An interview with Nancy Woloch, author of A Class by Herself

Nancy Woloch’s new book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers 1890s-1990s, looks at the historical influence of protective legislation for American women workers, which served as both a step toward modern labor standards and as a barrier to equal rights. Recently, Nancy took the time to answer some questions about the book, her reasons for writing it, and the modern day legacies of this legislation, from pregnancy law, to the grassroots movement to raise the minimum wage.

Woloch jacketWhy did you write this book?

NW: Conflict over protective laws for women workers pervades twentieth-century US women’s history. These laws were everywhere. Since the early 1900s, almost every state enacted some sort of women-only protective laws—maximum-hour laws, minimum wage laws, night work laws, factory safety laws. Wherever one turns, the laws spurred debate, in the courts and in the women’s movement. Long drawn to the history of these laws and to the arguments that they generated, I saw the opportunity to carve out a new narrative: to track the rise and fall of protective laws from their roots in progressive reform to their collapse in the wake of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and beyond. Here was a chance to fuse women’s history and legal history, to explore social feminism, to reconstruct a “constitutional conversation,” and to ferret around all the topics that protective laws touch — from transatlantic connection to social science surveys to the rise of equal rights. Above all, the subject is contentious. Essentially, activist women disrupted legal history twice, first to establish single-sex protective laws and then to overturn them. This was irresistible.

What is your book’s most important contribution?

NW: My book shows the double imprint that protective laws for women workers left on US history. The laws set precedents that led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and to modern labor law, a momentous achievement; they also sustained a tradition of gendered law that abridged citizenship and impeded equality until late in the century.

Which groups of women activists first supported women-only protective laws?

NW: I focus on members of the National Consumers’ League, a pressure group formed in 1898 and led as of 1899 by reformer Florence Kelley. One of the most vibrant and successful reform organizations of the Progressive Era, the NCL enabled the campaign for protective laws to move forward. I also focus on the federal Women’s Bureau, started in 1920, which inherited the mission of the NCL: to preserve and promote protective laws. Other women’s associations, too, were involved; so were women labor leaders. But the NCL and the Women’s Bureau were most crucial. Women who promoted women-only protective laws endorsed a dual rationale: the laws would redress disadvantages that women faced in the labor force and provide “industrial equality”; they would also serve as an “entering wedge” to labor standard for all workers. The dual rationale persisted, with variations, for decades.

 How did you come up with the title?

NW: “A Class by Herself” is a phrase used by Justice David J. Brewer in Muller v. Oregon, the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1908 that upheld a state ten-hour law for women workers in factories and laundries. Woman, Justice Brewer stated, “is properly placed in a class by herself, and legislation designed for her protection may be sustained, even when like legislation is not necessary for men and could not be sustained.” Two issues intersect in the Muller case: Can the state impose labor standards? Is classification by sex constitutional? The fusion of issues shapes my narrative.

The Muller case remains fascinating. I am stunned with the exceptional leverage that Florence Kelley grasped when she intervened in the final appeal of the case. I am struck with the link that Muller’s lawyers posited between employers’ interests and equal rights; with the fragile relationship between the famous Brandeis brief and the Brewer opinion; and with the way that Justice Brewer challenged Brandeis for dominance. I still ask myself: Who took advantage of whom? Looking back on Muller, I find an intriguing contrast between that case and the Supreme Court case that terminally rejected the Muller principle, UAW v. Johnson Controls (1991). This is when single-sex protective laws definitively expired. Johnson Controls also offers a counter-image of the 1908 case.

Did classification by sex ever help women workers?

NW: Yes, of course. Women-only state protective laws might provide benefits to women workers. In many instances, they provided shorter hours, higher wages, or better working conditions, just as reformers envisioned. But women-only laws always had built-in liabilities. Laws based on “difference” perpetuate difference. They entail hierarchy, stratification, and unequal power. They can quash opportunity, advancement, and aspiration. Once embedded in law, classification in sex might be adapted to any goal conjured up by lawmakers, or, as a critic in the 1920s pointed out, used to impose whatever restrictions “appeal to the caprice or prejudice of our legislators.”

What sort of challenges did you face as an author?

NW: Protective laws were tough customers. They fought back; they resisted generalization; they defied narrative. Part of the challenge was that I deal with a great mass of legislation –several hundred state laws — and each type of law followed its own trajectory. I also cover the laws and their ramifications over many decades. To estimate the impact of protective laws on women workers at any given time was a hazardous undertaking; one could not easily measure the negative effects, or what one critic called the “debit side.” Changing circumstances compound the problem; the effects of the laws were always in flux. Not least, protective laws generate controversy among historians; to tackle this subject is to stroll through a minefield. A special challenge: to cope with the end of protective laws in the 1960s and 1970s.

What was the biggest surprise you encountered in writing this book?

NW: The role of “surprise” itself was a surprise. Progressive reformers who promoted women-only labor laws in the early 1900s could not see around corners, anticipate shifts in the economy, or envision changes in the female work force. Nor could their successors or their opponents. Much of my narrative is a story of close calls and near misses, of false hopes and unexpected consequences, of accident and unpredictability. The theme of the unforeseen peaks with the addition of “sex” to Title VII of the Civil Rights bill of 1964; the impact of the amended Title VII on women-only protective laws was yet more of a surprise. I was surprised myself, as narrator, by the complexity of the downfall of protective laws. I was also surprised to discover the key role that “overtime” played in my story and the gradual mutation in its meaning over the decades.

Does your subject have present-day legacies?

NW: Definitely. In a sense, single-sex protective laws sank totally out of sight when they capsized in the 1970s. But in another sense, many facets of the history of protective laws reverberate; the echoes pervade current events. Labor standards are now a global issue, as illustrated in Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013. The fire in a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka that killed 117 workers, so reminiscent of the 1911 Triangle fire, and the yet more lethal collapse of an 8-story building, with garment production on its upper floors, underline the need for safety regulation everywhere. Closer to home, the drive to improve labor standards continues. Most recently, we have seen a grassroots movement to raise the minimum wage and efforts to revise federal law on the threshold for overtime. Reconciling work and parenthood impels discussion. Pregnancy law remains a challenge; enforcement of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 has spurred more litigation than anyone expected. A recent case is Young v. United Parcel Service (2015). Beyond that, demands for compensated parental leave proliferate. President Obama’s proposal to fund parental leave, though unlikely to move forward right now, at least keeps the issue on the table. Finally, equal employment opportunity cases remain a challenge, from the Lily Ledbetter case of 2007 to the dismissed Wal-Mart case of 2011. Title VII, which catalyzed the end of single-sex protective law, turns out to be a work in progress.

Q&A with Linda Fowler, author of Watchdogs on the Hill

Fowler jacket

Linda Fowler is the author of the new release, Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations. Recently she answered some questions about the book’s contribution, her writing process, and why domestic influences in international affairs is such an important and overlooked topic.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LF: I worked on Capitol Hill right after graduating from college at a time when Congress was in disarray.  The country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, and lawmakers appeared helpless to deal with the upheaval.  Octogenarians dominated the leadership in both chambers, creating opportunities for President Nixon to push the bounds of the Constitution with seeming impunity.  Once I started graduate school I wanted to better understand how the world’s most powerful legislature had ended up in such a sorry state.  I was unimaginably fortunate that one of the nation’s most distinguished congressional scholars became my teacher and mentor.  Richard Fenno taught me to see the democratic possibilities in Congress, to take a longer view about its imperfections, and to focus on close observation of the people who shape it through their daily actions.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

LF: I learned that Congress had done a better job overseeing U.S. foreign policy since the start of the Cold War than most political observers acknowledged, but that since the mid-1990s, the institution has performed poorly in light of historical norms.  At first glance, this pattern seemed paradoxical:  why would lawmakers have been more effective monitoring the executive during a time when fears of nuclear war generated enormous pressures to defer to the White House regarding national security?  The answer eluded me until I began to focus on changes inside the Senate that devalued committee work.  When legislative craft and expertise mattered less to individual member’s success, they spent less time on committee hearings and thus diminished their capacity for oversight of the president.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

LF: The book demonstrates that the seemingly arcane business conducted by legislative committees matters a great deal in how well Congress fulfills its constitutional responsibilities in foreign affairs.  In an era in which commentators focus on the personality of the president and his conflicts with critics, the findings of the remind us why the framers put their faith in institutions, not individuals.  The unique research design of the study combines in-depth analysis of the content of committee hearings; lengthy time series from 1947-2008; investigation of both public and secret sessions; and detailed case studies.  Together, the different facets of the project enabled me to clearly identify trends and the reasons behind them, while grounding the analysis in real-world events.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LF: Early in my career, when I was struggling with my first book, someone told me to stop fussing over the introduction and go back to it once I had the individual pieces of the story.   It is advice I have followed ever since.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life? 

LF: I found it most challenging to create a coherent narrative that did justice to the complexity of the topic, the wide variety of historical data, and the use of both statistical and qualitative tools of analysis.

Why did you write this book? 

LF: In 2004, I had just finished a long stint in an administrative position at Dartmouth and was looking to reinvent myself as a scholar by undertaking a new project.  Several articles in the news that spring caught my attention because they quoted members of the House of Representatives publicly scolding two of the Senate’s most distinguished members, Foreign Relation’s chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Armed Services chairman John Warner (R-VA), for scheduling oversight hearings of President Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq. In the past, such pointed challenges would have been unthinkable, given the Senate’s prestige in foreign affairs.  I wanted to discover whether the Senate’s prime national security watchdogs had lost influence and, if so, what reasons lay behind the change.

Who do you see as the audience for this book? 

LF: Scholars have paid comparatively little attention to the subject of Congress and foreign policy: congressional experts focus primarily on lawmaking, while foreign policy specialists tend to overlook domestic influences in international affairs.  My objective was to redirect the attention of both camps by showing that oversight was an integral part of the legislative process and key to the rule of law and democratic accountability in war and peace.  Despite the scholarly focus, I wanted to make the book interesting to students, journalists, and people generally interested in American politics. So, I worked hard to make it accessible by using case studies to illustrate the main arguments, avoiding jargon, and burying the technical material in appendices.

How did you come up with the title or jacket? 

LF: A major theme of the book is that Congress needs to do better in overseeing U.S. foreign affairs, so I wanted a cover that conveyed both gravity and urgency.  The bold lettering of the title, the yellow color of the subtitle and the photograph of the famous hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by chairman William Fulbright (D-AR), during the Vietnam War convey those messages.

Edmund Fawcett discusses Liberalism: The Life of an Idea [VIDEO]

Love it or hate it, liberalism is here to stay–and it has a long and fascinating history. Edmund Fawcett explains more about his forthcoming book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea in this wonderful video interview with Natalia Nash. How do we define liberalism? Edmund Fawcett explores the underlying ideas that guide the liberal story here:

Learn more about Edmund Fawcett and Liberalism at the Princeton University Press site.

Alan Greenspan Calls The Battle of Bretton Woods “Excellent”

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, recently recommended The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order in an interview for the Associated Press, calling it “excellent”. The author of the book, Benn Steil, was delighted to see this tweet from Liberty News a few days ago, spreading the news of this exciting endorsement. You can read the full article from the Associated Press here.

Liberty News

Jill Lepore is Runner-up for Art of the Essay Award

Jill Lepore – The Story of America: Essays on Origins
Runner-up for the 2013 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, PEN American Center

“The 2013 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay will be awarded “…to a book of essays published in 2012 that exemplifies the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature.”

“Award winners and runners-up will be honored at the 2013 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on Monday, October 21, 2013, at CUNY Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium in New York City, featuring Master of Ceremonies Andy Borowitz.

For more information about the award, check out: http://www.aesonline.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=15&Itemid=13

The Story of AmericaIn The Story of America, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore investigates American origin stories–some moving, some painful, and all of them fascinating, from John Smith’s account of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address–to show how American democracy is bound up with the history of print. Over the centuries, Americans have read and written their way into a political culture of ink and type.

Part civics primer, part cultural history, The Story of America excavates the origins of everything from the paper ballot and the Constitution to the I.O.U. and the dictionary. Along the way it presents fresh readings of Benjamin Franklin’s Way to Wealth, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as histories of lesser-known genres, including biographies of presidents, novels of immigrants, and accounts of the Depression.

From past to present, Lepore argues, Americans have wrestled with the idea of democracy by telling stories. In this thoughtful and provocative book, Lepore offers at once a history of origin stories and a meditation on storytelling itself.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her books include The Mansion of Happiness, The Whites of Their Eyes (Princeton), and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.

New History Catalog!

We invite you to be among the first to check out our new history catalog!
http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/history13.pdf

Of particular interest is the forthcoming Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, the first major chronicle of the renowned intellectual’s life. Also be sure to note Jill Lepore’s The Story of America, which demonstrates the American relationship with print through narratives from John Smith’s account of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address. Anyone teaching American history should have a copy.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our history titles, sign up with ease here: http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/ Your email address will remain confidential!

We’ll see everyone at the meeting of the American Historical Association January 3-6 in New Orleans, LA. Come visit us at booth 221!

New and Forthcoming Titles in History

history catalog coverIntroducing our new 2011 History catalog:
http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/history11.pdf
We invite you to browse and download the catalog.

There are many new titles this year to check out.  Our catalog cover image features The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore.  This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation’s founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to “take back America.”

You will also enjoy checking out Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash.  It is a sweeping cultural history of India’s largest city.  Other highlights in the catalog include titles by Louis Hyman and Margot Canaday in the Politics & Society in Twentieth-Century America series.  You can find titles by Thomas J. Sugrue, James T. Kloppenberg, Julian E. Zelizer, Emma Rothschild and many more in the history catalog.  From U.S. history to Asian history, the catalog covers the globe.

If you’re attending #AHA2011 in Boston this week, please make sure to stop by our booth no. 420 to say hello and browse the books.

You can also learn about new books by signing up for our e-mail notification service at:
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Your e-mail address will remain strictly confidential.