Unequal Freedom

Review: Walker on Glenn

Evelyn Nakano Glenn. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002. ix + 306 pp. Notes index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-00732-8.

Reviewed by Melissa Walker, Department of History and Politics, Converse College. Published by H-Women (August, 2002)

Interlocking Systems of Control

Evelyn Nakano Glenn's Unequal Freedom is an ambitious and important book. Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship, she argues that "in the United States, race and gender have been simultaneously organizing principles and products of citizenship and labor" (p. 236). She examines the two major structures through which unequal race and gender relations "were shaped and contested in the United States" (p. 1): citizenship and labor. Glenn focuses on the years between Reconstruction and 1930, a period of ferment in the meaning of citizenship and labor. This book is really an extended historiographical and interpretive essay. Glenn has pulled together literally hundreds of case studies that explored race relations and gender structures in small communities. Some of these works focus on labor, some on citizenship, some on race, some on gender, most on a combination of these topics. Glenn synthesizes this vast body of secondary work, theorizes the interplay between race and gender, and advances an interpretation of the ways both forms of oppression have operated in American society.

Glenn defines citizenship broadly as the process by which some people are included and others are excluded as members of the community. One of her most important insights is that concepts of citizenship must encompass more than federal statute and case law because these statutes and rulings "are often interpreted and enforced (or not enforced) by individual actors operating at the local level" (p. 2). She distinguishes between the formal citizenship embodied in law and policy, and the "substantive citizenship" (p. 53) which involves the freedom to exercise the rights of citizenship. Boundaries between citizens and non-citizens were maintained on the local level by the public officials appointed to enforce the law and by other individuals. For example, in the South, segregation on railroad cars was enforced by white passengers as well as by conductors. In the Southwest, the federal government defined people of Mexican descent as white, but Anglos living in the Southwest often refused to recognize this status, instead treating Mexicans as a separate race excluded from certain rights of citizenship.

From the beginning, notions of citizenship and labor were closely linked in the United States. The meanings of these concepts changed over time, but the notion that a good citizen was also a producer persisted, so that the "worker citizen" has remained central to our notions of what it means to be "American." And like citizenship, labor is also shaped by both federal policies and by local practice. Labor places individuals in the economic order. Labor markets and the practices which structure labor within those markets may be shaped in part by federal policies and national markets, but they are also shaped by local practice. For example, in spite of federal laws outlawing contract labor, capitalists all over the country devised and used various forms of contract labor to maintain and control their labor forces.

The book is organized into seven chapters. In the first chapter, Glenn argues that rather than treating race and gender as separate categories of analysis, they should be theorized "as interacting, interlocking structures" (p. 6) based in social constructionist theory. Since race and gender are fluid categories, their meaning has shifted over time. Both categories are relational; that is, each category gains its meaning in relation to the other category. Both are also defined largely in terms of power (or lack thereof). She notes that scholars must examine racialization and engendering both at the representational level and at the level of allocation of material resources.

The chapter on race and gender is followed by chapters on concepts of citizenship and on notions about labor. She surveys recent scholarship, noting that race and gender have been central to definitions of citizenship and of labor. American citizenship has been idealized as a "universal and inclusive" status even as it has excluded large groups of people in practice. This exclusion was usually structured along race or gender lines. For example, at various times in American history, non-European "others" have been seen as incapable of self-government, and women were considered dependents rather than full members of the political community. In Hawaii, notions about "citizenship status and race were so closely intertwined that planters and officials often used the contrasting terms 'citizen labor' and 'noncitizen labor' interchangeably with 'white' and 'nonwhite'" (p. 204). Different groups have been excluded from citizenship in different ways. The historic liberalization of the definitions of American citizenship has been uneven and usually occurred in the context of major social crises. Periods when the definition of American citizenship expanded were usually followed by periods of regression.

If citizenship rights were allocated along race and gender lines, access to the job market was even more dependent on those definitions. By the early nineteenth century, notions about "white male independence came to be anchored in the notion of 'free labor'" (p. 56), a concept which was necessarily considered in opposition to unfree labor. Therefore, unfree labor became racialized as "non-white." Independence and autonomy came to be seen as resting on the ownership of one's own labor, rather than on the ownership of property. Although emancipation technically made black workers "free," industrial capitalism soon found other ways to subject labor to forms of control. Moreover, assumptions that men controlled the labor of their wives and children were never questioned. As a result, women were excluded from the category of free laborers and thus from the economic independence seen as essential to full citizenship.

Although the rise of industrial capitalism with its so-called rational labor markets might have been expected to render race and gender irrelevant in the workplace, instead Glenn notes that "a central feature of the U.S. economy has been its reliance on racialized and gendered systems of control" (p. 5). The labor system served to both create and/or reinforce race and gender categories for several reasons. Common law traditions encouraged the persistence of gender categories. Because women were expected to labor for their husbands, for example, they were excluded from ideas about free labor. Furthermore, European ideas about the obligation of the poor to work were interpreted in vagrancy laws that punished people perceived to be idle with forced labor. These vagrancy laws were almost always differentially enforced, targeting members of subordinate groups whose labor the dominant group sought to exploit and control. The changes wrought by industrial capitalism also helped make race and gender central to the labor system. The reorganization of production to remove it from the home led to greater separation of home and work and a devaluation of women's paid and unpaid labor. De-skilling, low wages created by intense competition, dangerous working conditions and the business cycle (which caused periodic bouts of high unemployment) caused workers to organize to resist the demands of capital. In response, employers sought cheaper and more easily controlled groups of workers. Employers found that they could "divide and conquer" workers by creating competition between males and females, whites and nonwhites, skilled and unskilled.

New forms of coercive labor systems emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they were most common in areas dominated by commodity agriculture and extractive industries. Debt peonage, contract and convict labor systems, and vagrancy laws became the means by which a local (and white) elite exercised near-complete control over the lives of non-white workers. Most Americans did not see these coercive systems as antithetical to American ideals of citizenship. In fact, the assumption that individuals had an obligation to work has been a central feature of American citizenship, although this obligation was formulated differently for men and women, white and non-white.

Racism and sexism were integral to the labor system, but racial and gender ideology were constantly reworked to reflect new political, social, and economic developments. By the late nineteenth century, the ideal of the male breadwinner and female homemaker, an ideal embraced and defended even by the working class who could not meet it, served to legitimate both "the unequal division of labor in the home and women's subordinate place in the labor market" (pp. 74-75). These ideals also served to discipline men to be "good workers," since "good workers" would be good breadwinners. Moreover the relative value of productive and reproductive work was different for different racial groups. While society considered homemaking to be both a right and responsibility of white women, for example, black women were seen as obligated to work outside the home and as idle if they devoted themselves to the needs of their own families.

Glenn's next three chapters examine relations between dominant and subordinate groups in three areas of the United States: whites and blacks in the South, Anglos and Mexicans in the Southwest, and Haoles (white planters) and Japanese in Hawaii. Within each chapter, she examines the various strategies of hierarchy and control that dominant groups used to constrain the citizenship rights and control the labor of subordinate groups as well as the efforts of the non-whites to resist white control and to expand citizenship rights. In the process, Glenn illuminates the similarities and the differences in race relations in each area and the ways that gender complicated racialized definitions of labor and citizenship. She notes that the South was "the most extreme in terms of the scope and depth of structures maintaining coercion in the labor market and the denial of civil and political citizenship" (p. 142). The Southwest was marked by more variation in the practices used to determine the link between race and one's citizenship status. Glenn explodes the notion that Hawaii was a racial paradise. Although it was relatively racially tolerant with no miscegenation laws, "the absence of blatant color barriers did not ... mean an absence of racial hierarchy" (p. 192). Depriving Japanese workers of citizenship status provided Haoles with a powerful tool for maintaining political power and a tractable and cheap labor supply. Scholars of the American South, the Southwest, or Hawaii will not find much that is new in these three chapters, but the way Glenn juxtaposes these local situations and places them in the context of national events and policies provides a new lens through which to view the way race and gender hierarchies operate and are contested.

In the final chapter of the book, Glenn summarizes her major conclusions and discusses their implications for contemporary life. Although workers had little choice about whether and how to work throughout American history, "domination was neither monolithic or complete" (p. 250). Subordinate groups resisted domination incessantly, taking advantage of the ambiguities in laws and divisions within the dominant groups. Gender was racialized and its construction varied from region to region. Because "race and gender inequality are deeply rooted, pervasive, and complexly interwoven" (p. 263), efforts to change American society to eliminate these inequalities will have to proceed on multiple levels. Changing individual attitudes about race and sex will not change a society in which inequalities are so deeply embedded. Many of the forms of coercion present in the period from 1870-1930 persist: in urban sweatshops which employ Asian immigrant women; among migrant farm workers; in the persistent sex-segregation of the labor force, with women concentrated in predominantly female fields where the pay is lower; and in the fact that women are still burdened with a "disproportionate share of unpaid reproductive labor" (p. 264), to give only a few examples. Citizenship and labor, Glenn concludes, remain sites for "maintaining and for challenging race and gender inequalities in American society" (p. 264).

This ambitious book will be vitally useful for scholars seeking to understand the complex interstices of race and gender, especially as they relate to citizenship and labor. It will provide graduate students with a thorough introduction to the historiography of women's history, labor history, African-American history; the list goes on and on. My only criticism of the book is that at times, I felt that gender did not receive as much attention as race. I think this shortcoming grows out of the complexity of the task Glenn undertook--to pull together relational categories that are usually (and artificially) considered separately. This is indeed a small quibble about an extremely important book. It is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand the diverse experiences of ordinary Americans.

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