MOOC WHAW1.1x | 9.5.1 Protective Legislation for Women Workers
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MOOC WHAW1.1x | 9.5.1 Protective Legislation for Women Workers

– Let’s add a different dimension now to our intersectional analysis. We’ve talked about working
class men and women, particularly working class
women a lot before now. But now let’s take a look at what happens to working class women, and what elements of their
identity become salient in this turn of the century period. Note that the ideas and
practice of marriage once again takes a different shape in the imagination of working class, and especially of the
immigrant working class. For them, marriage is often
conceived as an escape, a way out of the daily grind of wage work, an opportunity to care for a home and to look after children. In practice, few working class women ever fully escaped the work force. Most poor women who lived in
large cities and mill towns spent their lives moving in and
out of the wage labor force. Sewing machine operators tended to drop out of the labor force while their children were small, but even then, they often
worked sporadically, occasionally for a year or two between children or until
children grew old enough to contribute to the family’s support. Not infrequently, immigrant women supplemented the earnings
of their partners by sewing at home or taking in laundry. Those with a bed to spare routinely took in boarders for whom they cooked and cleaned. Most families, except
for those of skilled men, required extra income to survive. Thus middle class women who viewed the lives of wage earning women as inimical to the well-being
of healthy families had a point. They feared for the health of young girls who survived on inadequate food and without moral supervision, and they worried about mothers pushed to the limits of exhaustion. They imagined the ways in
which working conditions might interfere with satisfying
marriages and families. In the late 19th century, after working women, like working men, failed to persuade the
courts to regulate the hours and working conditions of all workers, workers pushed for trade unions to protect them. We’ve seen that this push, even when supported by allies, held only middling
possibilities for women. But when women of the middling sort led by Florence Kelley and the National Consumers League agitated for protective labor
legislation for women only, the strategy proved successful. In 1908, a path-breaking
Supreme Court decision known as Muller v. Oregon, changed the trajectory
of women’s relationship to the Constitution. For the next 60 years, the Constitution would protect women where
it still did not protect working men. Muller v. Oregon justified protection on the grounds that women, as members of families, held the future of the
nation in their hands. It didn’t matter that many women would never be either mothers or wives. In different ways, and
according to their own lights, two thirds of the states
soon after Muller, limited the hours women could work, prevented them from working at night or in certain kinds of jobs, and briefly demanded that
they be paid a minimum wage. These laws applied to all
women in regulated industries, married and single,
mothers and non mothers. They were based on the
unfulfilled expectation that all women would
sooner or later marry, that most women would become mothers, and that mothers in general
needed to be protected, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the nation. And surprisingly, these
laws routinely excluded women of color who
desperately needed protection but whose family
circumstances mattered little to the white middle class. And they excluded as well, Native American women
who could not benefit from state intervention
for lack of citizenship. But they frequently
covered skilled workers despite their protests
that their high wages and limited numbers
allowed them to regulate their own hours.

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