Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

10

DISORDERLY WOMEN

Gender and labor militancy in the Appalachian South

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

Much labor history has been resolutely masculine, focused on the experiences of male workers in sex-segregated occupations and in unions. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall revises and expands that historiography as she constructs a rich narrative and interpretation of women workers’ participation in a 1929 strike in the rayon mills of Elizabethton, Tennessee. Court records, newspaper reports, letters, and regional histories provide some of her materials. Moreover, Hall adds to the historical record by conducting interviews with women who took part in the conflict, providing invaluable evidence of workers’ own understandings of these events and the impact of this strike on their lives afterwards. Hall’s work is labor history with a difference: gender adds a new dimension to her account of conflict and workers’ consciousness. An intriguing story emerges, one that suggests working-class people’s participation in new possibilities of sexual revolution and consumer culture. Defiant female strikers used a bold sexual style to taunt militia members and to proclaim their resistance to mill owners; in turn, Hall argues, the experience of labor protest reinforced and expanded new patterns of male-female relationships.

* * *

The rising sun “made a sort of halo around the crown of Cross Mountain” as Flossie Cole climbed into a neighbor’s Model T and headed west down the gravel road to Elizabethton, bound for work in a rayon plant. Emerging from Stoney Creek hollow, the car joined a caravan of buses and self-styled “taxis” brimming with young people from dozens of tiny communities strung along the creek branches and nestled in the coves of the Blue Ridge Mountains of East Tennessee. The caravan picked up

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