Protecting Women: Labor Legislation in Europe, the United States, and Australia, 1880-1920

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Editorial Reviews

Kate Greene
Although it is 1996, when I ask my students to identify the "family values" of contemporary political rhetoric, the conception of the family they articulate still consists of the nuclear family, a husband/father as worker and breadwinner, a wife as homemaker and mother, 2.5 children and one cat or dog. When I ask them, however, if this family is part of their future, less than half respond positively. It seems that the culturally defined concepts of the family and its gender roles, with man as worker and woman as mother and homemaker, is so embedded in their psyches that it overcomes their personal experiences. The family and gender are powerful concepts and after reading PROTECTING WOMEN, I have certainly come away with a greater appreciation for the way family values and gender role rhetoric has shaped the theoretical, political and social discourses and actions in the area of labor legislation. PROTECTING WOMEN is a lengthy, often heavy, occasionally superb book which examines the social, political and theoretical debates surrounding protective labor legislation for women at International Labor Congresses and in nine European nations, the United Sates and Australia. Each chapter examines a different country and attempts to clarify the motivations behind the movement for such legislation and the major social and political concerns that informed the passage or failure of the legislation. The types of legislation examined vary from chapter to chapter, but there is a clear continuity in the nature and focus of the debates surrounding the different types of legislation. Indeed, the book quickly began to feel repetitious, but the wonderfully written piece on the debates in Sweden by Lynn Karlson rescued this reviewer around the midpoint and sent me in search of more. The editors establish in the introduction that the debates over protective legislation became a vehicle through which several agendas were acted out, including the issues of motherhood and maternalism and the question of equality and difference among women. Yet, after reading this book, what lingers in one’s mind is not really the debates about motherhood or the equality-difference debate or even the question of state intervention in labor practices. It is the way in which these debates over protective legislation were used in times of social instability and change to reinforce patriarchal power and dominance. As Efi Avdela notes in her chapter on Greece, "These policies reproduced the dominant configuration of gender in the course of a transition from rural patriarchy to a more industrial framework" (p. 291). This statement rings true for every chapter. In the chapter on Norway, Gro Hagemann also makes this point most eloquently using Carole Pateman’s framework on the sexual contract, "These men viewed freedom of the social contract as a threat to the contractual relations WITHIN the family....They construed state intervention as necessary to protect the gendered order of the family..." (p. 284) [emphasis in original]. Yet, there is much to be gained from the various recountings of the motherhood and equality-difference debates in PROTECTING WOMEN since these are enduring issues in feminist studies and theorizing. These issues, as well as class differences among feminists, often kept women in opposition to each other and muted any effect they might have had on the legislation. Also in most countries, women who made their voices heard could only participate in the public debate. The legislative debates were the province of men. Only in Norway, where a strong women’s movement already existed and women had the vote at the time the legislation was being considered, did women come together and prevent the passage of a ban on night work for women. The fact that feminists remain divided over these questions highlights the importance of a work such as this. We may fail to definitively resolve these disputes, but we can learn from this book how these debates influence political action and utilize this information in future feminist action. This is a well-written, well-organized book. PROTECTING WOMEN begins with an excellent introduction which outlines the nature of protective legislation for women and the major issues and debates that arise in the chapters to come. The first chapter further sets the stage by examining the debates over this legislation at International Labor Congresses. This is followed by the chapters dealing with Europe. The order selected for each country is well-done, giving the book a smooth chronological sense. The book closes with chapters on Australia and the United States. The placement of the United States at the end is also a fine choice on the part of the editors because the U. S. experience is unique. Only in the United States does the judiciary place a significant role in the politics of protective legislation. While a concluding chapter may seem an important piece of this book, the chapters come together so well that it is not necessary. It would also only add to the length of a very long book. Indeed, if there is one flaw with PROTECTING WOMEN it is its length. Yet, even I could not decide which chapter not to include, so I will not quibble on this point. PROTECTING WOMEN is also a significant contribution to the literature on protective labor legislation because of its comparative, international approach. Unfortunately, United States students (and this reviewer) can be unschooled in the feminist history of this debate in other countries and this work not only takes an important issue and gives it an international context, it educates the reader on the history of feminism and labor in these nine European countries and Australia. The contributors utilize many primary sources which are well documented and will clearly assist in further research done in this area of law and politics should acquire this book. It would also be a fine book for anyone interested in comparative and international feminism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252064647
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1995
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 8.93 (h) x 1.19 (d)

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