Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

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Overview

At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading activists, organizers, and radicals feared that consumerist tendencies made working women seem frivolous and dissuaded them from political action, these women, in fact, went on strike in very large numbers during the period, proving themselves to be politically active, astute, and effective.

In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, historian Nan Enstad explores the complex relationship between consumer culture and political activism for late nineteenth- and twentieth-century working women. While consumerism did not make women into radicals, it helped shape their culture and their identities as both workers and political actors.

Examining material ranging from early dime novels about ordinary women who inherit wealth or marry millionaires, to inexpensive, ready-to-wear clothing that allowed them to both deny and resist mistreatment in the workplace, Enstad analyzes how working women wove popular narratives and fashions into their developing sense of themselves as "ladies." She then provides a detailed examination of how this notion of "ladyhood" affected the great New York shirtwaist strike of 1909--1910. From the women's grievances, to the walkout of over 20,000 workers, to their style of picketing, Enstad shows how consumer culture was a central theme in this key event of labor strife. Finally, Enstad turns to the motion picture genre of female adventure serials, popular after 1912, which imbued "ladyhood" with heroines' strength, independence, and daring.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review - Nancy Gabin

Enstad's imaginative reading of the goods consumed by working-class women in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century offers a fresh and illuminating perspective on and advances our understanding of the lived experience of work and leisure in the Gilded Age and Progressive era.

American Historical Review
Enstad's imaginative reading of the goods consumed by working-class women in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century offers a fresh and illuminating perspective on and advances our understanding of the lived experience of work and leisure in the Gilded Age and Progressive era.

— Nancy Gabin

American Studies

Ladies of Labor represents an important contribution to labor, immigration and women's history that is anchored in the broader political economy of culture at the turn of the century. Enstad's skillful, multidisciplinary rendering of working women's lives should help us re-evaluate the ways we teach and write about popular culture and politics in America.

Barbara Melosh
A wonderful book, full of fresh insight and thoughtful revisions of important historiographical debates. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure is deeply and widely informed, engaging fully with social and cultural history and making sophisticated critical use of cultural studies.
Vicki L. Ruiz
Brilliantly blending insights from cultural studies and political economy, this book is an imaginative, path-breaking study of 'culture in motion.
Nancy Gabin
Enstad's imaginative reading of the goods consumed by working-class women in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century offers a fresh and illuminating perspective on and advances our understanding of the lived experience of work and leisure in the Gilded Age and Progressive era.
Booknews
Combines labor and cultural history to investigate the interplay between the class consciousness of working-class women and the rising consumerism in the early 1900s. Challenges the assertions or assumptions of labor historians and activists from that time to this that consumerism eroded political and class identity. Argues that it was neither an arena for freedom nor did it always function in opposition to the dominant culture for working women; that though women did use products to reinforce social hierarchies, products also offered them a new range of representations, symbols, activities, and spaces within which to create class, gender, and ethnic identities. Enstad mentions a nonexistent organization called the International Workers of the World. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231111034
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/1999
  • Series: Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,249,495
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Nan Enstad is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

1. Cheap Dresses and Dime Novels: The First Commodities for Working Women2. Ladies of Labor: Fashion, Fiction, and Working Womens Culture3. Fashioning Political Subjectivities: The 1909 Shirtwaist Strike and the Rational Girl Striker4. Ladies and Orphans: Women Invent Themselves as Strikers in 19095. Movie-Struck Girls: Motion Pictures and Consumer Subjectivities

Columbia University Press

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