H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-SHGAPE@h-net.msu.edu (July, 2000)
Nan Enstad. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women,
Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth
Century. Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999. x + 266 pp. Notes and index. $49.50
(cloth), ISBN 0-231-11102-9; $17.50 (paper), ISBN 0-231-11103-7.
Reviewed for H-SHGAPE by Carole Srole ,
Department of History, California State University at Los Angeles
The Making of a Fun Working-Class History: The Politics of
Working-Class Fashion, Dime-Novels, and Films
Nan Enstad's Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women,
Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth
Century has invigorated labor history by examining working-class
women's uses of popular culture as a resource to construct their
identity. Her work is part of a "newest" labor history that
incorporates cultural approaches.
Enstad argues that contemporary historians have misunderstood
women's relationship to popular culture by viewing it as a frivolous
distraction to labor's real business of serious union politics.
Instead, she argues, that working-class women shaped popular culture
to dignify themselves as workers, Americans, and especially ladies.
Enstad begins by discussing how mechanization and rationalization of labor
encouraged the middle class to categorize and rank fashion and fiction. The
middle class valued products made for themselves as moral, sincere, and
tasteful, while demeaning products for the
working class as inferior or cheap. They particularly derided
working-class imitation of their more expensive styles of clothing
as well as their reading matter.
Enstad next examines how working-class women used and understood these
products to forge their own culture and identity as workers, Americans, and
ladies. She extends Michael Denning's discussion of the relationship
between dime novel plots and working-class women's identity as ladies by
exploring how they looked at, purchased, read, and imagined fiction. She
explains how foreign-born women proudly read books in English as symbols of
their Americanization. She also augments the work of Christine Stansell,
Kathy Peiss, and Susan A. Glenn on working-class fashion by discussing how
purchasing, wearing, imagining clothes enabled working-class women to
construct their own culture as workers, Americans, and ladies.
Sometimes working-class women felt like ladies when they wore middle-class
stylish dress, such as silk underwear. More often, though, they invented
their own styles of large hats and piled pompadours, brightly colored
clothes, and French heels.
Enstad's most unique contribution to labor history is her next two
chapters on the uses of popular culture during the shirtwaist strike
of 1909. In the first chapter, she looks at various representations
of striking women. Newspapers generally portrayed the strikers as
fashion hounds to dismiss their claims for higher wages as the
irrational demands of disreputable women. Middle-class supporters
took another tack. They denied that the strikers dressed
fashionably and depicted them as charity cases of deserving poor.
This characterization, according to Enstad, deprived striking women
of political agency. In contrast, labor leaders from the
International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Women's Trade Union League,
and the Socialist Party represented women strikers as
political actors, labor heroines who fought injustice. However,
like the middle-class supporters, union leaders also portrayed
strikers as powerless victims, playing into the ideal of dependent
women needing protection. Union leaders also employed fashion to
promote this image by depicting strikers as ill-clad and frail. Like
middle-class strike supporters, union leaders denied that political
subjects could enjoy fashion because they also viewed fashion as a
symbol of irrationality. According to Enstad, historians have
continued to dichotomize working-class women's political identity
and fashion because they relied on union records. In doing so,
historians have misunderstood the diversity of working-class women's
culture and resistance.
The second of these two chapters examines working-class women's uses of
popular culture as resources during the strike. For example,
when strikers picketed, they imagined themselves as fighters,
typical of the dime store heroines. Like their literary role
models, they demonstrated aggressiveness by throwing eggs at scabs or
ripping buttons off their clothes. Even the strikers' grievances were
informed by popular culture. When dime store heroines fought licentious
employers, they shaped strikers' criticism of sexual harassment. Another
grievance came from the strikers' love of fashion. They demanded dressing
rooms to hang up and protect their regular clothes from the dirt and grime
of the shop. Despite this
invaluable resource for reinventing themselves, popular culture,
according to Enstad, did not promote any particular political
position. It could be used for either radicalism or conservatism.
In her last chapter, Enstad turns to films as another cultural
resource that working women employed to maintain their dignity and
shape their identities. Like the other forms of popular culture,
working-class women enjoyed adventure serials because of the
heroines' aggressive escapades. They used films as another resource to
claim public space, such as gazing at posters or socializing at movies
without parental interference. Films enabled women to identifying with
screen heroines as working women like themselves.
Fans became "movie stuck" aping the mannerisms, dress, and language of their
idols, and even imagining themselves as actresses. When women bought movie
tickets for themselves or dressed up to attend a show as a couple, they laid
claim to public space through film.
Enstad's work provides labor and women historians with useful
insights. She extends and challenges the voluminous literature on
working-class women's culture as roots of resistance. Enstad
reminds us that leisure as a component of working-class culture
influenced labor unrest. But, unlike Ardis Cameron who examined
working-class culture shaping of strikes, she expands culture to
include dime novels, films, and fashion. Her work comes closer to
Stephen Norwood's study of telegraphers labor activism. However,
while he sees a tension between fashion and labor activism, Enstad
rejects this tension and reminds us of the malleability of all forms
of culture, even those that working-class women did not create.
Moreover, she makes a good case that popular culture does not
necessary promote either a conservative or radical agenda.
I do, however, have some concerns with Enstad's work. The first
stems from her assumptions about class and culture. Because of her
limited sources on working-class women themselves, Enstad presents
middle-class representations of working-class women based on their own
words, but rank-and-file working-class women's
self-representations based primarily on their behavior. Because of
these regrettable, but understandable, unparallel sources, Enstad
cannot get a handle on working-class discourses. As a result, she
assumes that working-class women at times stood outside of the
dominant middle-class conversation about fashion and film. To her,
middle-class women and WTUL leaders presented working-class fashion as
frivolous, while most working-class women embraced those same fashions.
More likely white working-class women also saw fashion as frivolous, but not
their own fashion. I would like to learn more about how they constructed
their own fashion as acceptable. We already know that middle-class women
criticized wealthy women's fashion, and we might expect working-women to
join in that disapproval. We also know that immigrant and second-generation
women rejected clothes from the old country as old fashioned, but did they
criticize other women's clothes (such as African American) as frivolous?
Did Italians and Jews make fun of each other's clothes? In other words, how
did these white working-class women use popular culture to construct an
identity in relationship and in opposition to other women, including women
of color? Because Enstad's sources barely reveal a female working-class
discourse, she has examined practices to understand working-class culture.
In doing so, she confuses behavior and discourses. This means that she
portrays the WTUL leadership as out-of-touch, the same way that most
historians viewed them. If that is so, how did the WTUL leadership
construct their own definition of lady, worker, and American? Did they know
that they were out-of-step with the rank-and-file? In what ways did
leadership and rank-and-file self-identities overlap? In other words, if the
two were so out-of-sync, how did the rank-and-file accept their leadership?
The problem of sources also mars the early chapters of the book.
Until the chapters on the shirtwaist maker's strike, the sources
were a bit skimpy. I particularly worried about the frequent uses
of middle-class authors, like Dorothy Richardson, to present both
working-class practices and culture. More significantly, too many
points rely on theory rather than historical evidence. Besides the
obvious problem with this, I found the many references to theorists
in the text distracting. If the theory were consigned to the
footnotes, those who wanted to refer to them could do so. Because
of the frequent discussions of theory, I cannot imagine assigning
this to typical undergraduates who will miss out on the fun of
linking fashion, dime novels, and films to working-class culture and
And finally, I'm not sure that Enstad benefitted by discussing all
three forms of popular culture. Without her dissertation's focus on
the relationship between dime novels and fiction, the section on
film appears disconnected. Since the 1909 strike is the guts of her
study, the apolitical section on film seem out of place and belong
as an article rather than another chapter.
Despite these criticisms, Nan Enstad's book is an important work.
By showing how working-class women embraced and used popular
culture, she has breathed life into working-class women's history.
And that's an accomplishment. If labor historians can continue in
this direction, they will revive class as an analytical category and
labor history itself, but with lots more fun this time around.
. Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and
Working-Class Culture in America(London: Verso, 1987), 185-200.
. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in
Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1984), 62-67; Stephen H. Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth:
Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy_(Urbana: University of
Illinois, 1990), 110-112, 165-166, 182-183, Christine Stansell,
City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 94, 164; Susan A. Glenn, Daughters of the
Shtetl: life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1990), 160-163.
. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community
in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press,
1979); Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women,
Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987); Dorothy Sue Cobble,
Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 51-58; Sue Porter Benson,
Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American
Department Stores, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986),
227-282; Patricia A. Cooper, Once A Cigar Maker: Men, Women, and Work
Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919(Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1987), 218-247; Ardis Cameron, Radicals of the Worst Sort:
Laboring Women in Lawrence Massachusetts, 1860-1912(Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1993).
. Peiss, Cheap Amusements; Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours For What We
Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1983). 198-221.
. Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth_, 240-241.
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