order outside of the workplace. Despite these criticisms, this book should prove to be a very good example of the theoretical and methodological potential of a feminist-informed study of the transformation of labour processes.
Department of History
Simon Fraser University
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|Publication:||Urban History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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