[Angels of the Workplace: Women & the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890-1940]

Article excerpt

Women's work--who defines it, what is its value, how has it changed and where is it going? These are just a few of the questions that two books from the Canadian Social History series try to answer. The titles examine two 'feminine' occupations: the textile worker and the office worker. Angels in the Workplace focuses on women's work in the Canadian clothing industry from 1890-1940, and Contracting Masculinites traces 50 years of women's clerical work in a public sector company, BC Hydro. Steedman and Creese discuss times in work history where discrimination based on gender was accepted as natural because male workers may be supporting families. Moreover, both books focus on how gender is constructed in occupations, and look specifically at job classifications that labelled jobs as either 'male' or 'female'.

In 1881, 80 percent of the workers employed in the Canadian clothing industry were women; by 1941 not much had changed. Tailoress was still one of the leading ten occupations for women.

Mercedes Steedman provides readers with a thorough overview of women working in the clothing industry in Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. Steedman, a Sociology professor at Laurentian University, has definitely done her research. She includes detailed accounts of strikes and includes wage and skill tables from the industry. As well, first-person accounts from female workers are interspersed throughout the text. However, at times the amount of information here is baffling, and the facts sometimes get in the way of Steedman's analysis--how gender relations were constructed in the clothing industry. Angels of the Workplace is definitely not light reading, but will be an excellent text for women's labour history courses. Men worked in the industry too, but did their best to distinguish their work from women's. Men were classified as 'skilled' workers, while women were labelled either 'semi-skilled' or 'unskilled.' Steedman examines in detail the relationships that existed between male and female workers, particularly the fact that male workers often saw female workers as a threat. …