On Gender and Class in U.S. Labor History

By Brenner, Johanna | Monthly Review, November 1998 | Go to article overview

On Gender and Class in U.S. Labor History


Brenner, Johanna, Monthly Review


The relationship between gender and class, central to understanding the history of the labor movement, raises important issues for Marxist analysis in general. Grappling with the complexities of this relationship forces us to confront a wide range of theoretical and practical questions. What is the connection between "material conditions" and "identity"? What role do culture, discourses, sexuality, and emotions play in shaping people's responses to their material conditions? How are the varieties of consciousness of class related to other identities and affiliations? These questions challenge us theoretically and politically, as we seek to develop a working-class politics that incorporates struggles against all forms of oppression.

We can approach these questions historically by asking how and why working-class men have, throughout the history of the labor movement, often chosen forms of trade union organization and strategies that systematically disadvantaged women workers - excluding women from their unions and, when they did organize with women, accepting, even demanding, gendered occupations and wage differentials. Feminist historians have differed in explaining this. Some have emphasized men's gendered material interests, pointing out how women's low wages shore up men's power in the home. Others have emphasized pyschological and cultural factors, exploring how cultural definitions of masculinity (what it means to be a "real" man) motivated men's actions. Rather than counterposing explanations which draw on interests, emotions and culture, I want to suggest some ways to understand how they are linked.

Survival Projects

I would start with the concept of survival projects, the ways people group together in order to live in capitalist society. These projects take different forms, from the most narrow and individualistic modes of striving to mass collective action. Individuals may be very conscious of making strategic choices, or they may adopt them more or less unconsciously. In either case, people must enter into various kinds of affiliation to secure the basic necessities of life. These patterns of affiliation are fundamental to how individuals define the boundaries of their solidarities, how they position themselves in relation to others, how they organize a worldview, and how they develop their various definitions of self, including their gendered identities.

I want to use the notion of survival projects because it is a way of talking about material life that recognizes the importance of individuals' motives and action, while placing these in specific social and historical contexts. We can conceptualize resistance and accommodation as outcomes of a process that is simultaneously cultural, individual, psychological, collective, and social. Individuals are situated in workplaces and communities, within which they develop understandings, feelings, and intentions. Through groups, individuals try to establish some control over their situation in the labor market as well as vis a vis particular employers. And because most working-class people (in contrast to more affluent professionals and managers) cannot reproduce themselves entirely through the market, groups are also constituted by exchanges (of money and unpaid labor) outside the capitalist economy.

There is no such thing as an identity abstracted from social practice. Like other identities, gender is negotiated and renegotiated in the practices of everyday life. Strategies that working-class people adopt for economic survival within the rules of the capitalist game shape these everyday practices in fundamental ways. These survival strategies will necessarily include forms of mutual support, not only in the workplace but outside of waged work - relations of sharing and solidarity across households, in neighborhoods, in kinship and friendship networks, in communities, and so on. Key resources include sharing cash income, bartering services such as childcare, and sharing living space. …

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