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The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare, 1890-1930

Author(s):Mandell, Nikki
Reviewer(s):Stanger, Howard R.

Published by EH.Net and H-Business (June 2002)

Nikki Mandell, The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate

Welfare, 1890-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

x +208 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2685-5, $ 19.95 (paper),


Reviewed for H-BUSINESS and EH.NET by Howard R. Stanger, Canisius College,

Department of Management and Marketing.

In “The Corporation as Family,” historian Nikki Mandell (Wisconsin-Whietwater)

argues that welfare work was a more widespread and significant approach to

wrestling with the “labor problem” beginning around 1890 than previously

thought. Using a gendered analysis of the welfare workers themselves, Mandell

focuses on the content and functioning of welfare programs. These workers

promised that welfare work would ameliorate labor conflict and recast the

employment relationship into a harmonious labor-management partnership.

Mandell contends that employers used the ideal Victorian family as the model

for changing workers’ behaviors. Within this framework executives and owners

would play the role of “corporate fathers,” welfare workers would serve as

“corporate mothers,” and employees would be treated as “corporate children” in

need of guidance and preparation for their roles in the new business

partnership. Welfare workers tried unsuccessfully to reform both corporate

children and, especially, their fathers. “Despite their willingness to

experiment with welfare work, employers never fully committed themselves to

(it)*They remained more interested in controlling their workers than in drawing

them into a cooperative partnership. They supported welfare work because it

promised a more disciplined workforce” (p. 101).

At its peak in the mid-1920s, roughly 80 per cent of the nation’s largest

companies practiced some form of welfare work. Welfare work impacted millions

of workers-notably women and immigrants– in industries such as department

stores, telephone and insurance companies, textile and machinery manufacturers,

and iron and steel.

Companies carefully tailored welfare work to both men’s and women’s expected

roles at home and at work. Good programs promoted health and safety in the

workplace and in the home. They also included a variety of educational,

recreational, and social activities, as well as financial programs. To tie male

workers to their firms over the long run, employers experimented with profit

sharing and stock and bonus plans. Women’s financial benefits were more

short-term, such as Christmas and vacation savings plans. Employers also used

financial plans to inculcate in workers middle-class habits of thrift. In all

cases, employers determined eligibility and could terminate plans unilaterally.

This system of welfare work provided an alternative to repression and

benevolent paternalism (e.g., company towns). These approaches seemed less

effective in an environment where large corporations were under intense public

scrutiny and where owners lost intimate contact with their employees. Moreover,

paternalism created dependent workers who desired their independence from

management. For employers, the move toward welfare work was guided by pragmatic

business considerations.

Welfare workers, notably women such as NCR’s Lena Harvey and Elizabeth Briscoe

of Bancroft & Sons, helped establish the model of the Victorian family. The

real Victorian family performed a dual mission: to train children to take their

place in industrial society, and to provide a home that would be a refuge from

the harsh realities of industrialism. Men, women and children played distinct

but interdependent roles. Victorian men were resolute, unsentimental,

ambitious, aggressive, and highly competitive. For them, success meant

leadership status and control over others, especially in the economic arena.

Women were self-effacing, compassionate, nurturing, and timid. Their job was to

create a harmonious home environment and instill moral values and habits of

discipline and deference in their children. Skilled in domestic matters,

Victorian women furnished a home that reflected the family’s sophistication and

their husband’s status. Regarding the children, “(w)hile male employees were

expected to become budding Horatio Algers, welfare work tried to groom female

employees for the role of Mrs. Alger” (p. 53).

The desire to pattern labor relations after the Victorian family model was

rooted in the turn-of-the century debates over the “crisis” in the family as

many families, especially working-class and immigrant ones, failed to live up

to the idealized Victorian model. These families also seemed the most

vulnerable to the changes wrought by urbanization and industrialization, and

were targeted by welfare workers.

Men comprised a significant portion of welfare workers (the extent is not

known), but Mandell highlights the contributions of the most significant women.

Regardless of their heterogeneous backgrounds, welfare managers’ duties and

responsibilities were similar to the Victorian mother’s. In this sense, then,

Mandell contends that welfare work should not be considered paternalism, but

rather “corporate maternalism” because executives were relieved of the more

feminine aspects of the system and focused instead on employee discipline. As

she notes, “If the corporation was indeed a family, there could be no systemic

or permanent class conflict between labor and capital” (p. 46).

The largest task for welfare workers was to prepare employees for their role in

the corporate Victorian family. Many of their efforts began in the home since

harmony in the workplace depended upon workers exercising the same middle-class

values and habits that built security and stability at home. In fact, home

visits formed the earliest and most basic part of welfare programs. Proponents

of welfare work believed that the root causes of the labor problem were the

shortcomings of workers themselves. Workers and their advocates targeted big

corporations. Welfare managers faced two daunting obstacles: mediating the

mutual antagonisms between labor and management, and creating a legitimate

place for themselves in the masculine corporate hierarchy. To do this, they had

to create a new definition of the professional business manager-the corporate

staffer. The latter is given significant attention by the author and stands as

one of her most important contributions to the study of welfare capitalism.

To succeed, welfare workers had to establish the appropriate qualities that

would gain acceptance with executives. Male welfare managers borrowed from the

Social Gospel movement, which offered a “new man” who, like Jesus, expressed

his masculinity through service to others, self-sacrifice, and cooperation. He

also preserved the masculine qualities such as rationality, initiative and

strength. While men feminized their manhood, women welfare managers jettisoned

their moorings to the social housekeeping movement’s female moral authority but

kept necessary qualities such as compassion, nurturing, and self-sacrifice.

They also had to demonstrate “executive ability,” logic, pragmatism, and a firm

temperament. Male and female roles merged to create a more androgynous welfare

manager eager to serve the needs of business.

Welfare managers used the methods and language of efficiency and system to

reform labor relations, and demanded centralized control over all labor

matters. Mandell points to an ironic situation that welfare workers created in

their attempt to gain legitimacy: that systematization and efficiency were not

really conducive to the intimacy and nurturing needed to humanize business.

Despite making claims of having unique business skills required to mediate

between labor and management, they had a difficult time convincing executives

and production managers to heed their advice.

Employers were unwilling to extend welfare managers authority over anything but

“maternal” corporate functions. Even though economic benefits were part of the

reform equation, executives restricted the economic partnership by determining

eligibility requirements, especially measures of loyalty. Employers used

financial benefit plans because they believed they would build ambition and

foster manly independence in their employees. They showed little interest in

providing workers with short-term economic security, an important goal of both

welfare managers and workers. In addition, employers and production managers

were unwilling to cede total control over labor matters to welfare workers,

with whom they fought on many occasions.

Welfare managers also experienced obstacles when dealing with workers who

rejected the assumption that they were equal partners in the proposed

cooperative business enterprise. Working-class men’s sense of masculinity

derived from the immediacy of their job conditions. For them, skill, physical

strength and stamina, and a cooperative ethos translated into higher wages,

manly independence, and the ability to support a family. Working-class women

sought the freedom to interact freely with men on and off the job. They

resented the strictures of welfare workers’ oversight. Working-class men and

women were suspicious of both their corporate fathers’ and mothers’ motives and

negotiated the terms under which they would participate in welfare activities.

Strikes and other manifestations of labor discontent occurred in welfare firms

offering evidence that workers’ needs sometimes went unmet. In general,

business had failed to address the underlying causes of conflict: better wages,

shorter hours, stable employment, the failure to curb supervisors’ autocratic

control, and onerous labor policies.

But argues Mandell, welfare work also was an internally flawed system because

the familial roles prescribed to employers, welfare managers, and employees

proved impossible to replicate in the corporation. By WW I, as employers’

interest declined, and as larger economic, social and political forces

challenged the Victorian ideal itself, the system of welfare work passed out of

favor. Swept away along with the system of welfare work was the central role

that women played in it. By the early 1920s, only a few women held managerial

positions. Why were women cast aside in favor of male personnel managers?

As part of the ongoing managerial reform movement, personnel management

promised to assist employers in selecting prospective employees who had the

requisite values and skills. Personnel management also attempted to keep

employees satisfied and sell the virtues of the company. Employee

representation plans (ERPs) also blossomed during the 1920s. Similar to

personnel management but less widespread, ERPs also were likely to be found in

large companies. By the early 1920s, the welfare system seemed archaic in the

modern world of managerial capitalism, yet welfare work remained-and even

expanded-a vital component of both personnel management and ERPs.

There was no inherent reason why women would become marginalized. However,

Mandell locates the root of their exile to the federal government beginning

during WW I when it made labor relations a top priority. It required all

federal contractors to employ personnel managers. Along with the Taylor

Society, the government advocated training courses for personnel managers. The

first one was set up in the spring of 1918 at the University of Rochester and

soon followed at other major universities. The National Association of

Employment Managers formed in May 1918 to promote the professionalism of

personnel managers but it excluded women. In general, “Men seemed to better

match the profile of the business manager, especially as the personnel movement

redefined labor relations as a masculine occupation. Men also had access to the

labor relations courses offered by university schools of business” (p. 151),

where women were excluded for admission. Moreover, by the early 1920s, women’s

roles in business narrowed to clerical and sales positions.

Despite valiant efforts by key women welfare managers, they lost their

leadership positions in corporate labor relations by the mid-1920s. Yet welfare

work left an ambiguous legacy: “Although women had pioneered the field and had

called for the kind of systematization and centralization that was the hallmark

of personnel management, their greatest experience lay in welfare work. As

welfare work became a subdivision of personnel management, welfare workers

became subordinate staff within those departments” (p. 153).

“The Corporation as Family” makes an important contribution to the literature

on welfare capitalism. While it covers familiar terrain in its descriptions of

welfare programs in well-known firms, it is novel for its focus on the welfare

managers and their largely unsuccessful struggles to gain respect from

employers and employees alike, and establish relevancy in the emergent

corporate bureaucracies.

A few unanswered questions remain, however. First, How did welfare work and

unionism interact apart from bouts of labor unrest? Were the experiences of

union workers different from unorganized workers? Did unions negotiate the

terms of welfare work? If so, were union workers more satisfied with the

offerings than nonunion workers? Second, How did women later regain prominence

in the field of personnel and human resources? At what point and why did this

shift occur? These, of course, are very minor issues that do not detract from

Mandell’s fine book.

Howard Stanger is Associate Professor of Management and Marketing at Canisius

College in Buffalo, NY. His recent published works include an overview of labor

relations in the newspaper industry since 1975, and the creation of a corporate

culture in the Larkin Company of Buffalo, NY, 1875-1907. He is currently

working on the history of Larkin’s welfare practices, and a textbook on

employee and labor relations (with Raymond Hogler).

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII