Compiling a record, novelist Barbara Tuchman has observed, should not be confused with writing history. "Women and the American Labor Movement" is a record -- of women's labors in crafts, in slavery, in trades and factories, from the Colonial era to World War I. A second volume, already in progress, will bring the record up to the present.
"In analyzing the history of the American workingwoman," Professor Foner writes in his preface, "I have tried to take into account both their status as women and their status as workers, and tried to understand the ways women's experiences as workers were different from those of men." This single sentence is all he offers to explain the process by which he hoped to integrate women's activities into existing historical slots. He does not tell why women workers were absent from his previous four-volume study of the American labor movement, nor does he provide us with any insight as to what questions or pressures motivated him to write this two-volume series. This separateness of women is of critical importance because it challenges the historian's ability to integrate cultural history with political and economic history.
Philip Foner is one of the United States' best-known historians of the American labor movement, and over a long career he has published a body of work about the institutional development of American labor as well as biographies of individuals who gave voice to working-class consciousness. But the ambivalence that runs throughout this latest work is the unresolved issue of feminism and working-class consciousness. Workingmen, labor leaders, and union officials were utterly hostile to women acting in ways that they perceived as culturally inappropriate -- that is, speaking out in public, organizing in rallies, collecting and managing money on their own, making alliances with middle-class feminists.
In the chapter that best illustrates this conceptual failure, Foner explains the lack of opposition to the activities of fiery labor organizer Mother (Mary Harris) Jones and her success too simply: As far as Mother jones was concerned, he writes, "traditional sex prejudice in Socialist circles gave way." What he does not say is that Mother Jones was never interested in women workers -- she was an organizer of male workers.
Her life -- and she is unquestionably a major figure in the American labor movement -- raises many questions that Foner does not deal with: the relationships of women labor organizers with the wives of male workers, with male organizers, and with the organized woman-suffrage movement.
Writing both as a historian of the women's movement and as a person brought up on stories of the textile mills of Lowell and Lawrence (mother's side) and the shoe factories of Lynn and Beverly (father's side), I am grateful that someone of Philip Foner's stature has confirmed the existence of American women in the labor movement. I just wish he has used more analytical energy to reveal the pressures that have worked against women's success.
In the end I was left wondering: Who were these women workers? Who were the women who organized themselves into the first Factory Girls Association in the 1830s, or went on strike for a 10-hour day, or died in factory fires like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, or struggled to join the Knights of Labor, or were fined 10 cents for eating, laughing, singing, or talking while on the job in a Philadelphia corset factory? Why did many of them consider it a disgrace to work in a factory?
I gained a great deal of information about workingwomen over the past 200 years, but very little insight into their thinking and motivation.