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United Apart: Gender and the Rise of Craft Unionism

Author(s):DeVault, Ileen A.
Reviewer(s):Jacoby, Daniel

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Ileen A. DeVault, United Apart: Gender and the Rise of Craft Unionism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. xi + 244 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-2768-1; $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8014-8926-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Daniel Jacoby, Labor Studies, University of Washington.

Ilene DeVault chronicles forty cross-gender strikes between 1886 and 1903, a period that spans the fall of the Knights of Labor and the rise of the American Federation of Labor, to show how craft unions dealt with women and others they designated ‘”less skilled.”

She has deliberately chosen strikes that reflect the multiple influences that contributed to women’s experiences in four industries; shoe and boot making, cigar making, the clothing industry, and tailoring. Readers are made aware of the effect of racial and ethnic identities, evolving technology, disparate locations in the American industrial core and periphery, and a variety of relationships between women strikers, their families and communities. The large number of variables involved necessarily makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

The book’s most provocative thesis is that craft unionism was based on a “decidedly masculinist definition of ‘skill.'” In support of her thesis, we learn of significant instances in which the appeal for striker solidarity was based upon gendered understandings that invoked “manliness,” or “fraternity” among “union brothers,” creating a negative solidarity based upon the “specter of replacement by ‘mere women.'” Though cross-gender support might be sought in strikes, when unity was achieved women nonetheless stood apart from the avant-garde of labor, excluded by craft unions’ “social construction of skill as an inherently gendered quality” (p. 103).

Despite her detailed accounts, it remains difficult to discern exactly what is meant by this “social construction.” If the issue was the quite real female exclusion from craft entry, it is not clear why strikes should be the unit of analysis. Issues of craft were usually peripheral: Instead, the major objectives of these strikes were typically improved working conditions.

DeVault’s description of the mule spinners’ union, whose members argued that strikes were best won when conducted by workers whose skill made them difficult to replace, appears to offer the most explicit or well-defined link between strikes and craft (p. 83). Yet, given the advances of technology that affected virtually all the crafts discussed, the pursuit of occupation-based unionization tells us less about the “social construction” of skill than it does about its technological debasement. A reader of this book might as readily conclude that over time we repeatedly see the undermining of highly skilled workers, like the male mule-spinners, in ways that made their separation from other textile workers — whether less skilled or differently gendered — less and less tenable.

It is the investment in skill that legitimates workers’ moral claim that craft is property worthy of protection. If we are to discern the extent to which skill is socially constructed to the detriment of women, we need to know what limited entry into specific crafts, how women acquired their skills, and the extent of the investment (economic, social and psychological) necessary to achieve skill. In this regard DeVault’s work successfully documents debates among cigar workers and tailors that help approach these deeper understandings of whether and how the gendered relations of homework had differential impacts upon men and women.

In the late 1880s tailors attempted to restrict union membership to those employed in their employer shops, omitting does those who plied their trade at home. Here is a clear example of a socially constructed division involving gendered spheres that disadvantaged wives and children involved in this trade. Yet, the significance of the proposed rule is not clear, not only because it does not appear to have been broadly successful, but also because there were at least two issues that extended beyond those of gender alone. The first of these was that homework posed serious difficulties for labor unions that attempted to monitor and defend labor standards. Second, if, as was contended, the women involved in homework were akin to helpers and apprentices, then this debate belongs at least as much to the perennial question of regulating craft entry as it does to the gender question. Significantly, we do learn that some male tailors argued they did not fear well-trained female tailors. Perhaps, this explains why, in addition to serving one’s time, at least some tailors’ locals required completion of a masterpiece as a demonstration of their skill. Clearly, there was a gendered element to the discrimination against household production, but the evidence presented is not yet sufficient to claim that craft was socially constructed in ways that denigrated women’s skills.

The story of cigar workers’ battle against tenement work is better known, and likewise appeals to issues of location that crisscross with those of gender. Tenement labor was broadly decried as a form of sweated family labor. Thus, the refusal on the part of some cigar workers to permit tenement workers into their union clearly disenfranchised women. Yet, as DeVault shows, this tenement labor was driven in significant measure by new technologies that had already begun to undermine traditional skills. The fact is that the craft of cigar making was in a retreat that no appeal to cross gender solidarity could, or would, stop.

Thus, we are left with the question what significance should be attached to the language of manliness. Surely, appeals to brotherhood do, as Alice Kessler-Harris suggests, create a “gendered imagination” that proved socially limiting. Yet, for the industries presented — particularly for this period — one senses we are not witnessing the “rise of craft unionism,” so much as its reconstruction into industrial unionism. If it is DeVault’s intent to show that appeals to masculine solidarity based upon the early republican ideal of independence were inappropriately carried over to the waged labor in the late nineteenth century in ways that inhibited solidarity and industrial unionism, she is successful. If, however, her purpose is to redefine the way in which we think about craft and skill, that project is not yet complete. Nonetheless, DeVault’s painstaking research gives us much food for thought and therefore this book will be of keen interest to like-minded scholars who seek to mine the data on available women and trades unions.

Daniel Jacoby holds the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies for 2004-06 at the University of Washington. He teaches in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington, Bothell. Author of Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of American Labor (1998, M.E. Sharpe), his current investigations include the effects upon students of the contingent academic labor system, how law and labor influenced American education and vocational training, and the consequences of organizing faculty by disciplines.

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