The struggle by women for equality in employment is deeply bound up with their achievement of political equality. The periods when women were accorded the greatest citizenship rights were also the periods when women had the most employment opportunities. Surprisingly for those of us who think women’s rights are a relatively new phenomena, immigrant women during the colonial period had the same rights as men to own land, enter occupations, marry whomever they wished, and vote if they met the property qualifications. This egalitarianism has been attributed to the short supply of women and labor in general during those years. None of these rights applied to indentured servants and slaves, who were considered less than full citizens.
The theory of the British legal scholar Blackstone, that husband and wife are one person and that the woman has no legal existence whatsoever, gained credence on this side of the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War period. By the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788, women had been denied the franchise in Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Within twenty years only white men could vote in any part of the United States. Women were also beginning to be excluded from professions, such as law and medicine, which they had previously practiced. This trend culminated in an 1873 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of a state to exclude women from the legal profession because “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”*
But factory work, which we currently think of as an almost entirely male enclave, was viewed as a proper domain for these same delicate women. In fact, surplus female farm labor provided most of the workforce in the first American factories, namely the New England textile mills. At the same time, however, it had become a mark of status for a man to have enough wealth to maintain a wife who conformed to the Victorian model of femininity. Working-class and slave women continued to labor up to sixteen hours a day in factories or on plantations while middle- and upper-class women either led lives of enforced idleness in the home or were restricted to the role of supervising servants. Many of the later tensions in the women’s movement can be traced back to this fundamental division between lower- and upper-class women.
There have been two important waves of the women’s liberation movement in this country. The first, with its roots in the abolition and temperance movements, can claim the Married Women’s Property Acts of the 1860s as its first success. These acts once again gave women a legal status. Middle- and upper-class women then turned their attention to gaining the vote, while working-class women were left to struggle for labor rights. When the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women suffrage, was passed in 1920, the women’s movement died out as an organized political force.
The next major change in women’s status occurred during World War II, another period of labor scarcity, when the number of women workers increased 57 percent. Women employed in heavy industry rose from 340,000 to over two million during the course of the war. This need for labor changed the way women viewed their role in life. In 1942, 20 percent of the women working in industry wanted to continued working after the war. In 1945, that figure rose to 80 percent. At the end of the war, however, 2,800 out of 3,102 child-care centers closed when federal funds were withdrawn. This, coupled with a massive number of women workers being fired, left blue-collar work firmly in male hands again.
The second wave of the women’s liberation movement began in the early 1960s. The women activists of this period honed many of their political skills in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. But a major boost to the women’s liberation movement was provided by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made sex and race discrimination illegal. It is one of history’s little ironies that sex discrimination was included in this landmark law. Southern segregationists, in an attempt to halt the law’s passage, added sex discrimination to the bill thinking that Northern liberals can tolerate race equality, but absolutely no one favored equality between the sexes. Thanks to this political miscalculation, women were included in this major anti-discrimination law. Without this and subsequent laws, affirmative action, which allowed women to gain entry into non-traditional blue-collar work, would never have come into existence, and few of the women who tell their stories here could have obtained these jobs.
A few of the women in this book, such as Mary Rathke, explicitly give credit to affirmative action for their jobs. Teresa Selfe talks about the importance of women’s groups in making non-traditional work accessible to women. Laura Pfandler and Geraldine Walker, in very different ways, strive to make sure women following them have it a bit easier, and Elaine Canfield is reaping the benefits of the pathbreakers in her field, carpentry.
Other women have much more mixed feelings about feminism. For these women there is a tenuous relationship between their struggle for lives of dignity and any organized women’s movement. Feminism for them is associated with media caricatures and pampered upper-class women, not with the lives of women like them. They might complain about discrimination they personally feel, but blame other women for the difficulties they experience. Provocative clothing, female laziness, and the ERA are blamed for their problems. The women are also of two minds about traditional and non-traditional women’s roles. Nora Quealey speaks for many when she expressed a preference for traditional women’s work, but finds the pay too low. Although Irene Hull’s political affiliations are atypical, her belief that feminism harms both working men and women is very common.
But the truth of the matter is that these women are part of the women’s movement—a struggle for a decent living and better working conditions for all women. What else can we call Irene Hull’s battle to preserve a child-care center for working women after the Second World War? Or how about Laura Sarvis, who opposes the ERA? Her anger at the discriminatory treatment of women workers led her to lead a union drive. Or Nora Quealey’s plea for assembly line workers to be treated as human beings, rather than animals? In many ways, the women like Irene Hull, Laura Sarvis, and Nora Quealey represent the women’s movement’s greatest challenge and hope—challenge in how to win them over to feminism, and hope because they are women of boundless strength and courage.
*Beadwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall) 130121 L. Ed 442 (1873).