A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s By Nancy Woloch
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, 337 pp., $39.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Turk

Nancy Woloch has written the definitive history of sex-specific labor legislation, a cornerstone of gendered public policy in the twentieth century. As the Progressive-era activists of the late nineteenth century positioned the state to protect workers from the ravages of industrial capitalism, they adopted a strategy that rooted heightened workplace standards for women in the logic of their inferiority. In the decades that followed, each state established some limits to women’s working conditions, hours of labor, wages, and more. These laws are Woloch’s main characters, but she also profiles many others: reformers, attorneys and judges, and state and local officials. These actors both conspired and collided as they debated whether women workers needed special protections and what the government’s role should be in labor relationships.

The first several chapters of A Class By Herself analyze the origins and early growth of state labor laws for women. Turn-of-the-century activists, inspired by European workers’ legal victories, argued that state governments should limit workplace dangers by exercising their prerogative to safeguard citizens’ well being. But judges frustrated their efforts to establish sex-neutral protections, instead preserving workers’ right to labor unencumbered by a so-called meddling state. Advocates responded by adjusting their claims to frame working women as especially defenseless. By defining the sexes against each other, protectionists found allies in state and federal courts. They also carved out a new sphere of authority for female reformers, who were denied full membership in the wider “legal fraternity,” writes Woloch. She spotlights some of the conflicts over sex-specific labor laws among workers, managers and reformers that began bubbling up all over: in “a Lowell mill”; “a Chicago box factory”; “a Utah mine”; and “a New York book bindery.”

The watershed US Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon earns its own chapter. Woloch deftly avoids the pull of abstract arguments about sex equality and difference that often frame its analysis. Instead, she places the 1908 contest over an Oregon provision limiting female laundry workers’ hours within its social and legal contexts. As Woloch explains, the state’s attorneys countered the “conservative ‘legal fiction’” that worker and employer could bargain as equals with the “countervailing legal fiction” of females’ innate dependency. In accepting this argument, the Court placed woman “in a class by herself” and signaled its new willingness to consider the law’s practical effects. Muller thus narrowed reformers’ options at the same time that it opened a path forward. Advocates adjusted to this new legal environment with a “commitment to ‘difference’” that “hardened over time,” explains Woloch.

Muller accelerated the spread of state labor laws for women. The book’s central chapters analyze the years between the provisions’ “golden age” in the 1910s and the beginning of their decline a half-century later. As courts began to affirm restrictions to women’s hours and working conditions, the US Department of Labor established the Woman in Industry Service—later the Women’s Bureau—to promote and monitor the restrictions. But the laws’ weak conceptual foundation rendered them less entrenched than they appeared. Some federal courts found defects in Muller’s edifice, and after 1916, the activist National Woman’s Party countered the rise of gendered protections with a push for strict sex equality. As these equal rights feminists sparred with the social feminists who acknowledged practical differences between men and women, Woloch argues, both sides lost momentum.

The New Deal and World War II undermined the protectionists’ position. The sex-neutral workplace provisions established in the 1930s tended to benefit men and diminish the viability of sex-specific laws. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 found legal authority for new minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime regulations in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. But advocates knew that interstate commerce “was not a gender-neutral term,” writes Woloch: most women worked in localized jobs that the new law would not reach. Policymakers relaxed gendered protections during World War II, which aroused the suspicion “that women workers didn’t need them, want them, or appreciate them,” Woloch explains. States tended to restore sex-specific provisions at the war’s end, but now these were part of a broader campaign to deliver male-typed jobs to returning veterans. As the logic sustaining feminist arguments for gendered protections lost its power, the laws’ surest allies began to defect. Progressive-era activist groups dwindled, their mission less attractive amid a postwar campaign for workplace equality driven by the Women’s Bureau, some state governments, and many labor union women.

As the book’s concluding chapters explain, sex-specific labor protections could not weather the shifting political currents of the 1960s. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women supported gendered distinctions in its 1963 report, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened them. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), after several years of uncertainty, interpreted Title VII’s federal guarantee of workplace sex equality to invalidate state provisions that treated women as a special class. Rejecting protectionists’ notions of rights rooted in sex difference, the EEOC applied to women the mainstream civil rights movement’s conception of workplace equality, which prescribed attacking racial distinctions by expanding opportunity. Pressure from both the courts and feminists coerced this federal policy realignment against the backdrop of women’s increased waged labor, families’ growing need for two incomes, and structural economic transformation.

A Class By Herself closes with a critical analysis of the equal rights framework that survived these struggles. An overly blunt instrument, formal legal equality has not delivered parity to women. Late twentieth-century battles over workers’ reproductive lives reveal that strict sex equality has extinguished the potential for gender-based accommodations. In addition to awkwardly covering pregnant workers under protections designed for disabled people, equality, defined as nondistinction between the sexes, has offered little to women in “the lowest-level and most precarious jobs,” writes Woloch. In particular, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which grants some workers up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to attend to domestic emergencies, traps working-class women between providing life-giving care and earning life-sustaining wages. Sex-based protections were always a troubled remedy for laboring women’s problems. But policymakers have not come much closer to solving those problems in the age of equality.

Woloch’s volume distills previous scholarship that has emphasized sex-specific labor laws’ “double-edged” character: their benefits only ever compounded women’s workplace disadvantages. The book’s main strengths lie in its scope and detail. Bringing remarkable clarity to a complex story, A Class By Herself examines the laws themselves, their practical effects for working women, the groups and institutions that promoted them, and the clashes they provoked among women’s advocates. Woloch blends biographical and legal analysis without losing sight of the broader social movement and political circumstances. Complementing this hybrid approach, the book balances local and national components, explaining how gendered notions of citizenship shaped debates on the limits of federalism.

A Class By Herself also draws many previously obscure characters into view. Woloch attends to well-known reformers such as Florence Kelley, Louis Brandeis, and Mary Van Kleeck. But she also unearths lesser-known figures such as Caroline J. Gleason, an Oregon Consumers League researcher who assembled information about Portland women workers’ lives on and off the job. Gleason and her team went undercover, posing as ordinary laborers in the workplaces they were investigating. They calculated the costs of living in area boarding houses and purchasing clothing in local department stores. These prices, when compared to women’s average wages, provoked Gleason and her team to label Portland industries as “parasitic in character.” Woloch reminds us that each of these players, whether familiar or heretofore unknown, had distinct motives: lawyers burnished their authority, employers tended their profits, and advocates buttressed their class status.

Woloch refuses to evaluate labor laws for women by painting in broad strokes. Instead, she highlights the contingency in their story. As the book reveals, the history of state protective labor laws “veers closer than most to the accidental, unanticipated, and unpredictable. It is a story of close calls and near misses, false hopes and unintended consequences.” Reformers’ two-part defense—which sought to compensate for women’s labor force disadvantages while serving as an “entering wedge” to force sex-neutral worker accommodations—was not doomed from its inception. Rather, this strategy lost traction as its context shifted during Depression-era campaigns that drew from gendered strategies while weakening their rationale, wartime demands to abandon precedent in light of emergencies, and postwar economic and political transformations.

Considering the number of moving pieces Woloch must juggle, A Class By Herself is a remarkably coherent account. Still, she might have added another layer of analysis by presenting a more nuanced look at working women’s opinions of gendered protections. Beyond several pages on “Working Women’s Voices,” the author dedicates more attention to the policy arguments these laws inspired than to their reception by the women who toiled under them. Drawing from Dorothy Sue Cobble’s pathbreaking work, including The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (2004), Woloch explains that union women, in particular, understood the trade-offs bound up in gendered laws because they reasoned from experience as well as principle. But millions of other women worked without the unions’ protections or constraints. How did they make sense of gendered provisions, and how did the arc of their support or opposition match up to their unionized counterparts’? While questions of class drive the book, an emphasis on a wider cross-section of workers’ relationships to sex-specific labor laws could have illuminated these laws’ role in gendered racial formation.

Woloch’s volume offers major contributions to the fields of women’s, gender, legal, political, and twentieth-century American history. Bringing much-needed insight and synthesis to a key piece of our recent past, A Class By Herself is also a cautionary tale on several fronts. The book highlights the danger of trading varied and imperfect reforms for top-down coherence and reveals just how much advocates have forfeited in accepting narrow sex-based comparisons as the terrain for gender justice campaigns.

Katherine Turk is assistant professor of History and adjunct assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace, was published in 2016.

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