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Union Women’s Studies: History of Women Workers in America

Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations

Instructor: Pennee Bender

We will study American women at work, emphasizing how the labor movement moves and is moved by women who organize for fair treatment, better pay, and progressive leadership. Important themes in our course will include: change and continuity in the nature of women’s work and U.S. industry; women’s contribution to union activism; immigration, race, and ethnicity in the workforce; health and safety; working women’s culture; links between personal experience, historical and political issues; and challenges of labor organizing today.

Please prepare for each class by reading the assigned selections for the week. The course is based on active/collaborative learning. Each class will consist of discussions, presentations, and class exercises. Your comments and questions about the readings are an important part of the course. Your grades will be based on the following:

1. CLASS PARTICIPATION AND ORAL PRESENTATIONS (50 percent of grade): Always be prepared to discuss the assigned readings knowledgeably. You don’t have to remember every detail, but you do have to know what was going on with the topic we have chosen. Try to keep track of important historical trends, events, and the women who have shaped labor history. One month before the end of the semester assignments for an in-class presentation will be passed out and discussed.

2. TAKE HOME PROJECTS (50 percent of grade): At the midterm and one month before the end of the course, I will pass out take home projects. You’ll hand them back to me at the announced date. Late papers will be accepted but at a lower grade and for only one week after the due date.

Please buy the following three texts before our next meeting:

1. Packet of handout readings, available at DC 7 Education Dept.

2. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. Vintage, 1985 (referred to in reading schedule as L/L)

3. Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, America's Working Women. Norton, 1995 (referred to in reading schedule as AWW).

The essence of success in this course is planning ahead! We all have busy lives in our families, our union, and our jobs. Class preparations have to be fit in somehow. The more deliberate you are in planning and carrying out the class work at home, the more you’ll get out of the course. At this level of study, quizzes are not appropriate because so much of what we do is interpretation rather than memorization. The readings and papers can be pretty demanding. Prepare for every week of class by doing the assigned readings and making notes and questions for class discussion. If you miss a class, you are still responsible for the reading assignment for the class when you return. Keep up by consulting the reading schedule. Check with classmates about materials and notes you may have missed. If an emergency should arise, please be sure to let me know.


Class 1: Introductions. Why study history? What is social history? How do we study history? Women’s work and lives in Colonial America: diverse cultures; reproductive labor, home production, family economy. Class exercise on interpreting sources.

Class 2: Slavery and freedom. How did women’s work benefit the plantation owners? How were slave women doubly exploited L/L pages 11-43, AWW pages 42-50. Discussion of source material for interpreting slavery -- songs, folk tales, material culture, oral histories. In-class writing exercise.

Class 3: Industrialization--women in the textile factories. What were working conditions of the 19th century? How did women fight for their rights? What was the impact of new immigration? Packet: “The Factory Bell” pages 59-84, AWW: pages 63-70. Contemporary women’s organizing: Video: Coalition of Labor Union Women


Class 4: Industrialization and organization. The Knights of Labor, Early AFL, Populism, Haymarket, radical unionism, the Wobblies. AWW pages 77-80, 98-102, 162-164, 177-183. Video: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Rebel Girl (Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, 1993)

Class 5: Women organize in the garment industry, immigration, mass culture and women’s culture, the struggle for suffrage. AWW pages 164-166, 170-177, 188-190. Video: Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl (American Social History Productions, 1993)

Class 6: Immigration, migration and women’s changing roles in the labor force. AWW 130-136, L/L 152-195. Slide Show/Possible Guest Speaker --Trabajamos en la Costura on Puerto Rican garment workers. Video: Up South: African-American Migration in the Era of the Great War (American Social History Productions, 1996)


Class 7: The Depression Years. Surviving the hard times, organizing the CIO, workers’ militancy boosts women's union work. AWW pages 210-236, Packet: “Women Stand By Their Men,” “Soldiers Everywhere,” “The Emergency Brigade,” pages 175-185. Video: Union Maids (New Day Films, 1976)

Class 8: Women in World War II. Defense jobs and a new pride in work, non-traditional women’s work, 50s repression of radical unions. L/L pages 232-260, AWW pages 245-262, Packet: “Women Join the Unions.” Video: Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Direct Cinema, 1980)

Class 9: Women in the Civil Rights movement/Labor and the Women’s movement and 60s civil rights and workplace activism. L/L pages 275-301 and 310-321; AWW pages 314-318, Packet: “It’s In Your Hands” by Fannie Lou Hamer. Video: Fundi: The Ella Baker Story (First Run/Icarus Films, 1986)


Class 10: Sweatshops and organizing today. Packet: “Organizing Immigrant Women in New York Chinatown,” “How the Maids Fought Back,” and “Can a McJob Provide a Living Wage?” Guest speaker from UNITE on organizing women around health and safety issues.

Class 11: Women’s work in the global economy. NAFTA and its aftermath. L/L --epilogue, Packet: “A New Internationalism: Advancing Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy,” “Nike’s Nemesis,” and “Between Reality and Hope.”

Class 12: Student Oral Presentations