Women’s Movement and Women Workers, Post-1945
Summary and Keywords
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.
Legacy of World War II for Contemporary Feminism
By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, advocates for working women were well established in government positions. The Women’s Trade Union League’s (WTUL) leader and former shirtwaist worker Pauline Newman was an investigator for New York’s Faculty Investigating Committee, Frances Perkins of the National Consumers League became U.S. secretary of labor in 1933, and Mary Anderson, a boot worker and WTUL leader, became head of the U.S. Women’s Bureau, a permanent agency in the U.S. Department of Labor, upon its creation in 1920 and remained until 1944. Although the women’s movement ebbed after the achievement of women’s suffrage with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women labor activists and reformers continued to seek ways to improve working women’s status. This took on added importance when women flooded into war plants to take the jobs of men conscripted into military service. Nearly 11 million women held paid jobs in 1940. That figure jumped to 19.5 million by 1945.1
Historians have noted that this increase, while significant, was part of the steady climb in women’s workforce participation since 1900—about 6 percent each decade—as well as a reflection of the improved economic conditions following the Great Depression. Still, the arrival of “Rosie the Riveter,” as the iconic woman worker became known in popular culture, was unprecedented since 75 percent were married women and 36 percent had young children. Black women workers’ unequal status continued, but about 20 percent of these workers who were in domestic jobs moved into positions white women had vacated to take “men’s” jobs. Some even found employment alongside white women. This led to spontaneous, large-scale work stoppages known as “hate strikes.”2
The war years did not mark the emergence of what became known as “second-wave feminism.” Indeed, factory managers recast “men’s” jobs as lower-paying “women’s” jobs in many cases. With the war’s end, some three million women lost their jobs, often in violation of seniority guarantees. Returning veterans stepped back into their pre-war positions, and some men who had not served in the military joined them. Many women, understanding their jobs to be acts of patriotic service, accepted their furloughs. Other women, especially those who were the heads of households, protested their displacement. They found few allies in a nation that was unsympathetic to their plight. The U.S. Women’s Bureau and government economic policy makers focused their energies on the modest goals of retraining and directing women into jobs men to which men did not apply.3
Still, gender relations had been altered by World War II, albeit in ways that would crystallize only two decades later. The practice of assigning specific jobs to men and women by gender was undermined by the wholesale recruiting of women as war workers. This revealed the artificiality of job typing by sex. In the short term, the rise in the number of women in labor’s ranks led many unions, such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), to establish “women’s departments.” These departments proved to be a valuable venue for women unionists to study their economic status. They pushed for childcare, flexible hours, leadership opportunities, and equal pay. As part of a labor movement whose peak membership represented 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce in the early 1950s, they were well placed to influence government and corporate policies. This was made manifest during the war when the National War Labor Board in 1942 required that firms holding government contracts pay equal wages for workers doing identical work. Their “General Order No. 16” marked the first time a governmental body mandated gender equality. This equal-pay demand would become a central part of second-wave feminism in coming decades.4
Working Women’s Issues in Postwar America
The massive layoffs and demotions of women workers in the immediate postwar years gave way to an equally significant phenomenon in the late 1940s: the steady rise in the proportion and number of women in the paid labor force. With their employment came changes in the character of the workplace, family life, and social norms. In 1940 women made up 25 percent of the workforce; that figure climbed to 30.3 percent in 1950 and 41.5 percent in 1960. Women entering the workforce, even those with young children, tended to remain there. The percentage of mothers in the workforce with children between the ages of six and seventeen shot up to 41.5 percent in 1963 from 30.3 percent in 1950 (a 37 percent increase). Women workers, drawn to the workplace due to necessity or contributing to maintaining a middle-class lifestyle, reported satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from their paid labor. Although labor statistics on race and gender are scarce, the data indicate that African American women’s participation in low-paying employment sectors declined: in agricultural labor their participation dropped from 16 percent to 8 percent of their total workforce share. They began to work in higher-paying jobs like machine operator, where their participation jumped from 4 to 16 percent. In general, women workers began to bristle at protectionist measures that prevented them from earning overtime pay and working in higher-paying “men’s” jobs where automation eliminated the so-called heavy elements that hitherto excluded them.5
Advocates for women workers in the 1950s and early 1960s participated in a loosely formed coalition sponsored by the U.S. Women’s Bureau, called the “Women’s Bureau coalition.” It consisted of women and men in elected and appointed union positions as well as representatives of liberal interest groups, some of which had their origins in the Progressive Movement. Religious-based organizations and business and professional-organization representatives participated as well. Union representatives spearheaded most of the coalition’s efforts. Some of these activists came from the rank-and-file, while others held college degrees and came from middle-class families. These unionists included Esther Peterson and Gladys Dickason from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW); Mary Callahan and Gloria Johnson from the IUE; Mildred Jeffrey, Caroline Davis, and Lillian Hatcher of the UAW; Sylvia Gottlieb and Catherin Conway of the Communication Workers of America; and Katherine Ellickson, then a staff member in the Washington office of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the umbrella organization of many industrial unions.6
Most union women in the Women’s Bureau Coalition came from industrial unions where women constituted anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of their labor organization’s membership (women made up 16 percent of total union membership in 1950). In these unions women worked in greater numbers near men and had more firsthand knowledge of the better-paying jobs they held. Black women participated as well: in addition to the IUE’s Gloria Johnson, Addie Wyatt was a member of the United Packinghouse Workers, and Gloria Johnson hailed from the UAW. Women in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the other large labor federation, found their male leaders less interested in promoting “women’s issues.” Many AFL unions were exclusionary, skilled trades and construction unions whose histories were marked by discriminatory practices and an aversion to social legislation. Still, some AFL women leaders joined the Women’s Bureau Coalition. They were from unions with a large female membership. These included Myra Wolfgang of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers (HERE) and Evelyn Dubrow of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers (ILGWU).7
The Women’s Bureau Coalition rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the only viable option to protective laws at the time. First introduced in 1923, the ERA’s chief supporters were from the National Woman’s Party (NWP), an organization of upper-class professional women. They argued that a formal constitutional guarantee of equality was necessary for improving women’s economic status. Unionists and their allies countered that the measure was a naïve, even cruel, response to the plight of working women. The specific problem, as one opponent of the amendment wrote in the mid-1940s, was that it failed “to take into account that there are physical and functional differences between men and women. These differences require special considerations, such as laws prohibiting the employment of women in the mines.” In 1945, a coalition of forty-three organizations of unions along with the WTUL, League of Women Voters, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Catholic and Jewish women’s associations, united to defeat the “Unequal Rights Amendment,” as they called it.8
Despite their steadfast rejection of the ERA, the Women’s Bureau Coalition and unions did not advance new protectionist measures during this period. Instead, they looked for ways to allow women to remain in the paid workforce. These included tax exemption for child-care expenses, and tax deductions for the costs of household workers and nursery-school expenses. So too did they advocate for affordable housekeeping services, after-school programs, community restaurants, and convenient shopping facilities. Their major legislative effort was an equal-pay bill. Bureau director Mary Anderson crafted the first version at the end of World War II. In her version, she called for nondiscrimination in wages paid for “comparable worth” rather than “equal work.” It would take nearly twenty years, however, for Anderson’s proposal to become law, and another decade for her call for “comparable worth” to gain significant support. Equal pay, rather than comparable worth, best reflected the dominant mood of postwar United States. It promised individual justice, helped increase economic growth by putting more money in some women’s pockets, and reduced potential workplace friction by maintaining occupational segregation.9
Public opinion favored equal-pay legislation, but conservative politicians balked, viewing the measure as a pro-labor initiative. Reflecting the mood of many in the business community as well, these legislators defeated equal-pay bills in successive legislative sessions. The NWP opposed an equal-pay law as well, maintaining that the ERA was sufficient for addressing inequality. While most of the Women’s Bureau Coalition joined the “National Committee on Equal Pay,” some of its professional women’s groups did not take up membership. During the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, Alice Leopold, the Women’s Bureau director, offered feeble support for the legislation. Leopold failed to provide data on the prevalence of unequal pay scales, information that many in Congress requested before backing the bill. In addition, Leopold endorsed a conservative bill that did not allow government officials to issue “cease and desist” orders against guilty employers, nor did it include a blacklist provision for guilty employers as the labor bill provided.10
More than any other advocate, Esther Peterson shepherded the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, first as a lobbyist for the ACW and then for the newly merged AFL-CIO in 1955, and finally from her position as U.S. Women’s Bureau head. In the end, equal-pay proponents ceded much to conservatives: “equal work” replaced “comparable work,” and employers with fewer than twenty-five employees were exempted; women who worked in administrative, executive, and professional positions did not benefit from coverage. Nevertheless, in its first decade of enforcement, court decisions interpreted “equal pay” broadly by refusing to limit the meaning to identical jobs. As a result, the government awarded 171,000 employees $84 million in back pay. While the law was weak in regard to addressing occupational segregation and comparability, it marked the first law safeguarding women’s equal-employment opportunity.11
The report of John Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), released the same year as the Equal Pay Act was passed, confronted protectionism in a public manner. PCSW members, many of whom were unionists and most of whom were part of the Women’s Bureau Coalition, brought under scrutiny for the first time the unresolved question of whether protective measures for women workers should be retained in the face of midcentury social, legal, and technological developments. The report was fraught with paradoxes: it both affirmed the primacy of women’s traditional roles and condemned discriminatory practices in government, and it offered proposals to reduce gender inequality without directly endorsing the ERA. In addition, commission members created state commissions to carry on the work of studying “women’s issues.” These commissions would become an important institutional factor in the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s.12
The “Rights Revolution” and the Rise of Labor Feminism
As social and economic obstacles to equality began to erode, rank-and-file women workers challenged employer and union policies in the several employment areas such as hiring, wages, seniority, promotion, and overtime eligibility. Out of their discontent came what scholars call “labor feminism.” UAW staff member Caroline Davis announced at the time, “Women are rebelling against discrimination. We are protesting. We are going to revolutionize society.” These labor feminists, as much as middle-class feminists who were inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and the younger, college-age women active in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left, defined the shape and character of second-wave feminism.13
The ban on sex discrimination included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was key to the dramatic support for workplace gender equality. This came as a surprise to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the governmental body created as a result of the new law, as it did to company human-resources personnel and union leaders, who understood the measure as addressing racial inequality. They balked at women workers’ demands to challenge male privilege in the workplace. Women union leaders and their Women’s Bureau Coalition allies could not themselves agree on the wisdom on rejecting protectionism. For the first few years following Title VII’s introduction, women in union-elected and staff positions clung to older practices, only to find that the EEOC and courts, as a result of women’s discriminatory complaints, embraced workplace equality. In its first year, 27 percent of the complaints the EEOC received came from women; these complaints fell into several major categories, indicating that the dissatisfaction with conventional practices was widespread. They included complaints on unequal employment benefits (30 percent), separate seniority lists (24 percent), restrictive state protective laws (12 percent), and discrimination in hiring and firing (5.6 percent).14
The most influential feminist organization in the early years of Title VII was the National Organization for Women (NOW). Liberal middle-class feminists, NWP members, and former Women’s Bureau Coalition members, including UAW members, formed NOW in 1966. In their “Statement of Purpose,” they listed battling workplace discrimination as a chief goal, and they criticized the family-wage ideology as crippling to women’s economic rights. They deployed a wide range of tactics. Some were well-placed government employees, such as EEOC staff lawyer Sonia Pressman, who worked behind the scenes to toughen anti-discrimination guidelines. NOW members engaged in public protests as well. NOW pressured the EEOC by monitoring its complaint files, assisting women workers in the filing of sex-discrimination complaints, and urging the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate Title VII–based lawsuits. Responding to NOW pressure, President Lyndon Johnson amended an executive order in 1967 that banned discrimination on the basis of race by government contractors to include a prohibition on sex discrimination as well. NOW’s early litigation was successful. At its October 1966 conference, its leadership authorized their legal committee to take action on behalf of flight attendants pushing for elimination of marriage and age employment bans. In Weeks v. Southern Bell (1969), NOW lawyers argued the first case to reach federal appellate court invalidating state protective laws. Other rulings prohibited sex-segregated union locals and job-classification schemes. Due to their considerable litigation commitments, NOW created the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1970. The UAW joined in the effort, filing an amicus curiae brief in Bowe v. Colgate (1969), a case in which the plaintiffs contended that Title VII contravened state protective laws.15
Women unionists, however, lacked consensus on the appropriate path to workplace fairness. At a 1966 Los Angeles Times forum, EEOC commissioner Aileen Hernandez, a former West Coast Garment Workers education director, spoke for the elimination of protective laws unless they could be extended to all workers. Opposing Hernandez, Ruth Miller of the Clothing Workers and chairwoman of the California Advisory Commission on the Status of Women, argued for their retention. Using the rhetoric of protectionism and difference, Miller explained her position: “One must recognize the fact that a woman’s role and responsibilities are not the same as those of the male.” Hernandez rejected labor’s traditional position, noting that the elimination of such measures would bring a degree of liberation. “The key to the approach of equality for women workers is not what they will be forced to do by state law, but rather what they have the freedom of choice to do,” she said. Although workplace equality held considerable support, this split in opinion about Title VII’s reach existed in workplaces across the country as individual women brought their own perspective, informed by their age, seniority, job assignment, and cultural understanding of gender relations.16
Although it is difficult to generalize between unions, those labor organizations with a “strategic plurality” of between 20 and 60 percent female membership experienced the most rank-and-file pressure to embrace Title VII. In the workplaces represented by these unions, men and women jockeyed for promotions, favorable work shifts, and overtime pay. The “women’s departments” established in the 1940s and 1950s continued to provide a platform for changing union collective bargaining demands and support for feminist policies and legislation. Women in unions where they made up a clear majority of the membership, such as the Garment Workers and HERE, had the most to lose from the elimination of protectionism since there were few men in positions with superior working conditions and pay. They viewed their hesitancy to embrace Title VII fully as practical, not reactionary.17
The Civil Rights Movement contributed to the emergence of labor feminism in multiple ways. The most obvious was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a signature civil-rights law. In addition, the emerging alliance of white and black women who joined together to oppose workplace inequality came on the heels of African American women moving into higher-paying positions in unionized factories and shops in the two decades following World War II. By 1970, the median wages for black women workers living in the North were 95 percent those of white women, up from 75 to 80 percent in 1960. Cross-racial ties, however, were weak in places, especially in the South, where black women’s wages continued to lag far behind those of white women. Moreover, the EEOC and courts did not acknowledge the unique forms of discrimination that African American women experienced, which many historians have called “double jeopardy.” A black woman who filed an EEOC discrimination complaint, for example, was required to claim either sex or race discrimination as two distinct and stand-alone forms of unfair treatment.18
With the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s the ERA found new prominence as a key component in the battle for equality. As the pro-ERA baton passed from the NWP to a new generation of feminists, the amendment’s significance changed in the context of social, economic, and legal changes. Many feminists were younger, and some were women of color and working-class women; they pushed the boundaries of equality beyond its narrow, legal range to take in a wide number of issues, including abortion rights. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of feminists committed to change through the political system and organized into groups such as NOW, the ERA was the ultimate measure of gender equality. A feeble attempt to secure a legal expression of equality through reconsidering the Fourteenth Amendment instead of supporting the ERA failed to cohere in the courtroom. The “Women’s Task Force” was created by President Richard Nixon promoted the ERA, passed the U.S. Senate in 1972, and went to the states to secure the necessary approval of thirty-eight states. Many leaders from the former Women’s Bureau Coalition, however, did not flood the pro-ERA camp in a wholesale fashion. Some came to back it reluctantly, believing that justice for women came from protectionism, not in equality measures. This position became untenable in the face of legal decisions and feminists’ success in pushing the EEOC to issue strong equal employment guidelines. This UAW backed the amendment in 1970, as did the Newspaper Guild and the Citizen’s Advisory Council of the Status of Women; the IUE, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of University Women, and League of Women Voters followed in 1972. By the time the Garment Workers, Clothing Workers, and the AFL-CIO announced their backing in 1974, most other coalition groups had already given approval to the ERA. Feminists expended considerable effort in the 1970s in trying to pass the amendment. It garnered approval from thirty-six of the necessary thirty-eight states before opposition stalled its advance in the second half of the decade. In the end, four states rescinded their approval, and the ratification effort ended by law in June 1982.19
Labor feminism took hold in the 1970s as women’s union membership increased and the most obvious forms of workplace discrimination were being eliminated. Women composed an ever-growing share of both the total workforce and its organized sectors, especially in the areas of civil service, education, and the medical sector. In 1956 women made up 18.6 percent of all union members; by 1978 they claimed 24.2 percent. They organized in feminist organizations in meatpacking, mining, and teamster-union locals. In California they formed “UnionWAGE” (Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality). Veteran women industrial unionists directed the largest of these organizations, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). This fledgling group worked within the institutional framework of organized labor to push for strong equal-employment-opportunity policies and to advocate for increasing the number of women in top union and AFL-CIO positions.20
NOW’s and CLUW’s positions did not align at times. The liberal feminist organization’s support for women workers in the 1970s changed according to its national leadership. Some NOW chapters had a significant presence of working women and union membership such as the Chicago chapter, where the Communication Workers’ Catherine Conroy helped establish the chapter. They engaged in a major campaign against Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck Company’s poor record of hiring women into management and lucrative commission-bearing sales jobs. The Chicago feminists picketed local Sears stores, hosted media events, and filed EEOC complaints. Just as their challenge to “Sears Jobs for Sears Men” training program entered the litigation phase, the newly elected NOW national leadership redirected the organization’s priorities to campaigns for battling sexism in law and culture. Without NOW’s backing, the case limped along until the plaintiffs lost in federal district court in 1986 and appellate court in 1988. NOW and CLUW clashed over retaining the seniority principle of “last hired, first fired” as well. CLUW and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists rejected NOW and other groups’ efforts to push aside this union principle in order to allow employers to retain workers during the deep recession of the mid-1970s who were hired through race- and gender-sensitive programs.21
Workplace Gender Relation and Public Policy in the 1970s
Campaigns for workplace fairness changed over the course of the 1970s as policy makers and jurists addressed the structural impediments to equal opportunities. Women began to demand to be hired into traditionally male-dominated occupations. This was true for women in higher education. NOW and Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) pushed colleges and universities to develop affirmative-action plans to increase the hiring of women faculty members. WEAL mobilized women on campuses to file hundreds of discrimination complaints. Feminists succeeded in getting the federal government to issue “Revised Order No. 4” in 1972 to include women in the creation of hiring plans with goals and timetables for faculty members, and to pass the Higher Education Act of 1972 to prohibit sex discrimination in education programs. Until then, few women, outside of those teaching at women’s colleges, held tenured positions. Those women fortunate to hold such positions clustered in disciplines such as home economics, where they made up 96 percent of the faculty, and library science, where they held 71 percent of the positions; they constituted less than 5 percent of the engineering, philosophy, agriculture, and physical-sciences departments. Their representation improved greatly after 1970: between 1975 and 1995, their share of full professorships increased from 9.6 to 17.8 percent, associate professorships went from 17 to 31.7 percent, and assistant professorships from 22 to 43 percent. Moreover, gender-sensitive admissions programs resulted in an increase in their share of the law-school student population (up from 8 percent in 1970 to 32 percent in 1980) and medical school (7 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 1980).22
Some of the most visible changes occurred in working-class occupations characterized by homosocial worksites. In police departments, where women held desk jobs or served as matrons overseeing female suspects, the change was dramatic. In 1972 there were only seven women assigned to patrol work; by 1974 there were 900 women officers on patrol (women made up 4 percent of the total police force). Groups such as “Advocates for Women” and “Wide Opportunities for Women” challenged the practices of white male workers and union officials limiting apprenticeship and skilled-union memberships to male family members and co-ethnics. Women filed lawsuits and lobbied the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce affirmative-action orders for these positions. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter issued specific affirmative-action goals that women constitute 6.9 percent of this workforce by 1981. Although women’s share in construction and skilled trades rarely budged above 10 percent, the very presence of women “hard hat” workers was destabilizing to the old job typing by sex schemes.23
The most significant growth in an increasingly postindustrial workforce in the 1970s was in service and office employment. The disproportionately female-dominated “pink-collar” workers established their own organizations and crafted their own demands for workplace fairness. These included the “Stewardesses for Women’s Rights” and “Chicago’s Women Employed.” A consciousness-raising group of Harvard University clerical workers in the 1970s was the genesis of an organization that became part of the National Association of Working Women and, in 1975, created a companion union local known at “9-to-5” as an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This organization of office workers fought against low wages and sexual harassment, and for family-work matters, and health-and-safety issues. Its founder, Karen Nussbaum, became director of the U.S. Women’s Bureau in 1993 and then took charge of the AFL-CIO’s new Working Women’s Department.24
While not jettisoning their demands for equality, labor feminists turned their attention to the vexing challenge that many policies were crafted around notions of the “normative male.” Pregnancy was the most prominent issue: there were no laws in the early 1970s to stop employers from terminating pregnant workers or imposing unpaid leaves of absence on them. Company and union contracts did not consider pregnancy as part of its sick-leave policies. Feminist lawyers such as Wendy W. Williams argued that this was sex discrimination and that women workers were denied equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1976, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gilbert v. General Electric that “an exclusion of pregnancy from a disability plan providing general coverage if not gender-based discrimination.” In response, feminists mobilized to help pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. The new law prohibited employers from treating pregnancy differently from those of workers’ claiming disabilities.25
Feminists were divided on the wisdom of crafting workplace measures around gender differences. This emerged in a 1980s court case involving a California bank teller named Lillian Garland who sued her employer who replaced her when she was away on pregnancy leave. Garland charged that California state law required employers to give unpaid maternity leave to female employees and to guarantee their jobs for up to four months. She received support from the “Coalition for Reproductive Equality in the Workplace,” a group that included labor feminists, Planned Parenthood, and Betty Friedan. They differed from NOW and the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union’s position that “We don’t think women are weak and in need of special assistance.” Garland’s supporters argued that sex-based protections could serve as incentives to broader, more inclusive labor standards for all workers. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court in California Federal S & L Assn. v. Guerra ruled that the state’s law was, in fact, consistent with federal law. The equality-difference conundrum continued: in its 1991 Johnson Controls decision, the high court invalidated an employer’s efforts to limit women workers’ assignments to certain lead-exposure jobs on the grounds that fetal protection was an infringement on women’s autonomy. While most feminists cheered the decision, the justice’s reasoning drew attention away from dangerous working conditions and the need for all workers’ right to strict safety standards.26
Labor Feminism in Post–Civil Rights America
Feminists closed ranks behind the campaign for comparable worth (sometimes called “pay equity”). The “civil rights issue of the 1980s,” as then–EEOC chair Eleanor Holmes Norton called it, was a radical challenge to the meaning and value of wages. Where Title VII helped to dismantle job-typing by sex, unequal seniority systems, and unfair policies on hiring, training, and promotion, comparable worth aimed to bolster the pay of women in female-dominated jobs by comparing their skill, training, and wages to those of men working in male-dominated jobs. These workers usually worked for the same company, often in the same workplace such as a hospital or municipal office buildings. Where the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was narrowly tailored for those doing equal, or near equal, work, comparable-worth advocates resurrected the pay-equity aspect in the legislation’s earlier version.27
Labor feminists took the lead in the comparable-worth effort. Beginning in the early 1970s, Winn Newman, an early EEOC staff lawyer and then labor lawyer for the IUE and then the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), joined with IUE lawyer Ruth Weyland to make comparable worth a collective bargaining demand. Other feminists joined them in the “National Committee on Pay Equity.” The issue gained national attention with EEOC hearings in 1980 and a nine-day strike of AFSCME clerical workers in San Jose, California, that resulted in a pay-equity adjustment ranging from 5 to 15 percent for women workers. At the same time, AFSCME’s Newman had forged a comparable-worth litigation strategy in which he focused on Title VII’s general ban on sex discrimination rather than the Equal Pay Act’s narrow language of substantial similarity. Between 1980 and 1983, the union filed comparable-worth–discrimination lawsuits in ten federal jurisdictions and, concurrently, conducted detailed pay-equity studies to support their cases. They tasted success in 1981 in County of Washington v. Gunther, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that female prison guards, whose pay was only 70 percent that of male guards, could sue under Title VII even though their jobs differed.28
By the second half of the 1980s, however, comparable-worth advocates’ optimism faded as an increasingly conservative federal judiciary began upholding employers’ right to establish pay scales. The final major litigation ended in defeat in 1989 when a federal judge dismissed the California State Employees’ Association’s claim that the state had underpaid some 60,000 women workers. The court reasoned that there was no deliberate intent to short-change female employees and that pay levels affected market-level rates established as far back as the late 1930s. Although they were disappointed, comparable-worth supporters could claim some successes: nearly half the state governments in the nation conducted pay-equity studies and, between 1984 and 1988, twenty states spent over $400 million for pay-equity raises, although only Minnesota implemented a comprehensive-comparable worth plan for its employees. Although progress stalled, subsequent comparable-worth efforts continued at the union bargaining table and organizations of professional women as well as stillborn legislative initiatives.29
Sexual harassment, the other major workplace issue of the 1980s, resulted in more tangible gains for women workers. The origins of the campaign against sexual harassment lay in the grassroots work of rape-crisis activists who were concerned about women’s bodily integrity and safety, and labor feminists who confronted unfair workplace treatment in the form of verbal assaults, displays of pornography in the workplace, and both covert and overt pressure for women to have sexual relations with supervisors or employers. Together, they sought to expand the meaning of Title VII beyond that of economic discrimination. Feminist litigators and scholars joined the effort, and the “Working Women United Institute,” founded in 1977, included a network of over 150 attorneys who compiled legal briefs filed in sexual-harassment lawsuits. The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project worked with this organization in collating sexual-harassment data and promoting state and federal measures to fight such treatment. The issue resonated with a large number of American women, many of whom experienced sexual harassment. Popular magazines such as Redbook published front-cover stories on it, and the 1980 blockbuster comedy film 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin, portrayed how much woven it was into the workplace.30
The campaign against sexual harassment achieved its first major success in 1980, when the EEOC, under Norton’s direction, issued guidelines prohibiting it from the workplace. It was the first time in American history that women had defined women’s injuries in law. In their 1986 unanimous decision the U.S. Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a Title VII violation. The case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, involved a black woman bank employee who was sexually harassed, and then assaulted, by her boss. Over the course of the 1980s, the nation’s major corporations instituted sexual-harassment policies and employee-training programs. The large number of complaints indicated the seriousness of the problem (in 2007, some 12,510 complainants filed charges). Even more serious were the studies that indicated that many women feared lodging such a complaint. Sexual harassment’s pervasiveness was evident in 1991 as a large number of Americans became riveted by the televised confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as he responded to a leaked Federal Bureau of Investigation report that he had made crude sexual comments a few years earlier when he was serving as EEOC chair to a staff attorney named Anita Hill. The Thomas hearing spurred renewed interest and new sexual-harassment case law emerged in the 1990s. In Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., the high court ruled in 1998 that harassment based on employees’ homosexuality could constitute sex discrimination, and that such behavior by one person of the same gender against another was legally actionable.31
Labor Feminism in the 21st Century
Since the 1980s feminists havefocused attention on an increasingly diversified workforce. In contrast to the mid-20th-century factory paradigm, they have focused on women in the service and care sectors such as those working in nail salons, home health care, and domestic labor, as well as nurses, teachers, and office workers. Many are immigrants, a reflection of the fact that the over 40 million foreign-born represent 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Although the labor movement suffered devastating losses in the past four decades—the percentage of the workforce belonging to unions dropped to 10.7 percent in 2016 compared to 20.1 percent in 1983—women claim a greater share of membership, up from 17 percent in 1950 to 45.5 percent in 2014. They have come to occupy significant positions in the labor movement. Linda Chavez-Thompson was elected AFL-CIO executive vice president in 1995 and served until 2007; Arlen Holt Baker took her place that year, the first African American member in the federation’s history to do so. In 2009, the IUE’s Liz Shuler became the first woman elected as AFL-CIO secretary treasurer. Women unionists have taken the helm of powerful labor unions, including Mary Kay Henry, who was elected SEIU international president in 2010.32
New organizations and organizational forms have emerged to reflect the changes in the workplace. Domestic Workers United in New York City, the Nail Salon Workers Network, and the Garment Workers Center in Los Angeles link the causes of feminism, immigrant rights, and worker justice in campaigns for economic citizenship. Many of the new organizations do not follow the traditional “contractual unionism” that originated in the 1930s industrial-relations law. Rather, these labor centers, community unions, and non-governmental organizations eschew union-recognition elections and collective bargaining, advocating instead for workers in the courtroom, in city hall, and with social-services agencies. Some of the most effective actions, however, continue to be launched in traditional unions. The 150,000-strong National Nurses United formed in 2009 from three prominent nurses’ unions, for example, have called successful strikes and advocated for broad social change through alliances with other social movements and support for progressive political candidates.33
Despite the onslaught of neoliberal measures delivering deregulation, privatization, and subsidies to businesses, feminists accrued a notable record of legislative achievements in recent decades. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which became law in 1993, guaranteed twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year to employees in order to care for a newborn or adopted child, as well as an ill family member or one’s own grave health condition. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 stated that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit “accrued” whenever an employee received a discriminatory paycheck, not when the initial discriminatory decision related to pay had been made. At the state and local levels, successful living-wage campaigns demonstrated the vibrancy of local labor movements, usually in alliance with church and citizens’ community organizations.34
A sobering assessment of working women’s status in the early 21st century, however, reveals persistent inequality and insufficient governmental support for workplace fairness. Compared to other developed nations, the FMLA’s threadbare protection is notable for its lack of paid leave. The most far-ranging measure, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow employees to discuss their pay, toughen penalties against guilty employers, and require the collection of detailed pay data for use in enforcement of laws and drafting new legislation, has failed to win support in a conservative legislature. Finally, the persistent failure of labor-law reform to address employer’s interference with union-recognition elections and years-long delays in negotiating in good faith an initial collective bargaining agreement, has contributed to the inability of women workers to benefit from, among other things, the pay premium unionized workforces enjoy over non-unionized workforces.35
The most remarkable change relating to gender and the workplace in the past decade is the improved status of LGBTQ workers. Rank-and-file LGBTQ workers, joined by labor feminists, have pushed corporations and unions to change policies and workplace practices. Caucuses of LGBTQ workers organized in the SEIU, CWA, and AFSCME, and other unions in the late 1970s and 1980s. Formed in 1994, the AFL-CIO’s “Pride at Work” formed alliances with civil-rights and other groups to support litigation for domestic-partner benefits in the early 2000s. Many states and localities have prohibited bias in hiring, job assignment, promotion, termination, and compensation as well as harassment on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation. Although not necessarily binding in the courts, the EEOC bars employment discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. In its 2014 guidelines, the U.S. Department of Labor stated that transgender federal employees and employees in companies with federal contracts are covered under its nondiscrimination protections.36
Labor feminists continue to share some, but not all, of the priorities of other feminists. One of the most common areas of agreement is in the area of pay equity. NOW and other feminists groups, however, have offered feeble backing on behalf of caregivers, as was evident when they failed to support the SEIU’s litigation efforts on behalf of Evelyn Coke, a Jamaican immigrant and Long Island caregiver excluded from minimum-wage coverage. A class-bound understanding of feminist priorities continues to characterize feminists’ workplace agendas. The much-discussed “opt-out” revolution described by the New York Times Lisa Belkin in 2003 focused on educated women who left their careers to stay at home with their young children. Although more of a statistical blip than a bona fide revolution, the phenomenon underscored the privileged notion of “choice” enjoyed by affluent women. A decade later, Sheryl Sandberg summoned the nation’s working women to “lean in” to their careers through a mixture of individual strategies of self-care and initiative alongside a critique of the flawed workplace environment that left professional women exhausted and struggling to maintain meaningful family life and career advancement. While including some recommendations for new government measures, critics dubbed Sandberg’s approach a “corporate feminism” that focused on possible changes in human-resources policies and boardroom practices. In contrast, labor feminists continued to seek social and collective solutions to achieve justice to challenge the masculine-defined shape and character of the workplace.37
Discussion of the Literature
The historiography on the women’s movement and women workers since World War II emerged in the 1970s as scholars moved beyond the compensatory view of women’s history in the 1970s, to the use of gender as a historical category of analysis in the 1980s and 1990s. The earliest advance in pushing labor historians in this direction came in 1975 with the publication of Alice Kessler-Harris’s essay, “Where Are the Organized Women Workers?” Kessler-Harris’s essay, and her book Out to Work (1982), were a direct indictment of the New Labor History’s dismal treatment of women and a challenge to women’s studies historians to widen their focus beyond that of elite women.38 She and other scholars answered her question by producing abundant research on such topics as women’s labor-force participation, family relations and paid work, and women in unions. Kessler-Harris demonstrated that women’s marginalization in the industrial workforce was a result of not only employers’ actions, but also male workers excluding them from high-paying jobs and union membership. Nevertheless, she found that women workers were militant in both traditional and nontraditional ways.
Much of the historical literature on post-1945 women and the women’s movement has focused on the experiences of women workers in individual unions and employment settings. Scholarly works on women in the auto, steel, waitressing, packing-house, electrical, agricultural, secretarial, and teaching jobs illustrate how differently situated women reacted differently to the slow movement in the 1950s and early 1960s toward support for gender equality. Some focus on the importance of the composition of specific workforces, union membership, and labor leadership; others examine the role of race in the shape and character of support for feminism. These historians demonstrate how feminist demands for change transformed the labor movement’s collective bargaining priorities, distribution of union resources, leadership composition, and support for social legislation.
As the historical literature on second-wave feminism has emerged, the centrality of labor feminists to this history has crystallized in work on disparate topics relating to the law, sexual harassment, home–life balance, and sexuality. Where some labor historians have emphasized the influence of labor feminists on the drive for gender equality in the major feminist organizations as well as politics and law, others have highlighted the distinct position of some labor feminists to retain support for protective measures in contrast to middle-class and upper-class feminists. In more recent years, scholars have studied how feminists, union officials, and legal strategists failed to change assumptions about such things as care-giving responsibilities, which affect working-class women significantly differently than they do professional women. This scholarship draws attention to the obstacles and shadings of meaning surrounding the conceptual and strategic ground on which feminists fought for change.
Recently, historians have widened their consideration of women workers to include educated, middle-class women working in the professions as well as women who work in non-union low-wage care and service work (sometimes called “affective labor”). This scholarship bridges the histories of immigration, public policy, and race and gender relations; the most exciting takes a comparative or transnational perspective on women’s familial and individual decisions regarding migration, childcare, and choice of work.39
The most significant primary sources relating to “Women’s Movement and Workers, Post-1945” are the Coalition of Labor Union Women and SEIU District 925 (the union affiliate of Karen Nussbaum’s Working Women) records housed at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit. In addition, the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University has the records of the National Organization for Women, Women’s Equity Action League, and Wider Opportunities for Women. There are additional collections scattered elsewhere: the National Women’s Trade Union League Records are at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the United Tradeswomen Records are at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and Tamiment Archives, New York University; the records of the U.S. Women’s Bureau are housed at the National Archives, College Park, Maryland; and, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women are at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Researchers should examine the records of “women’s departments” in individual unions such as the United Automobile Workers (Reuther Archives) and the International Union of Electrical Workers (Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick, NJ).
The personal papers of activists located in several archives across the United States are valuable resources as well. The Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute holds the papers of Esther Peterson, Betty Friedan, and Pauli Murray. The papers of labor lawyer and comparable-worth chief litigator Winn Newman’s are located at the Library of Congress. Oral histories will yield important information. The oldest and largest is “Twentieth-Century Trade Union Women Oral History Project” at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan (also housed at Reuther). Researchers have consulted interviews from other collections, including Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (Tamiment Archives), Black Women Oral History Project (Schlesinger Library), the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, IA), and the oral histories included in the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (University of Washington, Seattle, WA).
Baker, Carrie N. The Women’s Movement against Sexual Harassment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:
Balser, Diane. Sisterhood and Solidarity: Feminism and the Labor Movement in Modern Times. Boston: South End Press, 1987.Find this resource:
Boris, Eileen, and Annelise Orleck. “Feminism and the Labor Movement: A Century of Collaboration and Conflict.” New Labor Forum 20.1 (Winter 2011): 33–41.Find this resource:
Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.Find this resource:
Deslippe, Dennis A. “Rights, not Roses”: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945–80. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.Find this resource:
Fonow, Mary Margaret. Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.Find this resource:
Frank, Miriam. Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.Find this resource:
Gabin, Nancy F. Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.Find this resource:
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.Find this resource:
MacLean, Nancy. Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
O’Farrell, Brigid, and Joyce L. Kornbluh. Rocking the Boat: Union Women’s Voices, 1915–1975. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.Find this resource:
Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and A Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Turk, Katherine. Equality on Trial: Gender Rights in the Modern American Workplace. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.Find this resource:
Woloch, Nancy. A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:
(1.) Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 273–279.
(2.) Kessler-Harris, Out to Work, 276–277.
(3.) Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 56–64.
(4.) Nancy F. Gabin, Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 74; and Dennis A. Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945–80 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 89–113.
(5.) Kessler-Harris, Out to Work, 300–319.
(6.) Cynthia Harrison, On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women’s Issues, 1945 to 1968 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 50–52; and Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 25–26.
(7.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses,” 25–26; and Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 50–68.
(8.) Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement, 61–62, 68.
(9.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 45–54.
(10.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 55–66.
(11.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 55–66.
(12.) Harrison, On Account of Sex, 134–136.
(13.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 114–117.
(14.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 118–130.
(15.) Harrison, On Account of Sex, 202–204; and Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 129.
(16.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 122–124.
(17.) Deslipe, “Rights, not Roses”, 126–130; and Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement, 195–196, 201.
(18.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 130–134; and Peggie R. Smith, “Separate Identities: Black Women, Work, and Title VII,” Harvard Women’s Law Journal 14 (Spring 1991): 22.
(19.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 140–141; and Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
(20.) Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 143.
(21.) Turk, Katherine Turk, Equality on Trial: Gender Rights in the Modern American Workplace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 73–100; and Deslippe, “Rights, not Roses”, 56, 64–66.
(22.) Dennis Deslippe, Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle Over Equality after the Civil Rights Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 56, 64–66.
(23.) Deslippe, Protesting Affirmative Action, 158–159; and Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 265–299.
(24.) Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement, 212–214, 222; Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 189–197; and Lane Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 155–164.
(25.) Nancy Woloch, A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 242–247.
(26.) Woloch, A Class By Herself, 243–244, 250–257.
(27.) Turk, Equality on Trial, 112–144, 250–257.
(28.) Turk, Equality on Trial, 120–124.
(29.) Turk, Equality on Trial, 124.
(30.) Carrie N. Baker, The Women’s Movement against Sexual Harassment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 40, 85, 95.
(31.) Baker, The Women’s Movement, 140–145, 165.
(32.) Eileen Boris and Annelise Orleck, “Feminism and the Labor Movement: A Century of Collaboration and Conflict,” New Labor Forum 20.1 (Winter 2011): 33–41.
(33.) Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, “Organizing the Carework Economy,” in Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, eds. Donna Haverty and Daniel J. Walkowitz (New York: Continuum, 2010), 192–216; and Mariya Strauss, “The Twenty-First Century Jungle: California Nurses Organize to Save Themselves,” New Labor Forum 24.3 (2015): 90–94.
(34.) John W. Budd and Angela M. Brey, “Unions and Family Leave: Early Experience Under the Family and Medical Leave,” Labor Studies Journal 28.3 (2003): 85–105; Anne Marie Lofaso, “Promises, Promises: Assessing the Obama Administration’s Record on Labor Law Reform,” New Labor Forum 20.2 (2011): 65–72; and Stephanie Luce, Fighting for a Living Wage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
(35.) Lydia Wheeler, “Dems Press for Paycheck Fairness Bill on Equal Pay Day,” The Hill, April 4, 2017.
(36.) Maura Kelly and Amy Lubitow, “Pride at Work: Organizing at the Intersection of Labor and LGBT Movements,” Labor Studies Journal 34.4 (2015): 257–277.
(37.) Catherine Rottenberg, “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism,” Cultural Studies 28.3 (2014): 418–432.
(38.) Alice Kessler-Harris, “What Are the Organized Women Workers?” Feminist Studies 3.1–2 (1975): 92–110.
(39.) For an example of scholarship at the intersections of organizational sociology, sociology of law, and gender inequality see Frank Dobbin’s Inventing Equal Opportunity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); on global feminism and labor, see Leah Vosko, Managing the Margins: Gender, Citizenship and the International Regulation of Precarious Employment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); on organizing sex workers, Crystal A. Jackson, “Framing Sex Worker Rights: How U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists Perceive and Respond to Mainstream Anti–Sex Trafficking Advocacy,” Sociological Perspectives 59.1 (2016): 27–45; and, on domestic worker activism on global level, see Eileen Boris and Jennifer N. Fish, “Domestic Workers Go Global: The Birth of the International Domestic Workers Federation,” New Labor Forum 23.3 (2013): 76–81.