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In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

by Alice Kessler-Harris

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Few historians have contributed more to our understanding of the history of women, and women's effect on history, than Alice Kessler-Harris. Author of the classic Out to Work, she is one of the country's leading scholars of gender, the economy, and public policy.

In this volume, Kessler-Harris pierces the skin of arguments and legislation to grasp the


Few historians have contributed more to our understanding of the history of women, and women's effect on history, than Alice Kessler-Harris. Author of the classic Out to Work, she is one of the country's leading scholars of gender, the economy, and public policy.

In this volume, Kessler-Harris pierces the skin of arguments and legislation to grasp the preconceptions that have shaped the experience of women: a "gendered imagination" that has defined what men and women alike think of as fair and desirable. In this brilliant account that traces social policy from the New Deal to the 1970s, she shows how a deeply embedded set of beliefs has distorted seemingly neutral social legislation to further limit the freedom and equality of women. Government rules generally sought to protect women from exploitation, even from employment itself; but at the same time, they attached the most important benefits to wage work. To be a real citizen, one must earn--and most policymakers (even female ones) assumed from the beginning that women were not, and should not be breadwinners. Kessler-Harris traces the impact of this gender bias in the New Deal programs of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and fair labor standards, in Federal income tax policy, and the new discussion of women's rights that emerged after World War II. "For generations," she writes, "American women lacked not merely the practice, but frequently the idea of individual economic freedom." Only in the 1960s and '70s did old assumptions begin to break down--yet the process is far from complete.

Even today, with women closer to full economic citizenship than ever before, Kessler-Harris's insights offer a keen new understanding of the issues that dominate the headlines, from the marriage penalty in the tax code to the glass ceiling in corporate America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A leading scholar on women's history and public policy, Kessler-Harris expands the work she began in her previous book, Out to Work: The History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States, to examine not just women's employment history, but also the forces that have shaped economic policy for the past 100 years. In the introduction, she says, "For generations, American women lacked not merely the practice but frequently the idea of individual economic freedom." For anyone even remotely familiar with employment trends, this doesn't seem like a revelatory comment, but Kessler-Harris proceeds to make it one. By looking at crucial pieces of legislation and important court cases, she reveals the subtle shifts in language that marked progress for women and changed the work landscape. She points out that some employment areas, like Social Security legislation and tax laws, proved to be particularly resistant to equality for women, and changed very slowly over decades. Others, like the corporate glass ceiling, have yet to budge in some industries. Although focused on the larger issues of gender and economic policy, the book is also a refreshingly compact and useful primer on 50 years of employment legislation, detailing the crucial arguments and heated congressional debates that brought both men and women from the depths of the depression to the brink of equal economic citizenship. Historical perspective is especially important in later chapters, as she describes the effects of legislation that gave many middle-class women economic freedom, but had unforeseen negative consequences for poor women and women of color. But Kessler-Harris's cautious optimism about our shared economic future is hard toresist. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
One of America's leading scholars on the economic impact of gender bias on women, Kessler-Harris (history, Columbia Univ., Columbia Inst. for Research on Women and Gender; A Woman's Wage) offers a vigorous historical analysis of the 20th-century U.S. social policies that produced differential access to resources for men and women. Beginning in early 20th-century America, she explains how the gendered conception of the right to work emerged differently among men and women and then follows the unfolding of this conception during the New Deal era. She concludes this solid, erudite, heavily noted history by exploring notions of fairness in early federal income-tax policy, issues of equal employment policy in the 1950s and 1960s, and the newly witnessed women's rights movement after World War II. Kessler-Harris succeeds in showing how gender has shaped the rules by which we live, how gendered habits of mind have been inscribed in social policies that continue to frame our lives, and how, once these habits are embedded in the legislative, judicial, and policymaking mechanisms of society, only such a critical, penetrating analysis as this can challenge them and begin to advance the cause of modern feminism. Highly recommended for all academic libraries supporting labor law, economics, and women's studies. Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Through her painstaking examination of major legislation, Alice Kessler-Harris creates a framework for understanding not only the past but also the struggles women face today."—The Women's Review of Books

"In Pursuit of Equity is a sensitive and illuminating exploration of the manifold ways in which gendered habits of mind shape social action. It is a contribution not just to the history of the past but to the history of the future." —Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

"Kessler-Harris's cautious optimism about our shared economic future is hard to resist."—Publishers Weekly

"Broad in scope and enriched by detailed research.... In Pursuit of Equity is a fine work, with an important and nuanced argument, the kind of book that forces one to rethink assumptions about gender, politics, citizenship, and the struggle for social justice."—Miriam Cohen, Evalyn Clark Professor of History, Vassar College, Business History Review

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Chapter One

The Responsibilities of Life

Robert F. Wagner, distinguished senior senator from New York, chair of a duly constituted subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency, and political midwife to much of the labor legislation of the Roosevelt years, opened the hearings on the Full Employment Act of 1945 with an appropriately inspiring statement. Quoting his own words from a 1930s debate on a bill to legislate a thirty-hour workweek, he declared that "the right to work is synonymous with the inalienable right to live" and then added, "Whoever believes in this right to work, believes in it for every adult who is looking for an honest job at decent pay." The bill's cosponsor, Senator James Murray of Montana, concurred. "No thoughtful American," Murray insisted, "would deny that every man or woman in the country who is willing to work and capable of working has the right to a job."

    Yet the bill that was then offered up immediately qualified this inspiring and generously inclusionary rhetoric. The draft introduced first into the House of Representatives and then the Senate declared that "all Americans able to work and seeking work have the right to useful, remunerative, regular, and full-time employment, and it is the policy of the United States to assure the existence at all times of sufficient employment opportunities to enable all Americans who have finished their schooling and who do not have full-time housekeeping responsibilities freely to exercise this right." All Americans, the bill said, exceptstudents and those with "full-time housekeeping responsibilities." Senator Abe Murdock of Utah challenged the exceptions. He objected, he said, to excluding "the housekeeping, the housewives" (making it instantly clear that seemingly neutral language could not disguise the sex of those to be excluded). To leave them out would "impose an indignity ... on one of the very fundamental labors of the Nation.... I certainly would not want to deprive the housewife of any opportunity that is open to any other American." Quickly Murray took exception. For his part, he did not expect or want to "take the housewives out of the homes and put them into industry or other employment." Neither did Murdock. Still, he did not want to compromise principle by excluding them altogether: "I do not think that we should make an exception of any class," he argued. "They are all entitled to the same opportunity. If they are in the house today and want to get out tomorrow, in my opinion they should enjoy exactly the same opportunity as any other American." Murray would not back off. Refusing to drop the clause, he insisted that he would not want to "put ourselves in the position of advocating that everyone was going to work in American industry, because that would be impossible."

    Why not, then, simply limit the right to work to those "able to work and seeking work," as one legislator proposed? That ought to ensure that women with housekeeping responsibilities would not imagine themselves included. Senator Joseph C. O'Mahoney of Wyoming resisted. He had chaired a special postwar planning committee that concluded that the war had drawn housewives "who otherwise would not have been employed, who would have preferred to stay at home," into the labor force. Now he insisted that the bill's sponsors had added the exclusionary clause because they "did not want to give rise to the inference that this measure was intended to maintain at Government expense employment for people who ought to be in school or who ought to be at home helping to raise families, to make sure that we were not undertaking by a Government program to break up the family." When Murdock confessed he shared those aims with his colleague, O'Mahoney persisted. They had added the language, he explained, to fend off charges that they wanted "to guarantee at the expense of the Government the employment of persons who need not be employed at all and who ought to be left free to do as they see fit."

    The bill's advocates now found themselves in a dilemma, called on the carpet for transgressing democratic principles by denying one group of persons "exactly the same opportunity" as other Americans. To them the exclusion of housewives resonated with common sense, validating popular sensibilities about the appropriate distribution of responsibilities for men and women. And including them would have been, as Murray put it, "impossible." From a practical perspective the economy couldn't handle it; it would break up families. No, including housewives would undermine the good life for everyone. Similar tension between women's demands for economic inclusion and broad claims to democratic participation had shaped the course of other national histories. France had twice witnessed social movements on behalf of women's rights to work: once during the French Revolution, when Olympe de Gouges lost her head for claiming women's full economic and political participation; and again in 1848, when women demanded that their briefly acknowledged rights to jobs receive recognition by a grant of the right to vote. Before the turn of the century, an international women's movement fought for the integration of women into the labor market while socialists resisted. The United States in the 1920s witnessed a continuing struggle between "equal rights feminists" who claimed an absolute right to work and more moderate social feminists who agreed to restrict economic rights to preserve traditional families. But whatever the arguments about rights to work in feminist circles, common experience and popular understanding affirmed male prerogatives.

    This chapter traces the gendered nature of rights to work as they emerged in late nineteenth-century ideas around masculinity and the family. It describes how these putative rights came to mark the independent status that provided entry to fuller economic citizenship and signaled access to the political process. And it suggests how, in consequence, rights to work became carefully gendered, a corollary of widespread beliefs in the ideology of family and in the necessary privileges of the male breadwinner in whose justice women and men concurred. I argue that by the early twentieth century few people believed that women had rights to work in the same sense as men and that, as a result, women's constitutional liberties were severely circumscribed. Women, in the eyes of many, deserved state protection for fair and equitable treatment at work (equal wages, suitable working conditions, reasonable hours) precisely because they possessed few rights to work. In the first half of the twentieth century, persistent beliefs about the gendered right to earn helped to structure the labor market in ways that restricted women's job choices, fostered the adoption of new corporate welfare strategies that benefited male-headed families, and ultimately shaped the direction of social policy in the 1930s. Though these belief systems sometimes wavered (with regard to single women and among African-American women, for example) and were often challenged, their practical effect was to restrict women's access to economic citizenship. This applied to white and black women, privileged and not so. To the senators who could not imagine government supporting the rights of housewives to jobs, the idea that women should have the equivalent of civil rights—an equal chance in the competitive market with the possibility of displacing men—still seemed antithetical to conceptions of a gendered social order that revolved around family life. And whatever a woman's particular circumstances, she would find herself constrained by ideas that she was powerless to control and that profoundly influenced the legislative agenda.

The Mere Fact of Sex

No sphere of life was more jealously guarded by the late nineteenth-century working man than his relationship to wage work. His ambition threatened by the loss of entrepreneurial opportunities as capital consolidated, his skill devalued by the relentless ascendancy of new machinery, a working man measured his worth by the dignity of his job. Outside the workplace, a skilled craftsman could hold his head high in the political arena; inside it, he retained his manhood as long as he could evoke discipline and solidarity among his fellow craftsmen.

    To defend their rights to work, men organized collectively around notions of solidarity and brotherhood, advocating a notion of free labor that was both racial and patriarchal. "Free labor" was built on a concept of independence in which skill at craft work was equated with a manliness that would preserve self-respect while workers earned wages and that promised ultimately to release them from wage labor. It embodied a conception of male prerogatives rooted in an ordered and comfortable family life that relied on female labor at home. Its moral authority rested on its power to distance itself from symbolic and actual slavery by setting dignified terms of labor. It utilized these constructs to develop a conception of equal rights for white male workers that was to guarantee effective self-representation and provide the basis for the perpetuation of a democratic republic. The idea of free labor thus embodied both the elusive privileges of whiteness and the notion of separate spheres for men and women. It derived economic power from its restrictions on labor imagined as neither white nor male. This included not only African Americans (enslaved as well as free) but recent immigrants from places like Ireland, and later Italy and most of southern and eastern Europe. The idea also explicitly excluded women, even wives and daughters, from wage work.

    Neither in nineteenth-century liberal theory nor in practice did slaves of either sex or women of any race hold property in their own labor. The labor of slaves, male and female, belonged to their owners. Free women of every race were conceived as wives and mothers; their labor belonged to husbands and families. Both engaged in subsistence as well as wage labor without acquiring what more privileged men understood as "rights to work." Neither was expected to participate in the polity in the same sense as white men; nor was their wage work expected to lend itself to "head of household" status, with its implication of independent political judgment. Indeed, central to the male conception of republicanism was an ordered family life that incorporated male dominion over wives and children. In men's eyes, the wage labor of free women, where necessary, ought to be dignified and to provide self-support, but it was not expected to lead to independence and self-sufficiency. Rather, just as men's free labor was predicated on their capacity to support families, so women's was assumed to sustain the family labor of men. Both racial exclusion and male gendered privilege participated in maintaining white solidarity, and both sustained the proto-right to work. Since the measure of manhood lay in self-sufficiency and independence, white men closely guarded their employment prerogatives. For if women's wage work competed with that of white men or threatened to undermine men's wages, it simultaneously challenged men's access to citizenship. White women, who expected to participate in the polity through their menfolk, increasingly shared the expectation that any wage work women did would be a response to economic necessity and in subsidiary positions.

    By the late nineteenth century, the courts weighed in to defend the independent and presumably self-sufficient actor who possessed the right to compete freely in the economic marketplace. If, as T. H. Marshall had put it, the worker's capacity "to engage as an independent unit in the economic struggle" was among the most basic of civil rights, and essential to a market economy, then the defense of individual freedom not only rationalized the absence of state protection but required it "out of respect for his status as citizen." American courts presumed that workers had the power to protect themselves, and for much of the nineteenth century, men and women, black and white, sold their labor and negotiated the fiercely competitive marketplace of work without hope of positive government intervention.

    These circumstances, generally described as "freedom of contract," precluded many forms of worker combination and collective action as well. Except when public health or safety warranted rare exceptions, late nineteenth-century workers of all kinds were said to possess at least the theoretical right to contract freely with employers to sell their labor for as many hours a day, under whatever conditions, and at as low a price as they wished. The poor bargaining position of workers, as other commentators have noted, pitted the hungry stomachs of the many against the inexorable demands of industry for cheaper and more flexible labor, leaving workers virtually defenseless. Still, the elusive promises of escape from wage labor into self-employment or of occupational and economic mobility based on wit and talent left many convinced that fairness would be satisfied by a genuinely laissez-faire stance on the part of the state. In the late nineteenth century, the American Federation of Labor, the major organization representing associations of skilled workers, developed a philosophy called "voluntarism" that eschewed government intervention and celebrated working men's abilities to sustain their individual well-being by strategies of collective activism and bargaining.

    How did women expect to compete in this male world of mobility and contest? For the most part they didn't. A typical early twentieth-century urban white working-class daughter might know that she would have to earn wages for several years before marriage and then sporadically thereafter. But she could expect, or at least hope, that some part of her working life would involve caring for her own home and family. Like men, she assigned gendered meanings to "rights to work." When working-class men used the term (and they frequently did), the concept implied dignity, the capacity to support a household and family, the possibility of upward mobility, and a status that justified political citizenship. Working-class women rarely used the term to apply to themselves. They did have job-related expectations, including access to reasonable jobs at reasonable wages and under conditions that facilitated domestic lives. Middle-class women, the college-educated, and those with professional aspirations had ambitions that extended further, but many would have ceded the right to earn a living (as opposed to the opportunity to do so) to the unmarried. Though women were often flung into the labor force—as part of the struggle for domestic survival—the routes to glory were with few exceptions closed to them. To be sure, many women supported themselves and their families through their own entrepreneurial abilities: numbers of female printers, milliners, graphic artists, dressmakers, and cosmetologists acquired credit and good reputations. But by and large success in the contest for skilled and remunerative work became the measure of masculinity—a jealously guarded male arena. Custom supported men's efforts to monopolize the skilled trades by controlling apprenticeships, excluding women from their trade unions, and limiting loans to start businesses.

    The law sustained these efforts. In its most notorious articulation, on April 14, 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Illinois's refusal to admit Myra Bradwell (already an experienced lawyer) to the bar on the grounds that the right to practice law was not a privilege or immunity of citizenship. States were perfectly within their rights to regulate women's admission to that profession or any other in any reasonable way. Just the day before, the Court had set the stage for this decision by agreeing that a group of Louisiana butchers had no claim to redress because the state permitted a small monopoly to control the trade. Only efforts to exclude African Americans, the Court argued in the Slaughter-House Cases, fell within the boundaries of the Fourteenth Amendment. Consistently, the Court held that women could not be covered either. Justice Joseph P. Bradley, who had dissented from the first decision, concurred in Bradwell. He extended the Court's reasoning in language that would be frequently quoted and that explicitly marked gender as a reasonable classification for job purposes. "The civil law, as well as nature herself," he argued, "has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman." These differences were reinforced by "the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex" and which "evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life." After all, "the paramount destiny and mission of women [was] to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother."

    By the late nineteenth century, a discourse of fairness and a set of informal policies that affirmed the expectations of white men and many white women as well sustained the exclusionary behavior of skilled white men toward wage earning. Employers, like most white men and women, shared a sense of social order that accommodated job assignments by sex as they deferred to racial and ethnic hierarchy. Though the precise jobs open to men or women, or to particular groups of immigrants or people of color, varied from place to place and changed over time, a general, if misguided, sense of fairness influenced the distribution of work and affirmed the claims of the most privileged. Women (six million of them) constituted nearly a quarter of the paid labor force in 1900. They worked as teachers, in factory jobs, in the retail trades, in agricultural work, and increasingly in offices, but by far the largest percentage worked in various kinds of public and private domestic service. Almost 40 percent of female wage earners were either immigrants or the daughters of immigrants; another 20 percent were African Americans. Some engaged formally in the labor market; others participated in less visible work like taking in boarders, laundry, and sewing. Most occupied a restricted sphere, modulated and bounded by racial and ethnic prejudice and by settled understandings about the prerogatives of white male breadwinners that underlined a highly refined sexual division of labor.

    This is not to imply that all women were either happy with this state of affairs or resigned to it. Leading voices in the growing women's rights movement protested the constraints on women in the labor market, and documents like the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments linked economic dependence to the absence of political rights. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, theorists of no less stature than Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Engels had repeatedly argued that economic independence was a necessary first step to the full participation of women in political society. Mill took for granted the legitimacy of women's claims to jobs, noting in his classic The Subjection of Women that achieving "the just equality of women" required their admission "to all the functions and occupations hitherto retained as the monopoly of the stronger sex."

    Still, the mainstream of the American feminist movement placed the ballot for women ahead of the struggle for economic independence; even the National Woman Suffrage Association led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dissented only briefly before making it their first priority. Their choices were buttressed by the development of an alternative conception of citizenship rights for women located within the family. In this view women's citizenship rights could be extrapolated from the home and rooted in the experiences of mothers and wives. Popularized by educators like Catherine Beecher and reinforced by American suffragists, led by Lucy Stone Blackwell and Julia Ward Howe, the idea that women's political insights and influence would come from their special relationships to domesticity spread. Motherhood, suffragist and minister Anna Garlin Spencer told a convention of her allies, has "fitted women to give a service to the modern State which men can not altogether duplicate." Once they were armed with the ballot, their impact would reflect the morals and values of the idealized home. Influenced by the Swedish social reformer Ellen Key, these ideas expanded to encompass a generation of activists, including Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop, who believed that preserving and extending the moral virtue and nurturing proclivities of domesticity could and should shape twentieth-century policies.


Excerpted from In Pursuit of Equity by Alice Kessler-Harris. Copyright © 2001 by Alice Kessler-Harris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, where she also teaches in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. A leading advocate of women's rights in the United States, she has been a featured speaker at a special White House symposium and an expert guest on the PBS documentary "The Measured Century." She is the author of Out to Work, A Woman's Wage, and Women Have Always Worked.

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