Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor

By Daniel E. Bender | Go to book overview

Part II
Women and Gender in
the Sweatshop and in the
Anti-Sweatshop Campaign

The anti-sweatshop coalition that took shape after the 1910 strike originally united male Jewish cloakmakers with public health advocates and factory inspectors. They constructed a program of sanitary reform and control that helped remake the landscape of the New York garment industry. In those trades where Jews worked in large numbers, factories, located in loft buildings, generally replaced small shops and homework. Behind this vision of a “sanitary millennium” was a desire to protect the health and position of the family breadwinner.

In a series of strikes in 1909 and 1913, female Jewish workers pushed their way into the cross-class coalition. By 1913, the same inspection and sanitary control committees also oversaw those trades like waist and dressmaking, where women composed the majority of workers. Winning a place in anti-sweatshop campaigns was a struggle for women. In fact, these strikes were aimed as much at male workers and unionists as at employers. Female workers were confronting understandings that lay behind concern for the male breadwinner, specifically that men were normative workers and that women were temporary employees who would leave work with marriage.

The gendering of the title of worker assigned men the role of family wage earner and women the role of transients and future mothers. The focus on protecting the male breadwinner that dominated campaigns against the sweatshop inherently called into question women's legitimacy as workers and as trade unionists. Eastern European Jewish immigrant men sought to create and maintain ideals about male breadwinning in a

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