Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy

By Suzanne Mettler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN The Formation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

I had one experience in the campaign. . . . We got into New Bedford and in that park there . . . must have been 20,000 people. . . . There was a girl six or seven feet away who was trying to pass an envelope to me . . . I said to [an aide], "Get the note from that girl." He got it and handed it to me and the note said this: "Dear Mr. President: I wish you could do something to help us girls. . . . We have been working in a sewing factory, a garment factory, and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week. . . . Today the zoo of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 or $6 a week." . . . Something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours and starvation wages.

-- PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt, Press Conference,
December 29, 1936

Women workers remained in need of labor standards. Occupational segregation persisted, keeping them disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs. Their underrepresentation in labor unions meant they gained little from the NLRA. Reformers in the women's organizations that had been struggling for labor standards for decades still hoped their goals would be realized nationally in the New Deal.1 Many maternalists who still favored a high degree of state and local authority in social policymaking had come to regard national regulations as indispensable in matters of labor policy. In their New Deal-era campaign for national wage-and-hour laws, child labor prohibitions, and the regulation of industrial homework, they were joined by male advocates of women workers in the garment and textile industries. Departing from the protective labor law tradition of covering women only, these reformers sought gender-neutral legislation that would, at least in theory, apply to workers regardless of sex. But ironically, al-

____________________
1
Landon R. Y. Storrs, "Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers' League and the Politics of 'Fair' Labor Standards in the New Deal Era" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin- Madison, 1994); Vivien Hart, Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

-176-

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