Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage

By Vivien Hart | Go to book overview

FOUR
A Sex Problem
THE POLITICS OF DIFFERENCE, U.S.A., 1907–1921

IN THE UNITED STATES as in Britain, at the turn of the century sweating was widespread and alarming. American reformers responded to similar perceptions of similarly dire conditions, importing the solution of minimum wage policy during 1907–8 from Britain. Portents of a transformation in American hands from negotiating machinery for low-paid workers to a living wage for women were visible in 1908, when James Mallon of NASL shared a platform in Geneva with Florence Kelley of the National Consumers' League (NCL). Kelley became the leader of the American campaign and regularly sought advice from Mallon and NASL. At this first encounter, though, she was skeptical of Mallon and his scheme for a statutory minimum wage. Mallon cannot have endeared himself with a paper on “Ineffective Remedies”—which, though not targeted personally at Kelley, hit directly at her work. He ruled out both Consumers' Leagues themselves and the American legislation for licensing home work premises with which she had been involved for years. Kelley, in turn, was dismissive: Mallon's work was a second-best, for only in countries where the abolition of home work was a lost cause was it, no doubt, desirable to pursue the regulation of wages and Wages Boards. 1

Kelley spoke of home work, Mallon of sweated workers, a conceptual choice that in Britain had represented the difference between a moralistic and gendered deprecation of the prevalence of women in sweated industries as against a class-oriented deprecation of an economic process of sweating that exploited both women and men. Kelley's first reaction, in terms of home work, might seem to signal an American predisposition to legislate for women. But Emilie Hutchinson, a student of women's wages, pointed to the logical flaw: “Resting as [minimum wage laws] do on the principle of establishing a living wage as the point in the wage scale below which rates may not fall, there is no logical reason for fixing it only for women. If the principle is sound for women's wages, it is also sound for men's. However this may be, in the United States the minimumwage movement has been connected with the question of wages not primarily as a labor problem but as a sex problem.” 2

A history of women's labor laws, written by minimum wager Clara Mortenson Beyer for the Women's Bureau in 1929, located the “impetus to wage legislation” in a combination of news of the British act and the near-simultaneous publication of a series of major investigations of women's work by the federal Bureau of Labor, the Pittsburgh survey, and individual social scientists. 3 American laws did resemble the British Trade Boards Act, in their bold intention to regulate the wage relationship, their modest restriction of regulation to a de-

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