On Gender, Labor, and Inequality

On Gender, Labor, and Inequality

by Ruth Milkman


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On Gender, Labor, and Inequality by Ruth Milkman

Ruth Milkman's groundbreaking research in women's labor history has contributed important perspectives on work and unionism in the United States. On Gender, Labor, and Inequality presents four decades of Milkman's essential writings, tracing the parallel evolutions of her ideas and the field she helped define. Milkman's introduction frames a career-spanning scholarly project: her interrogation of historical and contemporary intersections of class and gender inequalities in the workplace, and the efforts to challenge those inequalities. Early chapters focus on her pioneering work on women's labor during the Great Depression and the World War II years. In the book's second half, Milkman turns to the past fifty years, a period that saw a dramatic decline in gender inequality even as growing class imbalances created greater-than-ever class disparity among women. She concludes with a previously unpublished essay comparing the impact of the Great Depression and the Great Recession on women workers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081774
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 07/15/2016
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ruth Milkman is a professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center. Her books include L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement and Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II . She is the 2016 president of the American Sociological Association.

Read an Excerpt

On Gender, Labor, and Inequality

By Ruth Milkman


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09858-1


Women's Work and Economic Crisis

Some Lessons of the Great Depression

This chapter, although focusing on the experience of women workers during the Great Depression and World War II, also reflects the era in which it was written — the 1970s — when traditional family arrangements were still largely intact, and when the surge in labor force participation among mothers of young children and the entry of college-educated women into the elite professions was just beginning. Another crucial context for this chapter was the burgeoning of Marxist-feminist theory in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the argument here is deeply influenced by that literature but also presents a challenge to it. Originally published in 1976, this work was the first to critique the widely accepted precept that women workers were a "reserve army" of labor, pulled into the labor force during periods of economic expansion and then expelled during recessions or depressions. The central argument of this chapter is that job segregation by gender endures even during major economic upheavals like depressions and world wars. It shows that women were less likely to suffer unemployment than men during the Great Depression, contrary to what the "reserve army" theory suggests. However, women's unpaid work in the home did serve to absorb some of the economic pressures created by the most severe economic crisis of the twentieth century.


In the course of capitalist development, women have come to play an increasingly important role in the sphere of paid labor, and yet participation in that sphere continues to be ideologically defined as "male." This disparity between the cultural definition of women and the reality of their material situation stems from a contradiction basic to the structure of capitalism. On the one hand, there is the continuing need for the family, particularly women's unpaid labor in it, and, on the other hand, the tendency for an increasing amount of human activity to be integrated into the sphere of commodity production in the course of economic growth.

The family lost its role as the primary unit of social production with the development of industrial capitalism, but as an institution it remains central to that form of economic organization, performing many vital functions. Women have been designated as the people responsible for the execution of these functions in the home. They provide a wide variety of personal services — preparing meals, cleaning the home, providing basic healthcare, and so forth. This work is necessary to the maintenance of the working ability, or labor power, of adult family members, and to the preparation of a new generation of workers. Women also do most of the family's buying, and the institution is the basic unit of commodity consumption. In addition, women instill in their children and maintain in their husbands the individualistic values basic to capitalist society, and they are responsible for emotionally and sexually maintaining their husbands. Family "life" is defined in direct opposition to work, as the one place where people can escape the "impersonal forces" of the economy. As wives and mothers, women are expected to absorb any tension generated by those forces. Finally, of course, they bear children, society's next generation of workers.

It is theoretically conceivable that all of the family's functions could be taken over by other institutions, and that the work involved, with the exception of childbearing, could be done by persons of either sex. However, there are a number of good reasons for preserving the present arrangement within the context of a capitalist society. First, the work done by women in the home retains a pre-capitalistic, wageless form, so that the costs of maintaining and reproducing its labor power are borne fully by the working class. Without families, adult men and women could probably fend for themselves, but the twenty-four-hours-a-day job of caring for young children would be very expensive if it were transformed into wage labor. Moreover, while it may be profitable for individual capitalists to hire waged workers to produce the essential personal services otherwise supplied by women in families as a "labor of love," this is not in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, for wages must rise to cover the cost to the worker of such necessities.

Second, the small nuclear family is an optimal unit of consumption, generating much larger demand for household appliances, televisions, and so forth, than would obtain if housework and family activities were socialized. In addition, assigning women the responsibility for making the family into a "haven" from the frustrations of the world of work — at least for men — is tremendously accommodative to the needs of a society in which most jobs are inherently unsatisfying.

The family is, for all of these reasons, an important component of our economic system, and this is the material basis of the cultural definition of women as primarily wives and mothers. And yet, with economic development and growth, increasing numbers of women have entered the paid labor force, in a wide range of occupations. This, in women's real lives, has meant greater opportunity to receive pay for their labor, a development that threatens the culturally prescribed sexual division of labor assigning them the responsibility to work without pay to maintain their families.

There is, then, a real contradiction between the economy's need for women as unpaid family workers and its tendency to draw all available labor power, regardless of sex, into the sphere of production for profit. This creates a disjuncture between the ideology about sex roles, which continues to define women with reference to their family role, and the material reality of their increasing participation in the "male" sphere of paid production. As a result, as Juliet Mitchell has pointed out, women who work for pay tend nevertheless to view themselves as wives and mothers, not as "workers."

Because the economic role of women is obscured (its cheapness obscures it) women workers do not have the pre-conditions of class consciousness. Their exploitation is invisible behind an ideology that masks the fact that they work at all — their work appears inessential.

Because of this lack of class consciousness, Mitchell argued, the labor-market behavior of women is easily manipulated with changing economic conditions. She and other Marxist-feminists have argued that women function as a "reserve army" of labor power, to be drawn on in periods when labor is scarce and expelled in periods of labor surplus. Ideology, in this view, plays a crucial role, both perpetuating women's lack of class consciousness over the long term and propelling them in and out of the labor force in response to changing economic conditions.

Exponents of this "reserve army" theory agree, and the historical evidence is fairly clear, that in periods of economic expansion women do tend to enter the paid workforce. In periods of contraction, however, the situation of women is more problematic. On the one hand, as Mitchell suggests, "in times of economic recession and forced labour redundancy, women form a pool of cheap labour." Since women work for lower wages than men, one might expect them to be the last to lose their jobs in a slump. On the other hand, this would violate the basic cultural prescription that, as Mitchell so strongly emphasizes, dictates that "woman's place" is in the home, that men are the "breadwinners." Reasoning on this basis, Margaret Benston, who also characterizes women as a "reserve army," has suggested that women tend to leave the labor market in a period of contraction.

When there is less demand for labor ... women become a surplus labor force — but one for which their husbands and not society are economically responsible. The "cult of the home" makes its reappearance during times of labor surplus and is used to channel women out of the market economy. This is relatively easy since the pervading ideology ensures that no one, man or woman, takes woman's participation in the labor force very seriously.

This notion has gained wide currency — indeed, it has risen to the level of dogma — both in the women's movement and on the Left.

There are, then, contradictory arguments about women's labor force behavior in an economic contraction. If the Marxist concept of a "reserve army" of labor power is useful for analyzing the entrance of women into the paid workforce over the long term, Marxist-feminist applications of its converse do not tell us very much about their economic roles in a period of crisis. Those theoretical applications, moreover, are somewhat mechanistic and are insufficiently grounded in knowledge of history. This inquiry is an effort to remedy that through an analysis of the experience of women, both in the labor market and as unpaid family workers, during the Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis of the twentieth century. The experience of women during the period immediately following World War II will be considered also, as a contrasting case in which the "reserve army" theory is more useful.

The first part of this chapter analyzes the changes in women's paid employment patterns that resulted from the 1929 crash, in which I hope to demonstrate that the sex-typing of occupations created an inflexibility in the structure of the labor market that prevented the expulsion of women from it in the manner Benston suggests. It was not because of the fact that women's labor power is cheaper than men's, but rather because women's work is so rigidly sex-typed, that women enjoyed a measure of protection from unemployment in the Great Depression. It was the case, however, that women were urged to leave the paid labor force during the 1930s. That most of them did not suggests that ideological sex role prescriptions must be viewed not as determinant of but rather in constant interaction with behavior in analyzing women's experience during periods of economic crisis.

In the next part of the chapter, the focus of the discussion shifts to the impact of the economic crisis of the 1930s on women's economic role in the family — their unpaid work in the home. It is ironic that the Marxist-feminist discussion of women and economic crises has so far ignored this dimension of their experience, for it is a basic insight of Marxist-feminist theory as a whole that both paid work outside the home and unpaid work in it are crucial to women's experience in capitalist society. I will argue that in fact it was the work of women in the home, rather than their labor market participation, that was forced to "take up the slack" in the economy during this period of contraction.

After having considered the economic behavior ofwomen in the 1930s, both in the labor market and in the home, and on this basis having rejected the "reserve army" theory, I will turn to a counterexample. The manner in which large numbers of women were drawn into the paid labor force during World War II, and their expulsion from it during the period of demobilization that followed, suggests that the "reserve army" theory does in fact have some explanatory power. I will argue, however, that the circumstances under which this occurred were highly peculiar and did not really constitute a "crisis," so that this case is not an adequate basis from which to generalize.

Unemployment of Women in the Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the most severe economic contraction Americans experienced in the twentieth century. The official estimate of unemployment for 1933 was 25 percent (and the actual proportion of people who experienced economic deprivation was probably much larger). Unfortunately, the only national unemployment data available for this period that are disaggregated by sex are those collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1930, when the proportion of all workers who had been laid off or fired and were seeking work was only 6.5 percent. These early data are in several respects highly problematic and can by no means be assumed to be an accurate representation of the extent to which the nation's available labor power was unutilized in 1930. Nevertheless, for our purposes they are quite instructive.

The April 1930 census found an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent for women, while that enumerated for men was 7.1 percent. There is some evidence that as the Depression deepened, the relative position of women grew somewhat worse, but the available data clearly indicate that, insofar as their paid labor force participation was concerned, women were less affected than men by the contraction.

This is precisely the opposite of what the "reserve army" theory about the relationship of women to economic fluctuations would lead one to expect. One might turn to an alternative hypothesis, reasoning that since women's labor power is sold at a cheaper price than that of men, they are the last to be fired during a period of worsening business conditions. While this interpretation may seem satisfactory for purposes of explaining the aggregate unemployment figures, an examination of the statistics on joblessness across the occupational structure suggests an altogether different explanation.

Table 1.1 shows sex differences in the 1930 unemployment rates for the broad set of occupational groups used by the Census Bureau at the time, and for a small selection of specific occupational groups characterized by high concentrations of workers of one sex. The table suggests that the female unemployment rate was lower than the male rate in 1930 because the occupations in which women were concentrated, occupations sex-typed "female," contracted less than those in which men were concentrated.

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that, accompanying the dramatic increases in the proportion of women in the paid workforce over the course of the twentieth century, there has been a consistent pattern of labor market segregation by sex. Everyone "knows" that typists and nurses are women, while steelworkers and truck drivers — and bosses — are men. Statistically, gender segregation is an extraordinarily stable feature of the occupational structure. An analysis of the detailed occupational data in the decennial censuses taken between 1900 and 1960 has shown that the amount of job segregation by sex varies remarkably little, with no fluctuations related to the fact that decennial censuses occurred at many different points in the business cycle. In any of those seven census years, about two-thirds of the women in the paid labor force would have had to change their occupation in order for their distribution in the paid labor force to approximate that of men.

This extraordinary phenomenon results from the fact that the increasing participation of women in the "male" sphere of paid work outside the home has been carefully delimited by an ideology linking that activity to their sex. The vast majority of women work in "women's jobs," occupations that frequently have some structural resemblance to their family role. They work in industries that produce commodities formerly manufactured by women in the home, such as clothing and processed food. In white-collar occupations, as secretaries, teachers, waitresses, nurses, and so forth, women perform such wifely and motherly functions as schedule management, ego-building, child socialization, cleaning up, caring for the ill, and serving as a sexual object. Even in instances where such structural resemblance to the traditional female role is absent, more often than not women's paid labor activity is sex-typed and set apart from that of men. The mere fact that a woman traditionally does a certain job is usually sufficient to stigmatize it as "women's work," to which members of the female sex are supposed to be "naturally" suited. Occupations in the "female labor market" are also characterized by low status and pay relative to men's jobs, reflecting the sexual inequality rooted in the family and basic to the organization of American society.


Excerpted from On Gender, Labor, and Inequality by Ruth Milkman. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, vii,
Abbreviations, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1 Women's Work and Economic Crisis: Some Lessons of the Great Depression, 13,
2 Redefining "Women's Work": The Sexual Division of Labor in the Auto Industry during World War II, 47,
3 Organizing the Sexual Division of Labor: Historical Perspectives on "Women's Work" and the American Labor Movement, 79,
4 Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Management's Postwar Purge of Women Automobile Workers, 119,
5 Women's History and the Sears Case, 139,
6 Gender and Trade Unionism in Historical Perspective, 164,
7 Union Responses to Workforce Feminization in the United States, 184,
8 Two Worlds of Unionism: Women and the Twenty-First Century Labor Movement, 205,
9 The Macrosociology of Paid Domestic Labor Co-authored with Ellen Reese and Benita Roth, 225,
10 Class Disparities, Market Fundamentalism, and Work-Family Policy: Lessons from California, 253,
11 Women's Work and Economic Crisis Revisited: Comparing the Great Recession and the Great Depression, 275,
Index, 301,

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