Posted by: kokoro | 25th Mar, 2009

Cobble, The Other Woman’s Movement

Cobble writes about women working towards first-class economic and social citizenship for wage-earning women. She describes the labor women as “labor feminists” because they recognized and fought against sex discrimination. Also, the needs of the working-class were at the core of their principles, and they used the labor movement as a vehicle for bettering the lives of the majority of women.

Cobble describes the women’s labor movement as rising from Progressive Era “social feminism,” with a belief in social reforms. However, many labor women were at odds with “equal rights” feminists, because labor feminists felt that gender differences should be accommodated and that equality should be based on humanity not sameness with men.

The rise of labor feminism, Cobble points out, came from an increase of more women into paid work, WWII labor practices and government support and the resulting political and economic power of labor organization, and the growing power of women in the labor movement. In the years following the Depression, labor feminists fought for the end of sex discrimination, equal pay, a living or family wage, the revaluing of “women’s jobs,” shorter hours, and social supports from state and employers for childbearing and child rearing.

Cobble starts by describing the growth, and causes of that growth, of women unionists after the 1930s. Early on, few women held positions at the bargaining table or in official leadership, but they had powerful influence over decisions. In the 1940s women began to take on more leadership positions, and labor women focused on equality and social justice in many industries, including textiles, packing, electricity, communications, and automobiles. Cobble also describes these women as “labor liberals” because they were often more egalitarian and populist than many New Deal liberals. They took on a dual strategy of reform in the public, in the form of social welfare by the government, and private sector, employment practices, through legislation and collective bargaining. However, in the 1940s labor feminists made little headway despite gaining male allies in leftist unions. Resistance was strong from conservative employers and politicians, and well as from ERA feminists.

In the following chapters Cobble examines labor feminists’ attempts to change state and employer policies in the 1940s and 1950s. Labor women worked to secure the right of employment for all women no matter their martial status, race, class, etc., to upgrade “women’s jobs” instead of simply moving women into “men’s jobs,” and to gain equal pay for women through “equal pay for comparable work” laws. They also fought for a higher minimum wage for all, a living wage, for social supports for working pregnant women and mothers, and the recognition for the value of women’s unpaid work at home.

Cobble continues by focusing on the intellectual and organizational changes in labor feminism from the late 1950s to the present-ish. In the 1960s, the federal government extended New Deal practices and put an end to unfair sex discrimination, as well as other kinds of discrimination, in employment. Labor feminists also helped to lead the new woman’s movement at the end of the ‘60s. With younger leadership, the movement took on new issues, such as dissolving the sexual division of labor. However, old concerns remained important, particularly issues of childcare and wages.

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