The Fruits of Her Labor: Women, Children, and Progressive Era Reformers in the Pacific Northwest Canning Industry

Article excerpt

"GIRLS MAKE FOOD FIGHT" WAS the Portland News headline at the outset of a 1913 Oregon Packing Company strike. Women at the plant had had enough of low pay, poor working conditions, and an unsympathetic cannery management. The strikers quickly garnered the attention of local socialists, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, religious leaders, and area residents. Still, the newly formed Oregon Industrial Welfare Commission (OIWC) had the most influence in resolving the strike and addressing the concerns of women workers at the cannery and elsewhere in Oregon. The OIWC--an institution that epitomized the Progressive Era--and its sister agency to the north in Washington dealt with a host of issues regarding women and children in the workplace. Studying the rather underdeveloped history of the formative phase of the Pacific Northwest canning industry, its workforce, and the Progressives who sought to reform it offers a unique perspective on the changing role of women as wageworkers in society, growing public concern about child labor, and state governments' evolving social and labor policy. (1)

At the end of the nineteenth century and during the first few decades of the twentieth, fruit and vegetable canneries in states on the Pacific Coast became primary employers of female workers--adults and children. Canneries, which tended to hire females rather than males for most jobs, were major sources of employment for women and girls. At the same time, Progressives sought to improve working conditions, stabilize wages for women in canneries, and end child labor in the industry. (2) Pacific Northwest Progressives improved conditions, but, in the process, they undermined women's empowerment as wage laborers; whether they did so intentionally or not is unclear in the historical record. They fostered a form of paternalistic government intervention that, on the one hand, helped eliminate child labor in canneries but, on the other hand, sought to discipline women into a compliant and domesticated workforce.


Progressives generally assumed that women wage workers would eventually become wives and mothers and leave the workforce and, therefore, tended to think of them only in terms of temporary workers. They did not encourage women to organize their own unions, seemingly basing their work on the premise that women and children could not defend themselves in the workplace as well as men could. Labor laws protecting men were sporadic around the country and apparently lacked the comprehensive logic for which Progressives advocated regarding women's and children's labor laws. Progressive reformers worked to protect and preserve what they saw as women's femininity and maternalism. In The Wages of Motherhood, Gwendolyn Mink explores the concept of maternalism, an ideology that assumed that men (husbands) earning a family wage would solve the problem of women having to work for wages. She also explains how Progressive Era reformers chose to lament, rather than to seek empowerment for, wage working women--that is, they supported paternalistic state intervention rather than clear unionization. One of the most ardent groups associated with such maternalist orientation was the General Federation of Women's Clubs, which "opposed the employment of mothers of young children." Operating under similar ideals in Oregon was the Consumer's League, an organization that "lobbied for improvements" in workplace protection for women and children, but not for men, in order to preserve "the future health of the race." (3)

In their efforts to regulate workplaces, western Progressives were following national trends that have been outlined by Susan Lehrer in Origins of Protective Labor Legislation for Women, 1905-1925. Progressives, according to Lehrer and other scholars, thought of themselves as bringing order to industrial work life and rationalization to the labor process by demanding an end to the exploitation--that is, underpayment and long hours--of women's labor as well as an outright ban on children's labor. …