H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published for H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (February, 2000)
Clare Wightman. More than Munitions: Women, Work and the
Engineering Industries, 1900-1950. Women and Men in History.
London: Longman, 1999. 224 pp. $42.00 (cloth), 0-582-41435-0.
Reviewed for H-Women by Richard A Greenwald
, Department of Cultural and Historical
It's the Economy Stupid: Or Why Gender is not a Useful Category of Analysis
The history of working-class women has been to subject of
numerous studies by both historians of labor and gender. These
books and articles could keep one busy for years. Few business
or economic historians, however, have turned their gaze on the
subject. Clare Wightman's study of the engineering industry in
England, her detailed knowledge of industrial policy, management
and production give her great insight into the employment of
Clare Wightman's More than Munitions is a work if revisionist
history. "One of the aims," of her books she states, "is to
question further the decisive importance attributed to the
'gender ideology' of employers and male trade unionists in
shaping the history of women's work." (13). Early on, she argues
that ideology, while important, was not singularly important.
Other factors were more significant: market concerns: the nature
of engineering production, the reliance and need on flexible
production, and the necessity of skilled workers. There is a
".need for a broader range of reasons," she writes explaining
the increase of women workers in the industry, "not confined to
ideological prescriptions, deskilling and mechanization, or
trade union opposition, to explain the history of women's work"
(29). The bulk of the book is an attempt to disprove the
prevailing gender thesis: women were introduced into factory
work to displace more highly skilled male workers. Women -- as
unskilled workers -- were cheaper, therefore the introduction of
women goes hand-in-hand with the introduction of deskilling
Her interesting chapter on WWI "aims to show economic reasons
for the reluctance of employers to take up dilution, extended
female employment and release skilled labour that the 'ideology'
argument described . . . leaves out" (48). She argues that the
engineering industry was a complicated mix of craft and mass
production and that employers were "rarely able to break away
from dependence on skill" (48). With the increasing need for
munitions, the British government designed policy to increase
munitions production, a policy that relaxed work-rules and
increased the number of unskilled workers in the industry.
Wightman argues that women were introduced to engineering work
not as replacements for skilled male workers. Instead, the
skilled jobs were often subdivided. Factories combined
standardization with flexible production. They believed that
the skilled worker was central to their industry: they were
"reluctant to sacrifice him for changes in production, which
were unlikely to be needed in peacetime" (57). As in America,
the end of the war spelled an end to high levels of women's
employment in the engineering industry. Unlike America, however,
the introduction of women did not revolutionize production.
Engineering work in England at least was still based on skill,
not semiskilled machine tenders.
Postwar England saw an employer backlash resulting in a 1922
industry wide lockout. The 1922 agreement was unique for two
reasons: it included all the major unions and it gave management
the uncontested right to manage. Yet, she argues, management
"did not automatically opt for female labour . . . there had to
be a number of factors in place for women to seem a profitable
alliterative to male workers" (95). According to Wightman,
unions were not unified in their opposition to women. And, those
that strenuously opposed women workers did so not because of a
gender ideology. Skilled unions opposed women as they opposed
all unskilled workers, strictly on economic grounds. They "were
all potential threats to skilled unions attempting to control
access to jobs and protect their won standards of living" (102).
WWII had a profound impact on industry. Once again labor
shortages and increased need necessitated the increase of women
in industrial jobs. By 1943, 600,000 or 34% of the workforce
were female and most were conscripted workers -- drafted into
industry. Companies were at first reluctant to employ women in
skilled jobs. Government policy required equal pay. Wightman
states that employers did not want to get stuck with a higher
rate of pay for women. To avoid it they divided the jobs by
adding setter uppers and thereby could pay female workers lower
rates. Yet, she states, "the greatest increase in women's
employment came in those trades, which had employed the largest
proportion of women before the war, such as electrical
engineering" (153). WWII was not revolutionary. Indeed, it only
hastened the employment of women in industries which had a high
degree of mechanization. In industries that still relied on
skilled workers, little long-term change resulted.
Yet, the number of women in industry is much larger in 1950 than
1930. If the two world wars can not account for the change what
does? Wightman maintains that "labour shortages and the
modernizing reconstruction plans of trade unions gave rise to
more positive and radical attitudes towards women engineering
In the end, Wightman argues that several factors are more
important that gender ideology in understanding the timing and
increase of women workers: need to maintain flexible
production, unstable markets, need to relatively skilled
workers, and the complex relationship of gender to trade unions.
She does not deny that gender -- what Americans would typically
call domestic-ideology was important. But, she states that
"those who stress the agency of ideology neglect what is a more
complicated picture" (186).
While this is surely an important book, there are several areas
that are not fully explored. First, Wightman sets up "gender
ideology" as a straw man that she easily knocks down. But most
proponents of gender ideology argue that gender is deeply
connected to a whole host of other factors. Ruth Milkman, for
example, maintains in Gender at Work, that gender or domestic
ideology influenced all aspects of union and management.
Wightman too easily separates gender from economics. Recent
studies have shown that the economy can be gendered. Second, she
fails to place her story in its larger context. During the
period she studies, what did it mean that the Labour Party
controlled the government? Did it have an impact on the unions'
ability to negotiate? And, lastly, one would have liked to hear
the voices of the women workers themselves. How did they feel
about the changes they faced?
With this said, this is an important book, which is expertly
researched. It is rare that a scholar uses union, business and
government records as well as Wightman. She expertly shows the
industrial relations process from the inside and traces the key
factors in each contract. More than Munitions will hopefully
renew the debate over women's employment and at the same time
force us to think about gender and economic factors in new ways.
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