Ladies of Labour

Review: Carole Srole on Nan Enstad

Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. x + 266 pp. Notes and index. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-231-11102-9; $17.50 (paper), ISBN 0-231-11103-7.

Reviewed for H-SHGAPE by Carole Srole, Department of History, California State University at Los Angeles.
Published by H-SHGAPE, July 2000.

The Making of a Fun Working-Class History: The Politics of Working-Class Fashion, Dime-Novels, and Films

Nan Enstad's Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century has invigorated labor history by examining working-class women's uses of popular culture as a resource to construct their identity. Her work is part of a "newest" labor history that incorporates cultural approaches.

Enstad argues that contemporary historians have misunderstood women's relationship to popular culture by viewing it as a frivolous distraction to labor's real business of serious union politics. Instead, she argues, that working-class women shaped popular culture to dignify themselves as workers, Americans, and especially ladies. Enstad begins by discussing how mechanization and rationalization of labor encouraged the middle class to categorize and rank fashion and fiction. The middle class valued products made for themselves as moral, sincere, and tasteful, while demeaning products for the working class as inferior or cheap. They particularly derided working-class imitation of their more expensive styles of clothing as well as their reading matter.

Enstad next examines how working-class women used and understood these products to forge their own culture and identity as workers, Americans, and ladies. She extends Michael Denning's discussion of the relationship between dime novel plots and working-class women's identity as ladies by exploring how they looked at, purchased, read, and imagined fiction. [1] She explains how foreign-born women proudly read books in English as symbols of their Americanization. She also augments the work of Christine Stansell, Kathy Peiss, and Susan A. Glenn on working-class fashion by discussing how purchasing, wearing, imagining clothes enabled working-class women to construct their own culture as workers, Americans, and ladies. [2]

Sometimes working-class women felt like ladies when they wore middle-class stylish dress, such as silk underwear. More often, though, they invented their own styles of large hats and piled pompadours, brightly colored clothes, and French heels.

Enstad's most unique contribution to labor history is her next two chapters on the uses of popular culture during the shirtwaist strike of 1909. In the first chapter, she looks at various representations of striking women. Newspapers generally portrayed the strikers as fashion hounds to dismiss their claims for higher wages as the irrational demands of disreputable women. Middle-class supporters took another tack. They denied that the strikers dressed fashionably and depicted them as charity cases of deserving poor. This characterization, according to Enstad, deprived striking women of political agency. In contrast, labor leaders from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Women's Trade Union League, and the Socialist Party represented women strikers as political actors, labor heroines who fought injustice. However, like the middle-class supporters, union leaders also portrayed strikers as powerless victims, playing into the ideal of dependent women needing protection. Union leaders also employed fashion to promote this image by depicting strikers as ill-clad and frail. Like middle-class strike supporters, union leaders denied that politicalsubjects could enjoy fashion because they also viewed fashion as a symbol of irrationality. According to Enstad, historians have continued to dichotomize working-class women's political identity and fashion because they relied on union records. In doing so, historians have misunderstood the diversity of working-class women's culture and resistance. [3]

The second of these two chapters examines working-class women's uses of popular culture as resources during the strike. For example, when strikers picketed, they imagined themselves as fighters, typical of the dime store heroines. Like their literary role models, they demonstrated aggressiveness by throwing eggs at scabs or ripping buttons off their clothes. Even the strikers' grievances were informed by popular culture. When dime store heroines fought licentious employers, they shaped strikers' criticism of sexual harassment. Another grievance came from the strikers' love of fashion. They demanded dressing rooms to hang up and protect their regular clothes from the dirt and grime of the shop. Despite this invaluable resource for reinventing themselves, popular culture, according to Enstad, did not promote any particular political position. It could be used for either radicalism or conservatism.

In her last chapter, Enstad turns to films as another cultural resource that working women employed to maintain their dignity and shape their identities. Like the other forms of popular culture, working-class women enjoyed adventure serials because of the heroines' aggressive escapades. They used films as another resource to claim public space, such as gazing at posters or socializing at movies without parental interference. Films enabled women to identifying with screen heroines as working women like themselves.

Fans became "movie stuck" aping the mannerisms, dress, and language of their idols, and even imagining themselves as actresses. When women bought movie tickets for themselves or dressed up to attend a show as a couple, they laid claim to public space through film.

Enstad's work provides labor and women historians with useful insights. She extends and challenges the voluminous literature on working-class women's culture as roots of resistance. [4] Enstad reminds us that leisure as a component of working-class culture influenced labor unrest. But, unlike Ardis Cameron who examined working-class culture shaping of strikes, she expands culture to include dime novels, films, and fashion. Her work comes closer to Stephen Norwood's study of telegraphers labor activism. [5] However, while he sees a tension between fashion and labor activism, Enstad rejects this tension and reminds us of the malleability of all forms of culture, even those that working-class women did not create. Moreover, she makes a good case that popular culture does not necessary promote either a conservative or radical agenda.

I do, however, have some concerns with Enstad's work. The first stems from her assumptions about class and culture. Because of her limited sources on working-class women themselves, Enstad presents middle-class representations of working-class women based on their own words, but rank-and-file working-class women's self-representations based primarily on their behavior. Because of these regrettable, but understandable, unparallel sources, Enstad cannot get a handle on working-class discourses. As a result, she assumes that working-class women at times stood outside of the dominant middle-class conversation about fashion and film. To her, middle-class women and WTUL leaders presented working-class fashion as frivolous, while most working-class women embraced those same fashions. More likely white working-class women also saw fashion as frivolous, but not their own fashion. I would like to learn more about how they constructed their own fashion as acceptable. We already know that middle-class women criticized wealthy women's fashion, and we might expect working-women to join in that disapproval. We also know that immigrant and second-generation women rejected clothes from the old country as old fashioned, but did they criticize other women's clothes (such as African American) as frivolous? Did Italians and Jews make fun of each other's clothes? In other words, how did these white working-class women use popular culture to construct an identity in relationship and in opposition to other women, including women of color? Because Enstad's sources barely reveal a female working-class discourse, she has examined practices to understand working-class culture. In doing so, she confuses behavior and discourses. This means that she portrays the WTUL leadership as out-of-touch, the same way that most historians viewed them. If that is so, how did the WTUL leadership construct their own definition of lady, worker, and American? Did they know that they were out-of-step with the rank-and-file? In what ways did leadership and rank-and-file self-identities overlap? In other words, if the two were so out-of-sync, how did the rank-and-file accept their leadership?

The problem of sources also mars the early chapters of the book. Until the chapters on the shirtwaist maker's strike, the sources were a bit skimpy. I particularly worried about the frequent uses of middle-class authors, like Dorothy Richardson, to present both working-class practices and culture. More significantly, too many points rely on theory rather than historical evidence. Besides the obvious problem with this, I found the many references to theorists in the text distracting. If the theory were consigned to the footnotes, those who wanted to refer to them could do so. Because of the frequent discussions of theory, I cannot imagine assigning this to typical undergraduates who will miss out on the fun of linking fashion, dime novels, and films to working-class culture and union politics.

And finally, I'm not sure that Enstad benefitted by discussing all three forms of popular culture. Without her dissertation's focus on the relationship between dime novels and fiction, the section on film appears disconnected. Since the 1909 strike is the guts of her study, the apolitical section on film seem out of place and belong as an article rather than another chapter.

Despite these criticisms, Nan Enstad's book is an important work. By showing how working-class women embraced and used popular culture, she has breathed life into working-class women's history. And that's an accomplishment. If labor historians can continue in this direction, they will revive class as an analytical category and labor history itself, but with lots more fun this time around.


[1]. Michael Denning, Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America (London: Verso, 1987), 185-200.
[2]. Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 62-67; Stephen H. Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990), 110-112, 165-166, 182-183, Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 94, 164; Susan A. Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 160-163.
[3]. Thomas Dublin, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979); Vicki L. Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987); Dorothy Sue Cobble, Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 51-58; Sue Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 227-282; Patricia A. Cooper, Once A Cigar Maker: Men, Women, and Work Culture in American Cigar Factories, 1900-1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 218-247; Ardis Cameron, Radicals of the Worst Sort: Laboring Women in Lawrence Massachusetts, 1860-1912 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
[4]. Peiss, Cheap Amusements; Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours For What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). 198-221.
[5]. Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth, 240-241.

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Posted: 1 August 2000