Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers' League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era

By Landon R. Y. Storrs | Go to book overview

conclusion

We have seen how, during the crisis of the Great Depression, a small but well-connected group of women labor standards activists applied their expertise and energy in service of a vision of expanded economic and political democracy. National Consumers' League leaders like Lucy Randolph Mason and Mary Dublin believed that raising the labor standards of the worst-off workers would enhance the welfare of those workers as well as the collective ability of the working class to resist exploitation by employers. This concern for the "submerged groups" led the NCL to focus on female workers and, increasingly, on minority men as well. The league argued that ending labor exploitation—and the gender and race inequality that facilitated it—would restore national economic health and revitalize American democracy, over which fascism seemed to be casting its shadow.

As it turned out, the New Deal era afforded the Consumers' League a mixture of success and disappointment. The NCL and its branches helped produce a body of state labor legislation that rivaled league achievements of the Progressive Era. Thanks to Lucy Mason's cultivation of a network of southern labor reformers, a few of these state laws were enacted against high odds in the South. The NCL was an important force behind the first national labor standards policies, the NRA codes and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Through these efforts, the NCL contributed to seismic shifts in constitutional interpretation and to the expansion of government regulatory capacity.

However, the labor standards regime that emerged from the New Deal was not the comprehensive and generous system that NCL leaders had imagined. Vast groups of workers were excluded, wage standards were low, and administrative appropriations were too small to guarantee enforcement of the regulations that did exist. In this context of underfunding, the transition from women-only to sex-neutral regulation had the unintended effect of diverting enforcement resources away from women workers. In combination with other factors, the shift to federal, male‐ inclusive policy eventually diminished women experts' control over labor standards administration. The NCL succeeded in translating its proposals into New Deal policy, but only in skeletal form.

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