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

Author(s):Kessler-Harris, Alice
Reviewer(s):Jacobsen, Joyce P.

Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for

Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2001. xi + 374 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-503835-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce P. Jacobsen, Department of Economics, Wesleyan


Alice Kessler-Harris, Professor of American History at Columbia University,

has produced in this book an integrative piece of scholarship that brings

together cohesively a number of strands of her thinking that were mainly

implicit in earlier works. Its main theme is that the quest for “economic

citizenship,” i.e. “the independent status that provides the possibility of

full participation in the polity” (p. 5), characterizes U.S. women’s struggle

for equality in the labor market over the past century. This book lacks the

color of Kessler-Harris’s substantial history of women’s work in America,

Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States

(Oxford, 1982), which relied extensively and effectively on primary sources to

develop working women’s voices through the years. It also lacks the

provocativeness of her set of essays on gendered wage determination, A

Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences (University Press

of Kentucky, 1988), which provided an enjoyably combative counterweight to the

stereotypical economist’s view that wages are mainly determined by market

forces. Instead, it is a mature, balanced work that argues for use of a

consistently gendered focus in interpreting relevant parts of U.S. legislative

history (mainly those parts dealing with employment policy, including income

tax and social security legislation). The other main theme, that gender

stereotyping, or as Kessler-Harris characterizes it, the “gendered

imagination,” plays at all times a substantial role in employment policy

formulation, is developed convincingly. The book’s heavy reliance on the

substantial number of secondary sources now available for women’s economic

history in the United States, while necessary in order to develop this theme,

makes it less than a compelling read, but it is a serious book that should and

no doubt will receive wide readership among professional historians, whether

labor, social, political, or economic. Hopefully it will also reach a wider

audience; students of political science and public policy in general; current

and future policymakers in particular.

The book develops these themes through an approximately chronological series of

case studies of the political debates surrounding various federal initiatives.

These include unemployment insurance, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social

Security Act and its subsequent amendments, the development of the income tax

code (in particular with how it related to separate v. joint income taxation

for married couples), and Title VII. In each case, Kessler-Harris illustrates

the nature of the assumptions that various participants brought to the debate

in terms of what roles men and women do and should hold in the economy. In

addition, the roles in these debates of various women political leaders, both

feminist and afeminist, both political appointees and elected officials, are

scrutinized throughout, often with an eye as to how these women either echoed

the status quo, or tried to widen the views that the policymakers held

regarding what roles women play in the economy.

Narrow conceptualizations of workers and/or families led to large groups of

uncovered persons in several of these cases. In the case of unemployment

insurance, many “so-called marginal members of the labor force” (p. 95) were

not covered, leading to exclusion of a majority of wage-earning

African-American women (p. 96). In the case of Social Security, the view that

women would generally withdraw from the labor force upon marriage and have

limited future participation led to the belief that having their social

security payments determined by their husband’s contributions rather than by

their own contributions would be advantageous to them. But this led to a number

of problems in dealing with all the exceptional cases. For example, how should

young widows be treated, and should it matter whether they have children or

not, and if they remarry or not? And what about widowers? As Kessler-Harris

points out, the 1939 amendments “did not extend benefits to the surviving

children of covered women or to aged husbands, aged widowers, or widowed

fathers of small children. Thus fatherless children might learn the sweet

lesson of continuing parental support beyond the grave, and aging wives would

continue to be dependent, though on phantom earnings. But motherless children

and aged husbands without resources received quite another lesson in

citizenship rights” (p. 141).

Kessler-Harris also considers how implementation proceeded in these various

cases, and how various problems with the policies came to the forefront during

implementation, leading in many cases to policy modifications. Chapter six

provides a particularly penetrating discussion of the early history of the

EEOC. No one expected five thousand complaints to be filed with the EEOC in its

first eight months of operation, let alone that over a third of them would be

complaints of sex discrimination. Hence the implementation process led to

additional information on which to base future policy. It is also clear from

this discussion that an implementing agency may end up being the arbiter when

competing interest groups clash. Early procedures and remedies were applied

quite differently by the EEOC for minorities than for women (p. 278), and

affirmative action programs focused initially on race rather than gender (p.


The six-page Epilogue, starting with a discussion of the EEOC v. Sears case and

Kessler-Harris’s role in it (discussed in greater degree in her 1988 article,

“Academic Freedom and Expert Witnessing,” Texas Law Review 67, no. 2:

429-440), and ending with Justice Antonin Scalia’s minority opinion in a 1987

reverse discrimination case, is the most thought-provoking part of the book.

Both of these matters relate (in sparse economists’ terms) to whether

occupational gender segregation is viewed as a supply side or a demand side

phenomenon, and how much this continuing phenomenon is viewed as a limitation

on our imagination as to what work roles men and women might assume. Indeed,

the continuing centrality of occupational gender segregation as a defining

characteristic of the workforce is one of the central puzzles for social

science to unravel. Modern U.S. society provides plenty of fuel for the

argument that gendered imaginations still predominate.

Whether a gendered imagination indicates lack of imagination, a tendency to

believe received knowledge and tradition rather than statistics, or a willful

wishing that gender roles were clear-cut and stable over time is not clear. One

might argue that the history presented in this book is the history of how

governmental policymaking has moved away from legislation aimed at the norm to

legislation aimed at covering the exceptions. This movement has been furthered

by the more visible heterogeneity in American society and by the increasing

availability of reliable statistics (which help to make clear that

heterogeneity exists in a way that earlier policymakers did not have access

to). However, this book lends a strong argument for the importance of diversity

in government so that diverse views will be represented (even out of proportion

to their weight in society as a whole) in policy-formulating bodies.

Joyce P. Jacobsen is Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University. Her

publications include The Economics of Gender (Blackwell, second edition,


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII