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
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
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).