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Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor.

Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor. Edited by Ava Baron (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. viii plus 385 pp. $42.50/cloth $13.95/paper).

Let me begin by saying that Ava Baron has written to date one of the best introductions to the subject of gender and labor history and has put together a strong collection of essays. These essays prove, even to skeptical historians, the importance of a sensitivity to gender in understanding labor history, and that the study of gender is much more than looking at women in labor history or the role of women in the labor market or labor unions. These essays not only broaden our understanding of how conceptions of gender affect relations between men and women, but they also look at traditional areas of study where even historians sensitive to gender have not seen its importance. These essays are written by good historians doing good history. Readers learn much about things they never knew about and a good deal more about things they thought they knew about. One of the most impressive things about these essays is that they go over old territory and show how much more we can learn. Typical is Mary Blewett, who in her earlier work on shoe workers opened up a whole new understanding of labor history with a gender analysis. In the essay included here, she looks at the well studied subject of textile workers. She highlights the varied concepts of masculinity that emerged in late nineteenth-century Fall River and how struggle, its failure and success, politics, economics, and the contested involvement of men and women in both wage labor and formal and informal labor resistance shaped and was shaped by concepts of masculinity.

To note Blewett's essay is not to denigrate the others. There is something to learn in all these essays. Cooper and Devault are the most social science oriented in showing how gender affected job choices and opportunities, workplace concerns, and family roles. Most of the other pieces are within the tradition of the new labor history while at the same time raising the issue of how conceptions of gender impact and are affected by relations on the job, and/or in the union. Eileen Boris' and Nancy Hewitt's pieces on cigarmakers and Elizabeth Faue's work on working-class organizing in 1930s Minneapolis also deal with how those issues spill into the community. Dana Frank, by looking at the union movement and consumption--particularly the boycott and union label action--addresses the intersection of gender, power, and class within the community. Angel KwolekFolland looks at the issue of gender and white collar workers in the insurance industry. Dorothy Sue Cobble in her work on the food service industry and Dolores Janiewski's work on tobacco workers specifically address the issue of race and gender.

Baron has done an admirable service in assembling these essays. In this reviewer's mind the collection succeeds in Baron's larger project of showing how by bringing gender analyses more to the center of labor historians' work new and important insights are gained about not only the social relations of productions, but the larger historical field as well. Yet in the very practice of accomplishing this task the essays undermine one of the subthemes of Baron's introduction. Baron argues that labor history must be redirected to integrate gender into its analysis, a claim with which I suspect most labor historians would agree. Although Baron explicitly tries to avoid an essentialist argument about gender, her introduction points in that direction. "The field can be decisively redirected only if gender is conceived as a fundamental category of all historical analysis" (p. 19). It is not altogether clear what she means by "a fundamental category"; one wonders if she means here to the exclusion of class or race. How many fundamental categories are there? In her own work on printers and in the essays included in this book gender is not treated as "the" fundamental category, but the issue of fundamental category does tend toward the slippery slope of essentialism.

Baron not only places gender at the center of study, but privileges language analysis as the tool of study by calling "for examination of the way meanings of sexual difference are constructed and used to signify power and hierarchy ..." (p. 19). "Attention to language--not just words but all forms of symbolic representation--reveals the significance of gender regardless of women's presence or absence and exposes the role of gender in historical events where previously we thought gender insignificant" (p. 20).

These essays not only show us the significance of gender regardless of women's presence or absence, but also expose the role of gender where we previously thought it insignificant. But on the whole they do not do so through postmodernist language analysis, but through traditional historical materialist approaches which although concerned about language are also concerned about underlying power relations and interest conflicts. It is not analysis of the symbolic language of the boycotters which Dana Frank informs us about, but about male unionists' exclusion of women from decision-making positions and their ignoring of women's concerns which undermined the boycott movement. And it was the struggle to control the union movement in Minneapolis which led male unionists to demobilize the community based activism which gave women more of a voice in the movement. Although Jacquelyn Dowd Hall tells us in the conclusion of her work on textile workers in Atlanta that "images help construct relationships of power," (p. 272) it is not images which dominate her narrative. It is human actors, most notably the female union organizer O. Delight Smith trying to mobilize workers and win larger community support, the manufacturer Jacob Elsas trying to undermine the union drive, and the politician Tom Watson trying to win office, along with a variety of workers, both male and female, who spoke words, issued leaflets, gave orders, and made speeches which reflected, reinforced, solidified, or challenged prevailing power relations of gender and of class.

Although these essays demonstrate the importance of gender in shaping responses to job choices and conditions, union activism, and community and family involvement, they also show the importance of class and race to that analysis. More than the primacy of gender they show the intricate relationship between class, race, and gender in change over time, and how that relationship is embedded in conflicts of interest and power.

In these essays we don't have texts talking to texts--disembodied discourse forming consciousness. We have human actors talking to each other, to their community, to their friends, potential friends, and to their opponents, some of whom were the same people. In those conversations people speak and people listen. What they say and what they hear is rooted in experience, custom, and relations of power. It is on that complex shifting and contested ground that the best social history finds its story.

John T. Cumbler University of Louisville
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cumbler, John T.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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