Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading activists, organizers, and radicals feared that consumerist tendencies made working women seem frivolous and dissuaded them from political action, these women, in fact, went on strike in very large numbers during the period, proving themselves to be politically active, astute, and effective.

In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, historian Nan Enstad explores the complex relationship between consumer culture and political activism for late nineteenth- and twentieth-century working women. While consumerism did not make women into radicals, it helped shape their culture and their identities as both workers and political actors.

Examining material ranging from early dime novels about ordinary women who inherit wealth or marry millionaires, to inexpensive, ready-to-wear clothing that allowed them to both deny and resist mistreatment in the workplace, Enstad analyzes how working women wove popular narratives and fashions into their developing sense of themselves as "ladies." She then provides a detailed examination of how this notion of "ladyhood" affected the great New York shirtwaist strike of 1909--1910. From the women's grievances, to the walkout of over 20,000 workers, to their style of picketing, Enstad shows how consumer culture was a central theme in this key event of labor strife. Finally, Enstad turns to the motion picture genre of female adventure serials, popular after 1912, which imbued "ladyhood" with heroines' strength, independence, and daring.

Excerpt

At a recent American Studies Association conference, I attended a session entided, “Does Cultural Studies Neglect Class?” The panelists presented a variety of views, but one argued “yes,” and urged historians and cultural critics to make sure we have “materialist mud on our boots.” This fashion metaphor captured my attention, immersed as I was in researching the fashions of working women at the turn of the twentieth century. That brief phrase conjured in my mind a very specific image of boots: work boots, with tough, thick soles and heavy leather uppers, a man's boots, well worn from labor and the “mud” of daily life. The presenter argued that, as scholars, we wear boots, and they ought not be clean and pretty. This suggested to me an ideal of a strong identification between scholar and working-class subject. The presenter warned that cultural studies threaten to remove us from the materialist mud, as scholars lose touch with the suffering of workers in favor of the fun of popular culture studies.

Because of my research, I experienced a dissonance with the opposition between “materialist mud” and “cultural studies” this metaphor created. The most stylish working women at the turn of the twentieth . . .

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