Reworking Race, Class, and Gender into Pacific Northwest History
Mercier, Laurie, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
From the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries, logging, mining, agriculture, and fishing have distinguished the Pacific Northwest and the gendered character of its work. Though in recent decades high-tech, service, and other industries have employed greater numbers of workers, many of our notions of work remain frozen in the early twentieth century and the concept of a white, male "wageworkers' frontier." (1) For instance, when I point out to my students in southwest Washington State that more communications workers than loggers have lost jobs in recent decades, they argue that loggers and their communities deserve special assistance because, unlike other workers, they represent "a way of life" symbolic of the rugged Northwest. My students, like most people, are not conscious of the ways in which jobs come to be defined in racial- and gender-specific ways and granted more cultural weight because of who dominates them.
These perceptions persist because scholarly as well as popular treatments of work perpetuate them. For example, a fine recent anthology featuring literature about work in the Pacific Northwest includes some selections about contemporary urban, high-tech, and industrial agriculture realities, but, for the most part, the book focuses on the region's mines, woods, and rural enterprises of the first half of the twentieth century. (2) Historians exploring white male working-class experiences have expanded traditional narratives about the Northwest by considering capital and class relations, but they have neglected the roles of women and people of color in shaping the region's political economy. As a consequence of exclusion from many workplaces, women and people of color found and created economic niches, through direct economic relationships to the dominant resource-based industries, such as in the canneries and processing plants that admitted them, or more indirectly through service work and reproductive roles. Scholars of the region can introduce the stories of women and nonwhite workers as one strategy to adjust this imbalance.
Another strategy that can be used to incorporate race, class, and gender into the story of region and work is to explore the ways that racial and gender differences have been inscribed, contested, or reinforced in the major industries and their unions. We can also probe how they are linked to, shape, and undermine class consciousness; and how regional, national, and international capital, and the politics that perpetuate and protect this economic system, also create, sustain, and exploit these divisions. We might pose a number of questions to stimulate more fruitful research. How did work become categorized and reserved for certain kinds of workers? At particular times and places in the region, for example, why and how did white women replace male Chinese immigrants in fish-processing work and African Americans in restaurant work? Why did farmworkers become primarily Mexicano and Chicano? How did road construction, once casual, poorly paid, and immigrant, become the domain of a higher-paid, specialized, white American-born workforce? When and in what ways did white male workers embrace their whiteness and maleness as an attempt to preserve privileges and exclude other kinds of workers? How did employers, unions, religious institutions, and community culture foster and sustain these divisions? And under what circumstances were they destabilized? At what times and how did workers forge bonds of solidarity across differences? We need to recognize women and people of color as key political and economic actors but also examine why and how jobs in the dominant industries, in particular mining and logging, were socially and historically constructed as the domains of white men, and how these exclusions affected class politics and shaped the region's single-industry communities. This essay will explore some of these questions concerning how race and gender intersect with the world of work in the Pacific Northwest. …