Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America

Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America

Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America

Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America


For more than a quarter century, steel mills in the United States and Canada have produced more than metal: they have produced a new kind of worker and union activist -- "Women of Steel." In an era labeled postfeminist and postindustrial, women have created spaces in this quintessentially male-dominated workforce from which to mobilize for their rights as women and workers. In Union Women, Mary Margaret Fonow captures the stories of the women of the United Steelworkers. She focuses on a tenacious group who used their developing power in the union to challenge sex discrimination and to advocate for women's rights, and applied their transnational resources to construct a feminist response to globalization and economic restructuring. In the process, they have transformed the organizations, resources, and networks of both the labor and women's movements, and have in turn transformed themselves into feminists.

In Union Women Fonow uses statistical, archival, and ethnographic research methods to provide a broad,historical account of women in the steel industry. Fonow's sweeping approach allows her to examine several key issues in social movement, feminist, and political theory, and to show that insights from these fields shape each other. She explores how social movements are gendered, how working-class women develop a feminist consciousness, and how this process is informed by intersecting demands of race, class, and gender. As a comparative, cross-national study, Union Women also demonstrates how different political and social cultures affect women's organizing and strategic decisions. Finally, Fonow emphasizes that economic restructuring and globalization pose immediate challenges forwomen as laborers and activists, and that, in order to survive, all unions must develop organizing and mobilization strategies informed by feminism and other social movements.


Equality is, at the very least, freedom from adverse discrimination. But what constitutes adverse discrimination changes with time, with information, with experience and with insight. What we tolerated as a society one hundred, fifty, or even ten years ago is no longer necessarily tolerable.

—Rosalie Abella, “The Dynamic Nature of Equality”

Equity law and the jurisprudence it generated were perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments of the “new social movements” in both the United States and Canada. Without such legislation women would not have gained access to better paying, nontraditional blue-collar jobs in either country. Yet the payoff for working-class women in the United States was not as great as it was for their sisters in Canada. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on U.S. equity legislation, the courts were flooded with angry litigants, often backed by powerful business interests, charging “reverse discrimination.” Canadian equity jurisprudence does not recognize reverse discrimination claims, and litigants in discrimination suits must demonstrate a history of disadvantaged treatment (Colker 1998).

Laws help to shape political opportunity structures in ways that both constrain and facilitate collective action (Katzenstein 1998). The doctrine of equal rights forms the backbone of sex-discrimination litigation and legislation in U.S. law. Women in the United States gained access (no small feat) to educational opportunities, to male-dominated occupations, to unions, to the military, to sports, and so on, by proving that their exclusion . . .

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