April 27, 2012

A House Divided: Women's Activism in the Minnesota Labor Movement, 1900-1935

Ryan Tate, Advisor: Nurith Zmora

Gender-labor historians have long searched for external explanations for the limitations women encountered in the U.S. labor movement, particularly in studies of the Progressive and Inter-war Era. Yet since the formation of the woman’s experience hinges on the coalescence of varying female identities, it is critical to analyze the interaction and rapport between internal female networks. This gendered analysis is therefore less honed on the interaction between the sexes, and more mindful of those struggles taking place amongst women themselves. As such, it articulates three discreet and occupationally-based female identities that each strived toward ameliorating the conditions of labor and employment: working and middle-class wage earners, housewives, and social reformers. This case study of Minnesota analyzes how each respective female identity experienced and conceptualized the state’s labor movement, considering both their collective values as well as their disjunctions. Recognizing that in Minnesota there was no straight or singular path for women’s labor activity, this study investigates each varying approach. It argues that as a result of both real and perceived differences, female networks remained isolated and lacked cohesive action, inhibiting women from gaining sufficient power to define the movement, and marginalizing their influence. This analysis pays particular attention to activist behaviors such as unionized strikes and protests, consumer and auxiliary organizing, and social reform action. Drawing upon a variety of sources, including the existing gender-labor historiography, media representations in newspapers, and archives of social, labor and women’s organizations, this critical study of Minnesota lends state-level insight into the national tableau of gender-labor scholarship.