Cover image for Ladies of labor, girls of adventure : working women, popular culture, and labor politics at the turn of the twentieth century
Ladies of labor, girls of adventure : working women, popular culture, and labor politics at the turn of the twentieth century
Enstad, Nan.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 266 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.

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HD6058 .E57 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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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 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.

Author Notes

Nan Enstad is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Enstad (Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) explores the pains and pleasures of consumer capitalism in working-women's lives at the turn of the 20th century. Not considered "workers" (applied stereotypically to white males by the culture), "Americans" (immigrant "ladies" failed to qualify as such), or "women" (a term reserved for middle- and upper-class Anglo women), working "ladies" had to create their image. Interestingly, women laborers both produced goods and consumed them, and in consuming products such as "dime novels, fashion, and film," women created not only "distinctive and pleasurable social practices" but also distinct "identities as ladies" as well. Thus women altered the culture's notion of who they were. In addition, finery, novels, and film bolstered women's dreams of what they could be and gave them a sense of "becoming" as they sought cultural acceptance. Complements US History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays, ed. by Linda Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar (1995). Those with specialties in gender, Gilded Age, Progressive, labor, economic, and social/cultural history as well as sociologists will find Ladies a valuable source. Notes. Upper-division undergraduates and above. P. D. Travis; Texas Woman's University

Table of Contents

1 Cheap Dresses and Dime Novels: The First Commodities for Working Women
2 Ladies of Labor: Fashion, Fiction, and Working Womens Culture
3 Fashioning Political Subjectivities: The 1909 Shirtwaist Strike and the Rational Girl Striker
4 Ladies and Orphans: Women Invent Themselves as Strikers in 1909
5 Ovie-Struck Girls: Motion Pictures and Consumer Subjectivities