Readings for March 20

You have two articles to read before coming to class on Wednesday, March 20. You do not need to prepare Wednesday Reports, but you do need to be prepared to discuss these articles in class.

  • Alice Kessler-Harris, “The Paradox of Motherhood: Night Work Restrictions in the United States,” in Ulla Wikander, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Jane Lewis, eds., Protecting Women: Labor Legislation in Europe, the United States, and Australia, 1880-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 337–357. link to PDF on OWL-Space
  • Diane Kirkby, “‘The Wage-Earning Woman and the State’: The National Women’s Trade Union League and Protective Labor Legislation, 1903–1923,” Labor History 28, no. 1 (1987), 54–74. link to PDF

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These articles were selected because they help to address some our Questions about labor, and also deal with our long-standing interest in why some twentieth-century feminists supported special protective legislation for women, while others favored advocacy of gender-neutral laws like the Equal Rights Amendment.

As you read, see if you can determine where—if at all–these two historians disagree.

Follow-Up from Class

In class, our discussion of these articles centered around three things:

First, we noticed that both Kessler-Harris (pp. 340–341) and Kirkby (pp. 57–59) offer concise summaries of some of the features of industrialization that we have discussed in class, as well as the reaction of working-class movements to these changes.

Next, we tried to identify what Kessler-Harris means by “the paradox of motherhood”—the title of her article. We agreed that the paradox was basically this: Advocates of protective labor legislation for women usually based their arguments on the reproductive capacities of women—that is, on their potential motherhood. Yet even advocates of protective labor laws never proposed maternity leave laws for women who were actually working mothers.

Once Kessler-Harris identifies this paradox, she turns to the question of why this paradox existed. You need to read the article to understand her answer, but two factors were key: (a) the ways that the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted “freedom of contract” virtually prohibited protective labor laws unless there was some vital public welfare interest at stake, which is why advocates focused on the roles of women as mothers; and (b) there was a general cultural acceptance of the idea that women were, universally, meant to be mothers, rather than workers. Victorian ideals about women’s roles made maternity leaves “all but inconceivable” (353) for male trade union leaders, the courts, and even many women themselves, who advocated protective labor legislation because it would enable women not to work and instead focus on domestic duties.

You can see some of the ideas about gender that Kessler-Harris talks about in some of the readings we’ve already done in class: remember the League of Women Voters platform from 1947?

At the end of class, I asked you to consider whether Kirkby disagrees with any of this. Pay close attention to the first couple of pages and I think you’ll see where her disagreement with Kessler-Harris lies (and notice that she is citing Kessler-Harris in the footnotes as one of the historians whose interpretation she wants to challenge). Using the Women’s Trade Union League as a case study, Kirkby argues that not all advocates of protective labor legislation were motivated by maternalistic, domestic ideals: some working women, like many working men, simply saw legislation as the best way to protect their economic interests at a time of increasing industrialization and marginalization of “unskilled” laborers.

By the way, you may recall that Eleanor Roosevelt understood the WTUL and protective labor laws in much the same way: as responses to “the realities of the situation for the industrial woman worker” and as demands for equity, rather than as proof of an acceptance of the idea of women as only and always mothers.

Also, whereas Kessler-Harris sees protective labor laws as the product of a set of court decisions and cultural assumptions specific to the United States, Kirkby sees the protective labor law movement as part of a larger transatlantic movement that favored more state intervention into relations between labor and employers.