20Women’s Review of BooksVol. 35, No. 1, January/February 2018ancy Woloch has written the definitivehistory of sex-specific labor legislation, acornerstone of gendered public policy inthe twentieth century. As the Progressive-era activists of the late nineteenth centurypositioned the state to protect workers from theravages of industrial capitalism, they adopted astrategy that rooted heightened workplacestandards for women in the logic of their inferiority.In the decades that followed, each state establishedsome limits to women’s working conditions, hoursof labor, wages, and more. These laws are Woloch’smain characters, but she also profiles many others:reformers, attorneys and judges, and state and localofficials. These actors both conspired and collidedas they debated whether women workers neededspecial protections and what the government’s roleshould be in labor relationships.The first several chapters of A Class by Herselfanalyze the origins and early growth of state laborlaws for women. Turn-of-the-century activists,inspired by European workers’ legal victories,argued that state governments should limitworkplace dangers by exercising their prerogativeto safeguard citizens’ well being. But judgesfrustrated their efforts to establish sex-neutralprotections, instead preserving workers’ right tolabor unencumbered by a so-called meddling state.Advocates responded by adjusting their claims toframe working women as especially defenseless. Bydefining the sexes against each other, protectionistsfound allies in state and federal courts. They alsocarved out a new sphere of authority for femalereformers, who were denied full membership in thewider “legal fraternity,” writes Woloch. Shespotlights some of the conflicts over sex-specificlabor laws among workers, managers andreformers that began bubbling up all over: in “aLowell mill”; “a Chicago box factory”; “a Utahmine”; and “a New York book bindery.” The watershed US Supreme Court case Muller v.Oregonearns its own chapter. Woloch deftly avoidsthe pull of abstract arguments about sex equalityand difference that often frame its analysis. Instead,she places the 1908 contest over an Oregonprovision limiting female laundry workers’ hourswithin its social and legal contexts. As Wolochexplains, the state’s attorneys countered the“conservative ‘legal fiction’” that worker andemployer could bargain as equals with the“countervailing legal fiction” of females’ innatedependency. In accepting this argument, the Courtplaced woman “in a class by herself” and signaledits new willingness to consider the law’s practicaleffects. Mullerthus narrowed reformers’ options atthe same time that it opened a path forward.
- Spring '14
- Law, Labour market flexibility, Egalitarianism, Nancy Woloch