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Archives of Labor
Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States
Lori Merish
Duke University Press, 2017
In Archives of Labor Lori Merish establishes working-class women as significant actors within literary culture, dramatically redrawing the map of nineteenth-century US literary and cultural history. Delving into previously unexplored archives of working-class women's literature—from autobiographies, pamphlet novels, and theatrical melodrama to seduction tales and labor periodicals—Merish recovers working-class women's vital presence as writers and readers in the antebellum era. Her reading of texts by a diverse collection of factory workers, seamstresses, domestic workers, and prostitutes boldly challenges the purportedly masculine character of class dissent during this era. Whether addressing portrayals of white New England "factory girls," fictional accounts of African American domestic workers, or the first-person narratives of Mexican women working in the missions of Mexican California, Merish unsettles the traditional association of whiteness with the working class to document forms of cross-racial class identification and solidarity. In so doing, she restores the tradition of working women's class protest and dissent, shows how race and gender are central to class identity, and traces the ways working women understood themselves and were understood as workers and class subjects.

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Arrogant Beggar
Anzia Yezierska
Duke University Press, 1996
The target of intense critical comment when it was first published in 1927, Arrogant Beggar’s scathing attack on charity-run boardinghouses remains one of Anzia Yezierska’s most devastating works of social criticism. The novel follows the fortunes of its young Jewish narrator, Adele Lindner, as she leaves the impoverished conditions of New York’s Lower East Side and tries to rise in the world. Portraying Adele’s experiences at the Hellman Home for Working Girls, the first half of the novel exposes the “sickening farce” of institutionalized charity while portraying the class tensions that divided affluent German American Jews from more recently arrived Russian American Jews.
The second half of the novel takes Adele back to her ghetto origins as she explores an alternative model of philanthropy by opening a restaurant that combines the communitarian ideals of Old World shtetl tradition with the contingencies of New World capitalism. Within the context of this radical message, Yezierska revisits the themes that have made her work famous, confronting complex questions of ethnic identity, assimilation, and female self-realization.
Katherine Stubbs’s introduction provides a comprehensive and compelling historical, social, and literary context for this extraordinary novel and discusses the critical reaction to its publication in light of Yezierska’s biography and the once much-publicized and mythologized version of her life story. Unavailable for over sixty years, Arrogant Beggar will be enjoyed by general readers of fiction and be of crucial importance for feminist critics, students of ethnic literature. It will also prove an exciting and richly rewarding text for students and scholars of Jewish studies, immigrant literature, women’s writing, American history, and working-class fiction.

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Bitter Choices
Blue-Collar Women in and out of Work
Ellen Israel Rosen
University of Chicago Press, 1987
Ellen Israel Rosen presents a compelling portrait of married women who work on New England's assembly lines while they also maintain their homes and marriages. With skill and sympathy, she documents the reasons these women work; their experiences on the job, in the union, and at home; the sources of their job satisfaction; and their management of the "double day." The major issue for this segment of the labor force, Rosen suggests, is not whether to work, but the availability and quality of jobs. Rosen argues that deindustrialization—plant closings and job displacement—confronts blue-collar women factory workers with a "bitter choice" between work at lower and lower wages or no work at all.

Drawing on quantitative and qualitative data from interviews with more than two hundred such women factory workers, Rosen traces the ways in which women who do "unskilled" factory work have gained in self-esteem as well as financial stability from holding paid jobs. Throughout, Rosen explores the relationship between public work experiences and private family life. She analyzes the dynamics of two-paycheck, working class families, clarifies relationships between class and gender, and explores the impact of patriarchy and capitalism on working class women. At the same time Rosen places women's job loss within the broader economic context of global industrial transformations, demonstrating how international capital shifts to cheaper labor in developing countries, as well as technological progress, are changing the shape of the entire American labor force and are beginning to undermine the material and symbolic gains of the American female factory worker, the promise of market equality, and progressive working conditions.

"This book is a significant contribution to our understanding of women's work and family lives, but it is also a valuable look at the consequences of deindustrialization in America for workers, their families, and their communities."—Myra Marx Ferree, American Journal of Sociology


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Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865-1920
Lara Vapnek
University of Illinois Press, 2009
Lara Vapnek tells the story of American labor feminism from the end of the Civil War through the winning of woman suffrage. During this period, working women in the nation's industrializing cities launched a series of campaigns to gain economic equality and political power. This book shows how working women pursued equality by claiming new identities as citizens and as breadwinners.

Analyzing disjunctions between middle-class and working-class women's ideas of independence, Vapnek highlights the agendas for change advanced by leaders such as Jennie Collins, Leonora O'Reilly, and Helen Campbell and organizations such as the National Consumers' League, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and the Women's Trade Union League. Locating households as important sites of class conflict, Breadwinners recovers the class and gender politics behind the marginalization of domestic workers from labor reform while documenting the ways in which working-class women raised their voices on their own behalf.


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Calling Home
Working-Class Women's Writings
Zandy, Janet
Rutgers University Press, 1990
Working-class women are the majority of women in the United States, and yet their work and their culture are rarely visible. Calling Home is an anthology of writings by and about working-class women. Over fifty selections represent the ethnic, racial, and geographic diversity of working-class experience. This is writing grounded in social history, not in the academy. Traditional boundaries of genre and periodization collapse in this collection, which includes reportage, oral histories, speeches, songs, and letters, as well as poetry, stories, and essays. The divisions in this collection - telling stories, bearing witness, celebrating solidarity - address the distinction of "by" or "about" working-class women, and show the connections between individual identity and collective sensibility in a common history of struggle for economic justice.

The geography of home, identity, parents, sex, motherhood, the dominance of the job, the overlapping of private and public worlds, the promise of solidarity and community are a few of the themes of this book. Here is a chorus of working class women's voices: Sandra Cisneros, Barbara Garson, Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, Barbara Smith, Endesha I. M. Holland, Mother Jones, Nellie Wong, Agnes Smedley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Sharon Doubiago, Carol Tarlen, Hazel Hall, Margaret Randall, Judy Grahn, and many others!

The aesthetic impulse is shaped by class, but not limited to one ruling class. What connects these writers is a collective consciousness, a class, which rejects bondage and lays claim to liberation through all  the possibilities of language. Calling Home is illustrated with family photographs as well as images of working women by professional photographers.

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The Comforts of Home
Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi
Luise White
University of Chicago Press, 1990
"This history is . . . the first fully-fleshed story of African Nairobi in all of its complexity which foregrounds African experiences. Given the overwhelming white dominance in the written sources, it is a remarkable achievement."—Claire Robertson, International Journal of African Historical Studies

"White's book . . . takes a unique approach to a largely unexplored aspect of African History. It enhances our understanding of African social history, political economy, and gender studies. It is a book that deserves to be widely read."—Elizabeth Schmidt, American Historical Review

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The Common Ground of Womanhood
Class, Gender, and Working Girls' Clubs, 1884-1928
Priscilla Murolo
University of Illinois Press, 1997

Working girls' clubs were a flash-point for class antagonisms yet also provided fertile ground for surprising cross-class alliances. Priscilla Murolo's nuanced study charts the shifting points of conflict and consensus between working women and their genteel club sponsors; working women and their male counterparts; and among working women of differing ethnic backgrounds. 

The working girls' club movement lasted from the 1880s, when women poured into the industrial labor force, to the 1920s. Upper-class women initially governed the clubs, and activities converged around standards of "respectability" and the defense and uplift of the character of women who worked for wages. Later, the workers themselves presided over the leadership and shifted the clubs' focus to issues of labor reform, women's rights, and sisterhood across class lines. 

A valuable and lucid study of the club movement, The Common Ground of Womanhood throws new light on broader trends in the history of women's alliances, social reform, gender conventions, and worker organizing.


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The Ohio State University Press, 2006

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Lower Income Women Tell of Their Lives and Struggles
Fran Leeper Buss
University of Michigan Press, 1985
Dignity brings together the stories of ten lower income American women whose backgrounds vary, but who share a struggle for survival and a quest for dignity in the face of hardship. Young or old, urban or rural, welfare recipient or union activist, each relates her life story with rich detail, poignant humor, and remarkable courage.

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Doing Comparable Worth
Gender, Class, and Pay Equity
Joan Acker
Temple University Press, 1991

Doing Comparable Worth is the first empirical study of the actual process of attempting to translate into reality the idea of equal pay for work of equal value. This political ethnography documents a large project undertaken by the state of Oregon to evaluate 35,000 jobs of state employees, identify gender-based pay inequities, and remedy these inequities. The book details both the technical and political processes, showing how the technical was always political, how management manipulated and unions resisted wage redistribution, and how initial defeat was turned into partial victory for pay equity by labor union women and women's movement activists.

As a member of the legislative task force that was responsible for implementing the legislation requiring a pay equity study in Oregon, Joan Acker gives an insider's view of how job evaluation, job classification, and the formulation of an equity plan were carried out. She reveals many of the political and technical problems in doing comparable worth that are not evident to outsiders. She also places comparable worth within a feminist theoretical perspective.

In the series Women in the Political Economy, edited by Ronnie J. Steinberg.

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Domestic Economies
Women, Work, and the American Dream in Los Angeles
Susanna Rosenbaum
Duke University Press, 2017
In Domestic Economies, Susanna Rosenbaum examines how two groups of women—Mexican and Central American domestic workers and the predominantly white, middle-class women who employ them—seek to achieve the "American Dream." By juxtaposing their understandings and experiences, she illustrates how immigrant and native-born women strive to reach that ideal, how each group is indispensable to the other's quest, and what a vital role reproductive labor plays in this pursuit. Through in-depth ethnographic research with these women at work, at home, and in the urban spaces of Los Angeles, Rosenbaum positions domestic service as an intimate relationship that reveals two versions of female personhood. Throughout, Rosenbaum underscores the extent to which the ideology of the American Dream is racialized and gendered, exposing how the struggle for personal worth and social recognition is shaped at the intersection of motherhood and paid employment.

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Doña María's Story
Life History, Memory, and Political Identity
Daniel James
Duke University Press, 2000
In this remarkable book historian Daniel James presents the gripping, poignant life-story of Doña María Roldán, a woman who lived and worked for six decades in the meatpacking community of Berisso, Argentina. A union activist and fervent supporter of Juan and Eva Perón, Doña María’s evocative testimony prompts James to analyze the promise and problematic nature of using oral sources for historical research. The book thus becomes both fascinating narrative and methodological inquiry.
Doña María’s testimony is grounded in both the local context (based on the author’s thirteen years of historical and ethnographic research in Berisso) and a broader national narrative. In this way, it differs from the dominant genre of women’s testimonial literature, and much recent ethnographic work in Latin America, which have often neglected historical and communal contextualization in order to celebrate individual agency and self-construction. James examines in particular the ways that gender influences Doña María’s representation of her story. He is careful to acknowledge that oral history challenges the historian to sort through complicated sets of motivations and desires—the historian’s own wish to uncover “the truth” of an informant’s life and the interviewee’s hope to make sense of her or his past and encode it with myths of the self. This work is thus James’s effort to present his research and his relationship with Doña María with both theoretical sophistication and recognition of their mutual affection.
While written by a historian, Doña María’s Story also engages with concerns drawn from such disciplines as anthropology, cultural studies, and literary criticism. It will be especially appreciated by those involved in oral, Latin American, and working-class history.

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From a Darkened Room
The Inman Diary
Arthur C. Inman
Harvard University Press, 1996

Only a few of us seek immortality, and fewer still by writing. But Arthur Inman challenged the odds. He calculated that if he kept a diary and spared no thoughts or actions, was entirely honest and open, and did not care about damage or harm to himself or others, he would succeed in gaining attention beyond the grave that he could not attain in life.

The diary became a many-layered and strikingly animated work of a gifted writer, by turns charming, repellent, shocking, cruel, and comical. But the diary is also an uninhibited history of his times, of his eccentricities and fantasies, of his bizarre marriage arrangements and sexual adventures. Inman’s explorations of his own troubled nature made him excessively curious about the secret lives of others. Like some ghostly doctor-priest, he chronicled their outpourings of head and heart as vividly as he did his own. The diary reads like a nonfiction novel as it moves inexorably toward disaster.

This is an abridged version of the celebrated two-volume work published by Harvard as The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession.


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From Beacon Hill to the Crystal Palace
The 1851 Travel Diary of a Working-Class Woman
Lorenza Stevens Berbineau
University of Iowa Press, 2002

Because prior studies of American women’s travel writing have focused exclusively on middle-class and wealthy travelers, it has been difficult to assess the genre and its participants in a holistic fashion. One of the very few surviving working-class travel diaries, Lorenza Stevens Berbineau’s account provides readers with a unique perspective of a domestic servant in the wealthy Lowell family in Boston. Staying in luxurious hotels and caring for her young charge Eddie during her six-month grand tour, Berbineau wrote detailed and insightful entries about the people and places she saw.

Contributing to the traditions of women’s, diary, and travel literature from the perspective of a domestic servant, Berbineau's narrative reveals an arresting and intimate outlook on both her own life and the activities, places, and people she encounters. For example, she carefully records Europeans’ religious practices, working people and their behavior, and each region’s aesthetic qualities. Clearly writing in haste and with a pleasing freedom from the constraints of orthographic and stylistic convention, Berbineau offers a distinctive voice and a discerning perspective. Alert to nuances of social class, her narrative is as appealing and informative to today's readers as it no doubt was to her fellow domestics in the Lowell household.

Unobtrusively edited to retain as much as possible the individuality and texture of the author’s original manuscript, From Beacon Hill to the Crystal Palace offers readers brief framing summaries, informative endnotes, and a valuable introduction that analyzes Berbineau’s narrative in relation to gender and class issues and compares it to the published travel writing of her famous contemporary, Harriet Beecher Stowe.


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From Homemakers to Breadwinners to Community Leaders
Migrating Women, Class, and Color
Norma Fuentes-Mayorga
Rutgers University Press, 2022
In From Homemakers to Breadwinners to Community Leaders, Norma Fuentes-Mayorga compares the immigration and integration experiences of Dominican and Mexican women in New York City, a traditional destination for Dominicans but a relatively new one for Mexicans. Her book documents the significance of women-led migration within an increasingly racialized context and underscores the contributions women make to their communities of origin and of settlement. Fuentes-Mayorga’s research is timely, especially against the backdrop of policy debates about the future of family reunification laws and the unprecedented immigration of women and minors from Latin America, many of whom seek human rights protection or to reunite with families in the US. From Homemakers to Breadwinners to Community Leaders provides a compelling look at the suffering of migrant mothers and the mourning of family separation, but also at the agency and contributions that women make with their imported human capital and remittances to the receiving and sending community. Ultimately the book contributes further understanding to the heterogeneity of Latin American immigration and highlights the social mobility of Afro-Caribbean and indigenous migrant women in New York. 

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Gender at Work
The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II
Ruth Milkman
University of Illinois Press, 1987
Winner of the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History, the American Historical Association, 1987. Winner of the SOCIALIST REVIEW Book Award

Women's entry into so-called men's work during World War II sparked conflicts at the time and when men returned at war's end. Ruth Milkman delves into the issues in play and the prewar origins of traditional patterns of gender segregation in the workplace. Ranging from the dynamics on the shop floor to hiring patterns, Milkman pays particular attention to automobile and electrical manufacturing. She analyzes a number of persistent questions, including management's decision to re-embrace gender segregation after the war; women's lack of protest; the failure of unions to protect women; and how related employer strategies helped control labor by maintaining women's place as workers paid less than men.

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The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers
From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box
John D. French and Daniel James, eds.
Duke University Press, 1997
The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers examines the lives of Latin American women who entered factory labor in increasing numbers in the early part of the twentieth century. Emphasizing the integration of traditional labor history topics with historical accounts of gender, female subjectivity, and community, this volume focuses on the experience of working women at mid-century, especially those laboring in the urban industrial sector. In its exploration of working women’s agency and consciousness, this collection offers rich detail regarding women’s lives as daughters, housewives, mothers, factory workers, trade union leaders, and political activists.
Widely seen as a hostile sexualized space, the modern factory was considered a threat, not only to the virtue of working women, but also to the survival of the family, and thus, the future of the nation. Yet working-class women continued to labor outside the home and remained highly visible in the expanding world of modern industry. In nine essays dealing with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Guatemala, the contributors make extensive use of oral histories to describe the contradictory experiences of women whose work defied gender prescriptions but was deemed necessary by working-class families in a world of need and scarcity. The volume includes discussion of previously neglected topics such as single motherhood, women’s struggle against domestic violence, and the role of women as both desiring and desired subjects.

Contributors. Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Mary Lynn Pedersen Cluff, John D. French, Daniel James, Thomas Miller Klubock, Deborah Levenson-Estrada, Mirta Zaida Lobato, Heidi Tinsman, Theresa R. Veccia, Barbara Weinstein


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Gendering Labor History
Alice Kessler-Harris
University of Illinois Press, 2006

This collection represents the thirty-year intellectual trajectory of one of today’s leading historians of gender and labor in the United States. The seventeen essays are divided into four sections, narrating the evolution and refinement of Alice Kessler-Harris's central project: showing gender’s fundamental importance in the shaping of United States history and working class culture. 

The first section considers women and organized labor while the second pushes this analysis toward a gendered labor history as the essays consider the gendering of male as well as female workers and how gender operates with and within the social category of class. Subsequent sections broaden this framework to examine U.S. social policy as a whole, the question of economic citizenship, and wage labor from a global perspective. While each essay represents an important intervention in American historiography in itself, the collection taken as a whole shows Kessler-Harris continuing to push the field of American history to greater levels of inclusion and analysis.


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The Great Midland
Alexander Saxton
University of Illinois Press, 1997
One of the best novels ever to portray the lives of American Communist activists, The Great Midland is a story of love and radical politics set just before World War II. It was published in 1948, when cold-war hysteria engulfed the United States; the publisher subsequently tried to pretend the book did not exist, and review media and bookstores ignored it.

The book vividly depicts the multiracial and multiethnic alliances that developed as Chicago railroad workers struggled to organize. It presents some of its narrative through the complex consciousness of Stephanie Koviak, a young, first-generation Polish-American.

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Hidden Hands
Working-Class Women and Victorian Social-Problem Fiction
Patricia E. Johnson
Ohio University Press, 2001

Tracing the Victorian crisis over the representation of working-class women to the 1842 Parliamentary bluebook on mines, with its controversial images of women at work, Hidden Hands argues that the female industrial worker became even more dangerous to represent than the prostitute or the male radical because she exposed crucial contradictions between the class and gender ideologies of the period and its economic realities.

Drawing on the recent work of feminist historians, Patricia Johnson lays the groundwork for a reinterpretation of Victorian social-problem fiction that highlights its treatment of issues that particularly affected working-class women: sexual harassment; the interconnections between domestic ideology and domestic violence; their relationships to male-dominated working-class movements such as Luddism, Chartism, and unionism; and their troubled connection to middle-class feminism.

Uncovering a series of images in Victorian fiction ranging from hot-tempered servants and sexually harassed factory girls to working-class homemakers pictured as beaten dogs, Hidden Hands demonstrates that representations of working-class women, however marginalized or incoherent, reveal the very contradictions they are constructed to hide and that the dynamics of these representations have broad implications both for other groups, such as middle-class women, and for the emergence of working-class women as writers themselves.


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Landscape for a Good Woman
A Story of Two Lives
Carolyn Kay Steedman
Rutgers University Press, 1987

This book is about lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretative devices of the culture don't quite work. It has a childhood at its centre - my childhood, a personal past - and it is about the disruption of that fifties childhood by the one my mother had lived out before me, and the stories she told about it.'

Intricate and inspiring, this unusual book uses autobiographical elements to depict a mother and her daughter and two working-class childhoods (Burnley in the 1920s, South London in the 1950s) and to find a place for their stories in history and politics, in psychoanalysis and feminism.

'Provocative and quite dazzling in its ambitions. . . Beautifully written, intellectually compelling'.' Judith Walkowitz

'Carolyn Steedman's 1950s South London childhood was shaped by her mother's longing: "What she actually wanted were real things, real entities, things she materially lacked, things that a culture and a social system withheld from her... When the world didn't deliver the goods, she held the world to blame." When Carolyn Steedman grows up and begins to look for reflections of her and her mother's lives in history, theory, and literature, she finds that "the tradition of cultural criticism that has employed working-class lives, and their rare expression in literature, has made solid and concrete the absence of psychological individuality - of subjectivity." Through an in-depth comparison of personal experience and prevailing political and social science theory on the psychology and attitudes of working-class people, Landscape for a Good Woman challenges an intellectual tradition that denies "its subjects a particular story, a personal history, except when that story illustrates a general thesis." In this poignantly written and thoroughly researched work, the common theoretical conclusion that the survival struggles of working-class people precludes the time necessary for more genteel "elaboration of relationships" is shot full of delightfully life-affirming holes.' -
From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Jesse Larsen.

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Liberating Voices
Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers
Karyn L. Hollis
Southern Illinois University Press, 2004

During the 1920s and 1930s at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, working-class women were educated in the liberal arts and instructed in writing to assume more powerful roles in the industrial workplace. In Liberating Voices: Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, Karyn L. Hollis tells the remarkable story of how this multiclass, multiethnic American institution rooted in composition pedagogy, literary history, and leftist thought emerged from the broad social, economic, and ideological trends of the era. The summer school curriculum, Hollis shows, enhanced the individual and collective self-confidence of the 1,800 women who studied there between 1921 and 1938.

Drawing heavily on the women’s writings—including autobiography, poetry, labor drama, humor, and economic reporting—Liberating Voices adds significantly to the small oeuvre of published writing by working-class women, who were, in this case, mostly nontraditional students, immigrants, and minorities. Outlining a materialist pedagogy that centers on the women’s daily economic struggles as well as their family and community experiences, Hollis reveals the tensions that stemmed from differences in race, ethnicity, class, and religion. She also shows how the students exploited cultural scripts and drew strength from their diversity, eventually insisting on a democratic sharing of power with faculty and administrators at the Summer School.

Hollis provides a thorough ethnography of the Summer School with respect to its place in the social and political history of the 1920s and 1930s, and then situates the school’s pedagogy within the history of American education and composition instruction. Concepts from literary criticism and composition theory provide the framework for an analysis of the working women’s autobiographical writing, revealing how the narrative voice of their prose grew from weak and individualized to empowered and collective as the women described their families, childhood, work, unions, and education over time. The volume is complemented by sixteen illustrations.

Additional analysis of the women’s poetry points to their skill as both producers and consumers of literature. The common theme of body versus a powerful machine in the workplace bears witness to the industrial exploitation the women endured. Taking up postmodern questions of agency and voice, Hollis argues that the women used a variety of cultural texts to construct discourses that reflected their needs and desires. Liberating Voices not only provides a previously untold chapter in the history of American worker education, it also showcases a liberating pedagogy that has salient implications for contemporary classrooms.


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Making Choices, Making Do
Survival Strategies of Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression
Lois Rita Helmbold
Rutgers University Press, 2023
Making Choices, Making Do is a comparative study of Black and white working-class women’s survival strategies during the Great Depression. Based on analysis of employment histories and Depression-era interviews of 1,340 women in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and South Bend and letters from domestic workers, Lois Helmbold discovered that Black women lost work more rapidly and in greater proportions. The benefits that white women accrued because of structural racism meant they avoided the utter destitution that more commonly swallowed their Black peers. When let go from a job, a white woman was more successful in securing a less desirable job, while Black women, especially older Black women, were pushed out of the labor force entirely. Helmbold found that working-class women practiced the same strategies, but institutionalized racism in employment, housing, and relief assured that Black women worked harder, but fared worse. Making Choices, Making Do strives to fill the gap in the labor history of women, both Black and white. The book will challenge the limits of segregated histories and encourage more comparative analyses.


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On the Picket Line
Strategies of Working-Class Women during the Depression
Mary Triece
University of Illinois Press, 2006

Bonnie Ritter Book Award, National Communication Association's Feminist and Women Studies Division, 2008.

On the Picket Line uncovers the voices of working-class women, particularly those active in the Communist Party, U.S.A., in order to examine how these individuals confronted the tensions between their roles as workers, wives, mothers, and consumers. Combining critical analysis, Marxist and feminist theory, and labor history, Mary E. Triece analyzes the protest tactics employed by working class women to challenge dominant ideologies surrounding domesticity. 

She details the rhetorical strategies used by women to argue for their rights as workers in the paid labor force and as caregivers in the home. Their overtly coercive tactics included numerous sit-ins, strikes, and boycotts that won tangible gains for working poor and unemployed women. The book also gives voice to influential figures in the 1930s labor movement (many of whom were members of the Communist Party, U.S.A.), such as Ella Reeve Bloor, Margaret Cowl, Anna Damon, Ann Burlak, and Grace Hutchins. Triece ultimately argues that these confrontational protest tactics of the 1930s remain relevant in today’s fights for more humane workplaces and better living conditions. 


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Patriarchy on the Line
Labor, Gender, and Ideology in the Mexican Maquila Industry
Susan Tiano
Temple University Press, 1994

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Pobladoras, Indígenas, and the State
Conflict Over Women's Rights in Chile
Richards, Patricia
Rutgers University Press, 2004
Can laws, policies, and agencies that are designed to help women achieve equality with men accommodate differences among women themselves? In Pobladoras, Indígenas, and the State, Patricia Richards examines how Chilean state policy shapes the promotion of women’s interests but at the same time limits the advancement of different classes and racial-ethnic groups in various ways.

Chile has made a public commitment to equality between women and men through the creation of a National Women’s Service, SERNAM. Yet, indigenous Mapuche women and working-class pobladora activists assert that they have been excluded from programs implemented by SERNAM. Decisions about what constitutes "women’s interests" are usually made by middle class, educated, lighter-skinned women, and the priorities and concerns of poor, working-class, and indigenous women have not come to the fore.

Through critical analysis of the role of the state, the diversity of women’s movements, and the social and political position of indigenous peoples in Latin America, Richards provides an illuminating discussion of the ways in which the state defines women’s interests and constructs women’s citizenship. This book makes important contributions to feminist studies, theories of citizenship, and studies of the intersections of class, gender, and race.


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rough house
a memoir
Tina Ontiveros
Oregon State University Press, 2020

Tina Ontiveros was born into timber on both sides of the family. Her mother spent summers driving logging trucks for her family’s operation, and her father was the son of an itinerant logger, raised in a variety of lumber towns, as Tina herself would be.

A story of growing up in turmoil, rough house recounts a childhood divided between a charming, mercurial, abusive father in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and a mother struggling with small-town poverty. It is also a story of generational trauma, especially for the women—a story of violent men and societal restrictions, of children not always chosen and frequently raised alone.

Ontiveros’s father, Loyd, looms large. Reflecting on his death and long absence from her life, she writes, “I had this ridiculous hope that I would get to enjoy a functional relationship with my father, on my own terms, now that I was an adult.” In searingly honest, straightforward prose, rough house is her attempt to carve out this relationship, to understand her father and her family from an adult perspective.

While some elements of Ontiveros’s story are universal, others are indelibly grounded in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the twentieth century, as the lumber industry shifted and contracted. Tracing her childhood through the working-class towns and forests of Washington and Oregon, Ontiveros explores themes of love and loss, parents and children, and her own journey to a different kind of adulthood.


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Runaway Wives, Urban Crimes, and Survival Tactics in Wartime Beijing, 1937–1949
Zhao Ma
Harvard University Press, 2015
From 1937 to 1949, Beijing was in a state of crisis. The combined forces of Japanese occupation, civil war, runaway inflation, and reformist campaigns and revolutionary efforts wreaked havoc on the city’s economy, upset the political order, and threatened the social and moral fabric as well. Women, especially lower-class women living in Beijing’s tenement neighborhoods, were among those most affected by these upheavals. Delving into testimonies from criminal case files, Zhao Ma explores intimate accounts of lower-class women’s struggles with poverty, deprivation, and marital strife. By uncovering the set of everyday tactics that women devised and utilized in their personal efforts to cope with predatory policies and crushing poverty, this book reveals an urban underworld that was built on an informal economy and conducted primarily through neighborhood networks. Where necessary, women relied on customary practices, hierarchical patterns of household authority, illegitimate relationships, and criminal entrepreneurship to get by. Women’s survival tactics, embedded in and reproduced by their everyday experience, opened possibilities for them to modify the male-dominated city and, more importantly, allowed women to subtly deflect, subvert, and “escape without leaving” powerful forces such as the surveillance state, reformist discourse, and revolutionary politics during and beyond wartime Beijing.

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Silent Witnesses
Representations of Working-Class Women in the United States
Jacqueline Ellis
University of Wisconsin Press, 1998

Through detailed analyses of documentary photography and radical literature, Silent Witnesses explores how working-class identity has been repressed and manipulated to fit the expectations of liberal politicians, radical authors, Marxist historians, feminist academics, and contemporary cultural theorists.


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To Make My Bread
Grace Lumpkin
University of Illinois Press, 1959
      A story of the growth of the
        new South, To Make My Bread revolves around a family of Appalachian
        mountaineers—small farmers, hunters, and moonshiners—driven
        by economic conditions to the milltown and transformed into millhands,
        strikers, and rebels against the established order. Recognized as one
        of the major works on the Gastonia textile strike, Grace Lumpkin's novel
        is also important for anyone interested in cultural or feminist history
        as it deals with early generations of women radicals committed to addressing
        the difficult connections of class and race. Suzanne Sowinska's introduction
        looks at Lumpkin's volatile career and this book's critical reception.
      Originally published in 1932
      "[The book's] meaning
        rises out of people in dramatic conflict with other people and with the
        conditions of their life. . . . [Lumpkin] treats her theme with a craftsman's
        and a psychologist's respect. The novel springs naturally from its author's
        immersion in and personal knowledge of her absorbing subject material."
        -- The New York Times
      "Unpretentious . . .
        written in a simple and matter-of-fact prose, and yet reading it has been
        a more real, more satisfying experience than that which almost any other
        recent work of fiction has given me. I cannot imagine how anyone could
        read it and not be moved by it." -- The Nation
      "A beautiful and sincere
        novel, outstanding." -- The New Republic
      The late

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Transcribing Class and Gender
Masculinity and Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Courts and Offices
Carole Srole
University of Michigan Press, 2012

"Drawing upon census data, trade periodicals devoted to stenography and court reporting, the writings of educational reformers, and fiction, Srole allows us to better understand the roles that gender and work played in the formation of middle-class identity. Clearly written and thoroughly researched, her book reminds us of the contradictions that both men and women faced as they navigated changes in the labor market and sought to realize a modern professional identity."
---Thomas Augst, New York University

Transcribing Class and Gender explores the changing meanings of clerical work in nineteenth-century America, focusing on the discourse surrounding that work. At a time when shorthand transcription was the primary method of documenting business and legal communications and transactions, most stenographers were men, but changing technology saw the emergence of women in the once male-dominated field. Carole Srole argues that this shift placed stenographers in a unique position to construct a new image of the professional man and woman and, in doing so, to redefine middle- and working-class identities.

Many male court reporters emphasized their professionalism, portraying themselves as educated language experts as a way to elevate themselves above the growing numbers of female and working-class stenographers and typewriter operators. Meanwhile, women in the courts and offices were confronting the derogatory image of the so-called Typewriter Girl who cared more about her looks, clothing, and marriage prospects than her job. Like males in the field, women responded by fashioning a gendered professional image---one that served to combat this new version of degraded female labor while also maintaining traditional ideals of femininity.

The study is unique in the way it reads and analyzes popular fiction, stenography trade magazines, the archives of professional associations, and writings by educational reformers to provide new perspectives on this history. The author challenges the common assumption that men and women clerks had separate work cultures and demonstrates how each had to balance elements of manhood and womanhood in the drive toward professionalism and the construction of a new middle-class image. Transcribing Class and Gender joins the recent scholarship that employs cultural studies approaches to class and gender without abandoning the social history valuation of workers' experiences.

Carole Srole is Professor of History at California State University, Los Angeles.

Photo: A female stenographer working for an actuary in 1897. Courtesy Metlife Archives.


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Unraveling the Garment Industry
Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work
Ethel C. Brooks
University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Unraveling the Garment Industry is an ambitious investigation of the politics of labor and protest within an industry that has come to define the possibilities and abuses of globalization and its feminized labor: the garment industry. Focusing on three labor rights movements—against GAP clothing in El Salvador, child labor in Bangladesh, and sweatshops in New York City—Ethel C. Brooks examines how transnational consumer protest campaigns effect change, sometimes with unplanned penalties for those they intend to protect.

Brooks analyzes a two-pronged problem in consumer boycott campaigns against labor abuse in the garment industry. First, how are we to understand the political necessities of local protest such as the right to unionize against the emphasis placed on consumer boycotts? Second, what and whose agency is privileged or obscured within the symbolic economies and the politics of information deployed by these campaigns? Tying both of these questions together is a commitment to seeing globalization as embedded in the everyday realities of the local. 

Drawing attention to the race, class, and gender assumptions central to powerful consumer boycotts, Brooks reveals how these movements unintentionally reinforce the global economic forces they denounce.

Ethel C. Brooks is assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and sociology at Rutgers University.


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Watching Hannah
Sex, Horror and Bodily De-Formation in Victorian England
Barry Reay
Reaktion Books, 2002
Arthur Munby (1828–1910) was a Victorian gentleman from a respected family of Yorkshire lawyers. He left behind diaries that record his life-long obsession with working-class Victorian women, whom he interviewed, photographed and wrote about. This obsession led to his relationship with, and eventual secret marriage to, his maidservant Hannah Cullwick.

Working women fascinated Munby because they disrupted his Victorian ideal of femininity: their bodies were altered by physical exertion and dirt, and they were also often deformed by disease. Drawing not only on the diaries but also on a vast, untapped archive of documents, photographs, poems and sketches, Watching Hannah is far more than an account of a compulsive observer of working women and a fetishist of hard-working female hands, however. The author analyzes Munby's obsessions in relation to changing definitions of gender, sexual identity and class to reveal wider male preoccupations with femininity, the body, deformity, masculinity and – most of all – sexuality, at a pivotal point in European history.

front cover of Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920
Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920
Mari Jo Buhle
University of Illinois Press, 1981
Socialist women faced the often thorny dilemma of fitting their concern with women's rights into their commitment to socialism. Mari Jo Buhle examines women's efforts to agitate for suffrage, sexual and economic emancipation, and other issues and the political and intellectual conflicts that arose in response. In particular, she analyzes the clash between a nativist socialism influence by ideas of individual rights and the class-based socialism championed by German American immigrants. As she shows, the two sides diverged, often greatly, in their approaches and their definitions of women's emancipation. Their differing tactics and goals undermined unity and in time cost women their independence within the larger movement.

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Women and the Trades
Pittsburgh, 1907–1908
Elizabeth Beardsley Butler
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984
Women and the Trades has long been regarded as a masterwork in the field of social investigation. Originally published in 1909, it was one of six volumes of the path breaking Pittsburgh Survey, the first attempt in the United States to study, systematically and comprehensively, life and labor in one industrial city. No other book documents so precisely the many technological and organizational changes that transformed women's wage work in the early 1900s.

Despite Pittsburgh's image as a male-oriented steel town, many women also worked for a living-rolling cigars, canning pickles, or clerking in stores. The combination of manufacturing, distribution, and communication services made the city of national economic developments.

What Butler found in her visits to countless workplaces did not flatter the city, its employers, or its wage earners. With few exceptions, labor unions served the interests of skilled males. Women's jobs were rigidly segregated, low paying, usually seasonal, and always insecure. Ethnic distinctions erected powerful barriers between different groups of women, as did status hierarchies based on job function.

Professor Maurine Weiner Greenwald's introduction provides biographical sketches of Butler and photographer Lewis Hine and examines the validity of Butler's assumptions and findings, especially with regard to protective legislation, women worker's “passivity,” and working-class family strategies.

front cover of Women Politics And Empowerment
Women Politics And Empowerment
Ann Bookman
Temple University Press, 1987
"Women and the Politics of Empowerment is filled with pictures of women whose lives the masculinist ideology of our disciplines has said are not worthy of our interest. Bookman, Morgen, and their colleagues awaken all kinds of ideas about where to go from here." --Women & Politics According to popular conception, working-class women in the United States are part of the "silent majority." But during the 1970s and early 1980s these women have been far from silent. Speaking out both individually and collectively, they have staked new political ground for themselves and their families. Drawing on case studies of community and workplace organizing, these original essays redefine our notions of "the political" and address a wide range of topics, including the creation and reform of unions, domestic service, street vending, working-class education, health care, and social services. The contributors have focused on working-class women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds employed in a wide variety of jobs. Women and the Politics of Empowerment documents the story of women learning about the sources of their powerlessness and mobilizing to increase their power. "Drawing together an excellent compilation of case studies of community and workplace organizing, Bookman and Morgen redefine the political arena and process. They focus on the statuses of working-class and low-income women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, thereby giving attention to women who have been largely ignored as actors in the political arena…. These rich and varied case materials are useful for the scholar-researcher, the activist, and for the teacher in women's studies, social work, public policy, education, and public health." --Contemporary Sociology "Don't let the title…scare you…. The book is devoted to bridging the gap between theory and practice, between feminism and working-class women. And it succeeds, through fourteen widely disparate, yet complementary essays about working-class women, Black, Latina and white, struggling on the job and in their communities for social change." --New Directions for Women

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