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Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

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At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading act At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading activists, organizers, and radicals feared that consumerist tendencies made working women seem frivolous and dissuaded them from political action, these women, in fact, went on strike in very large numbers during the period, proving themselves to be politically active, astute, and effective. In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, historian Nan Enstad explores the complex relationship between consumer culture and political activism for late nineteenth- and twentieth-century working women. While consumerism did not make women into radicals, it helped shape their culture and their identities as both workers and political actors. Examining material ranging from early dime novels about ordinary women who inherit wealth or marry millionaires, to inexpensive, ready-to-wear clothing that allowed them to both deny and resist mistreatment in the workplace, Enstad analyzes how working women wove popular narratives and fashions into their developing sense of themselves as "ladies." She then provides a detailed examination of how this notion of "ladyhood" affected the great New York shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910. From the women's grievances, to the walkout of over 20,000 workers, to their style of picketing, Enstad shows how consumer culture was a central theme in this key event of labor strife. Finally, Enstad turns to the motion picture genre of female adventure serials, popular after 1912, which imbued "ladyhood" with heroines' strength, independence, and daring.


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At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading act At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor leaders in women's unions routinely chastised their members for their ceaseless pursuit of fashion, avid reading of dime novels, and "affected" ways, including aristocratic airs and accents. Indeed, working women in America were eagerly participating in the burgeoning consumer culture available to them. While the leading activists, organizers, and radicals feared that consumerist tendencies made working women seem frivolous and dissuaded them from political action, these women, in fact, went on strike in very large numbers during the period, proving themselves to be politically active, astute, and effective. In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, historian Nan Enstad explores the complex relationship between consumer culture and political activism for late nineteenth- and twentieth-century working women. While consumerism did not make women into radicals, it helped shape their culture and their identities as both workers and political actors. Examining material ranging from early dime novels about ordinary women who inherit wealth or marry millionaires, to inexpensive, ready-to-wear clothing that allowed them to both deny and resist mistreatment in the workplace, Enstad analyzes how working women wove popular narratives and fashions into their developing sense of themselves as "ladies." She then provides a detailed examination of how this notion of "ladyhood" affected the great New York shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910. From the women's grievances, to the walkout of over 20,000 workers, to their style of picketing, Enstad shows how consumer culture was a central theme in this key event of labor strife. Finally, Enstad turns to the motion picture genre of female adventure serials, popular after 1912, which imbued "ladyhood" with heroines' strength, independence, and daring.

30 review for Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

  1. 4 out of 5

    James

    Enstad argued that the Shirtwaist strike of 1909-10 in NYC should be reexamined using a popular culture analysis to orient the understanding of the strike back to the mostly Jewish and Italian working class women who constituted the strikers. Enstad notes that the media at the time tried to discredit the strikers by focusing on their rowdiness, immoral behavior, and showy fashion, while middle class reformers saw the strikers pleading for charity, and finally the labor leaders and many historian Enstad argued that the Shirtwaist strike of 1909-10 in NYC should be reexamined using a popular culture analysis to orient the understanding of the strike back to the mostly Jewish and Italian working class women who constituted the strikers. Enstad notes that the media at the time tried to discredit the strikers by focusing on their rowdiness, immoral behavior, and showy fashion, while middle class reformers saw the strikers pleading for charity, and finally the labor leaders and many historians since argue that the women were disciplined, rational actors in the strike. All these views take away agency from the women, who used consumer culture of accessing cheap ready to wear dresses, consumed dime novels, and formed fan cultures to see motion pictures. This helped formed political identities of workers whom were also women, proud and independent, and led to the mass strike that attracted nearly 40,000. It is important to note that their grievances were not just better hours and wages, but also against harassment by mostly male bosses and supervisors. Enstad also notes that things like owning stylish hats signified that the workers earned their own money and broke away from submissive norms of the Old World traditionalism. While anti-strike opponents painted them as immature and childish, these women actually helped broker new class awareness through consumer cultures, far from passive, which can be inferred by the mass participation in the strike. Key Themes and Concepts: -Cultural histories should be understood as not opposed to materialism, but using commodities and consumer culture to understand material wants and identity construction. For instance, working class women wore cheap French heals as a way of signifying independence, appropriation of class, and break from old world traditional modesty. -Enstad focuses on hat and dress fashion, consumption of dime novels, and motion pictures. -Popular culture is also material culture. Class analysis should also focus on what people do in their spare time and what representations they make in how they present themselves.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Langford

    This book offers an incredibly unique take on the lives of Italian and Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s as they struggled to define themselves as 'ladies' and 'workers' and 'political figures' all at the same time. It is completely different from some other historical portrayals of these ladies as prostitutes, poor, starving, illiterate and degenerate which is really, really refreshing. The only thing that I did not like about this book is the way in which it was written. It is This book offers an incredibly unique take on the lives of Italian and Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s as they struggled to define themselves as 'ladies' and 'workers' and 'political figures' all at the same time. It is completely different from some other historical portrayals of these ladies as prostitutes, poor, starving, illiterate and degenerate which is really, really refreshing. The only thing that I did not like about this book is the way in which it was written. It is repetitive and it is a bit disorganized. The writing itself only becomes moving and incredibly striking in the Conclusion when the author ties everything together and delivers some brilliant closing remarks. It makes you wish that she could have been that organized and that insightful the entire time. Overall, this is a great book if you can struggle through the disorganization.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    i had to read this in college and then referenced it for my senior thesis...such an interesting read about the immigrant women at the turn of the 19th cen trying to conform and assimilate into "american" culture through fashion, entertainment and work environment. i had to read this in college and then referenced it for my senior thesis...such an interesting read about the immigrant women at the turn of the 19th cen trying to conform and assimilate into "american" culture through fashion, entertainment and work environment.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    "Don't judge a book by its cover" apparently cuts both ways. "Don't judge a book by its cover" apparently cuts both ways.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Erica

    This book is very interesting for people who stand girl power. It talks about how women deserve the same amount of rights as men do. This book is really good and not boring than other history books you might think is boring. This book is very enjoyable for all readers interested in women rights and girl power. This book talks about a relationship between her and her husband fighting for there rights. On the other note the women is pregnant with her baby which makes it even harder for her. Hope y This book is very interesting for people who stand girl power. It talks about how women deserve the same amount of rights as men do. This book is really good and not boring than other history books you might think is boring. This book is very enjoyable for all readers interested in women rights and girl power. This book talks about a relationship between her and her husband fighting for there rights. On the other note the women is pregnant with her baby which makes it even harder for her. Hope you enjoy the book like i did.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Allison

    Despite the fact that I was hellishly slow to get through this, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure was an engaging and surprisingly positive book about the relationship between working women and popular culture in the 1910s. I have to admit, as a student that watches far too much television, I find myself partial to any book willing to argue that the mass media can be a good influence when it comes to the ways in which people develop political identities and take conscious political action. Ens Despite the fact that I was hellishly slow to get through this, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure was an engaging and surprisingly positive book about the relationship between working women and popular culture in the 1910s. I have to admit, as a student that watches far too much television, I find myself partial to any book willing to argue that the mass media can be a good influence when it comes to the ways in which people develop political identities and take conscious political action. Enstad makes these arguments clear and easy to both follow and believe, though, connecting fashion, dime novels, and silent film serials to female factory worker strikes and the changing social identities of working class women. Besides all that, this book was crucial to one of my final papers last semester and will continue to be just as important. Despite the fact that I misspell Enstad's name on a disturbingly consistent basis, this book and my notes on it are going to be at my side for months to come.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Chris Cook

    This is women's history from a time period I hadn't known much about before this. This book is about the blue collar women who worked in the garment district of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and how they began to leave their mark, both politically, and on the pop culture of the time. There is some room for criticism of her research methodology here, but it's an enjoyable read, especially when the author discusses the impact early film had on the immigrant women of New York. This is women's history from a time period I hadn't known much about before this. This book is about the blue collar women who worked in the garment district of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and how they began to leave their mark, both politically, and on the pop culture of the time. There is some room for criticism of her research methodology here, but it's an enjoyable read, especially when the author discusses the impact early film had on the immigrant women of New York.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I took up this book because it was mentioned as a source for Ashes of Roses. I don't read a lot of academic non-fiction and it takes some getting into, but this one is full of good information about what it meant - how aspirational it was - to be a young working woman in the late 19th-early 20th century. I took up this book because it was mentioned as a source for Ashes of Roses. I don't read a lot of academic non-fiction and it takes some getting into, but this one is full of good information about what it meant - how aspirational it was - to be a young working woman in the late 19th-early 20th century.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Annabel

    While the context of the book is fairly good, the organization is terrible. Most everything stemmed off of fashion and its significance, but the way in which she ordered the book makes absolutely no sense.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    An informative work on social and women's history. Little is know about the working women of the lower socioeconomic class in early 20th century New York.. A nice review of what their lives involved both in their jobs, families, and the social lives they tried to carve for themselves. An informative work on social and women's history. Little is know about the working women of the lower socioeconomic class in early 20th century New York.. A nice review of what their lives involved both in their jobs, families, and the social lives they tried to carve for themselves.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    This book approaches labor history from the perspective of popular culture (and identity construction).

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Fascinating. Highly recommend.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    An interesting study of the economic and social implications of women's employment during the early 20th century. An interesting study of the economic and social implications of women's employment during the early 20th century.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen

    Another one I read for school. It was ok, I found parts of it disorganized and hard to follow.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dean

    Great ideas, but so poorly organized and executed!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    The beginning of the book takes the reader in much more than the closing chapters. This book certainly challenged my earlier views on popular culture and all of the contradictions that it contains.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Krista

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ashley M.

  19. 4 out of 5

    E Weber

  20. 5 out of 5

    Brandon Locke

  21. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kaci

  23. 5 out of 5

    Allison

  24. 5 out of 5

    Diana Gonzalez Rodriguez

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sameera

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kristin Harris

  27. 5 out of 5

    Coaly Perez

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rachel Denham

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Graham

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kate

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