Industrialization and Gender Realities

Robert M. Phillips

This book identifies three distinct groups of nineteenth century wage earning women and examines their unrealized struggle to become free from gender subordination. The groups studied are: New England mill girls in Lowell, Massachusetts, Irish immigrant needle trade and textile workers in New York City, and Afro-American domestic service workers in New York's Harlem.

These wage-earning women's struggle for independence was often thwarted by their conflicting objectives of gaining social respectability, on the one hand, and securing fair wages, on the other. Individual workers found that achieving these goals required choices about lifestyles and alliances. These choices, particularly the alliances, proved to be contradictory, thus fragmenting their focus and diluting the resources available to achieve overall gender equality.

On the one hand, the achievement of social respectability required a workingwoman's acknowledgement and acceptance of the Victorian code of domesticity, an alliance with bourgeois women, and participation in "improvement circles" or women's clubs.

On the other hand, the quest for higher wages required recognition of the emerging class divisions in society, support for the labor reform movement, and alliances with working class men, forged by forming or joining or trade unions.

These conflicting agendas first emerged at the outset of industrialization in the early New England mills, reappeared half a century later in the New York needle trade and textile workers among Irish immigrants in New York City, and spread to a degree among migrated Afro-American domestic service workers living in Harlem.
Progress toward the achievement of either of these objectives and the relative importance of each to wage earning women fluctuated with the developing, laissez-faire, capitalistic economy that produced wide swings between boom and bust, employment and unemployment.

All three groups of women studied felt the impact of three overarching themes that dominated all wage earning women's ability to achieve their individual goals-be it independence, equality, or respectability. These themes, established in the nineteenth century, proved to be important in the gender balance of equality for two centuries and remain with us today. They are the gender segmentation of labor (women's work), the cult of domesticity (a women's place is in the home), and the single-family income (a living wage for men).

Organization of the Book

This work consists of two sections:

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