Perhaps the passage of the minimum wage law Florence Kelley fought so hard for in the early 1900’s weakened the gender construct of men as wage earners, as it recognized a woman’s need to support herself. “So long as women’s wages rest upon the assumption that every woman has a husband, father, brother or lover contributing to her support, so long these sinister incidents of women’s industrial employment…are inevitable” (Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 358). That weakening however, mostly came alongside legislation reinforcing the notion of female dependency. Minimum wage laws weren’t made ubiquitous until 1938, and weren’t approved by the Supreme court until 1942. Meanwhile, many decisions strengthening the notion of men as the inherently more capable worker and more naturally inclined worker were made by courts across the nation.
In Mueller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of blocking labor protections that were given to working women from men. The argument made during the course of the case was based upon sociological evidence stating that women were physiologically different than men, their children were dependent on them, and women held a special legal status.(Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 357) This ruling helped reinforce the gender construct of men being wage earners because women were treated as if they were less capable of handling the stress and rigors necessary for surviving in the sometimes brutal, taxing, and unregulated workforce. While labor regulations were desperately needed at the time, and it was a victory for women to have legal backing of regulation, this particular legislation said they only received their labor protections because they were less capable than males.
The use of sociology as an argument in law wasn’t inherently bad, even it was used to negative effect in the aforementioned court case. In fact, “Social science leveled the playing field… it offered tools of analysis that enhanced women’s ability to investigate economic and social change, speak for the welfare of the whole society, devise policy initiatives, and oversee their implementation“(Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 352). It did have the unfortunate effect of attaching “their civic activism even more securely to gender specific issues”(Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 352) though. One may argue that women who participated in some of the strikes protesting poor treatment and working conditions weren’t really entrenched in their gender role yet. They were young girls, ranging mostly from 14 to 20, with 25 year-olds being the elders. They were in a position to alter the political perception of women, and the female perception of politics because of the jobs they held. They were the ideal candidates for creating industrial feminism. I do know that the older of the protesters were at an age where marriage was an option, but I still feel they weren’t entrenched in that role yet.
The unionization of the white goods trades workers led to a growing sense of collective identity between women who came from very different ethnic and social backgrounds. Women were learning to deal with forceful attacks on their protests. Female protesters told officers who tried to detain or stop them that they had a constitutional right to protest, and took down the information of officers who failed to protect their civil liberties. Through telling their stories in court and to the press, women, “grew more confident of their speaking abilities and of their capacity to interpret the world” (Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 372). They were forming a political identity. These deviant women were mocked and compared to streetwalkers by employers. They were thus labeled as “bad girls”, and deemed unworthy of respect. This enraged the protesters, who resented being held to the same standard as women from a class from which they were not part of and reaped no benefit from. These women were attacked by police and company thugs for their strikes and picketing, and they often lost in court when prosecuting their attackers. Yet this whole process helped form the spirit of industrial feminism, and as Pauline Newman said “It was a terrible time, but…I’m glad I lived then” (Kerber, De Hart, Dayton, & Wu 380). Life was not easy for those women, but they were creating a new identity for women.
Kerber, Linda, et.al. Women’s America. 8th edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.