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Women’s work and the public sphere

Women and the City:
Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940

By Sarah Deutsch
Oxford University Press, 2000

In Pursuit of Equity:
Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

By Alice Kessler-Harris
Oxford University Press, 2001

Mollie’s Job:
A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line

By William J. Adler
Scribner, 2000

A Military City and the American 20th Century

By Catherine Lutz
Beacon Press, 2001

Reviewed by Margaret Foley

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As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, women became more and more active in the public sphere. However, this large-scale transition into public life, politics, and professional paid work was affected— and to a large extent, still is— not only by the duties women have in their private lives, but also by unspoken ideas about gender that continue to limit women’s opportunities to fully participate in American society.

After the Civil War came to an end, demographic changes began to bring more and more women into public spaces, visibly blurring the traditional notion that men and women occupied separate spheres. In Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940, historian Sarah Deutsch, through the study of a single city, examines the period in which women slowly began to become involved in the public sphere. Her subjects range from working class to middle-class to college-educated women to provide a full picture of how physical, public space is reordered when women move along difficult trajectory from private person to political office holder.

In the late 1800s, working-class women took non-domestic jobs, left their homes, and moved to cities. In so doing, they began to alter the streets and public areas that were once largely “male spaces”:

Urban spaces were designed, appropriated, or reappropriated by different parties. For all players, the ability to lay claim to certain types of space and the power to shape space—public areas, housing, and so forth—was crucial to their ability to meet their basic needs and often less basic desires.

As the scale of workplaces grew, increasing numbers of young women were drawn to urban areas. They took up residence in boardinghouses, entertained men in private, and dined out in restaurants and created new norms of behavior. While many researchers have argued that these women who lived in the city were isolated, Deutsch argues instead that these women created a new type of community, one that blended their private needs with their greater public visibility. They found ways to turn Boston’s public streets into their home:

When they could, working girls created spaces suited to their own moral geography—rooming and domestic situations where they could protect each other and themselves. The physical layout, with eating places distinct from living places, suited their needs faced as they were with often irregular work and low wages, while wanting freedom from the restraints of a male-dominated family without isolation…For the working girl, lodging and boarding houses, restaurants, and workplaces were sites that simultaneously manifested and created community ties that enhanced their safety.

These new bonds would come in useful when female workers began to organize politically. Their boarding houses provided spaces for meetings. At the restaurants where they bought their meals, they could read literature and pick up the news, all of which made them more informed participants of the world they inhabited.

As women came more into public view, the lines between various classes began to blur. While working-class women were reshaping the city through their daily activities, educated, middle- and upper-class women were engaged in similar activities through a wide range of social organizations. Many of them began to study the working-class women, establish settlement houses, or take employment that took them into new areas of town. For example, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU) located its offices in the political center of the city. It opened lunchrooms for women and created spaces where women “could appear in public without having their virtue questioned by being on the streets.” The WEIU ran employment offices, evening classes, Sunday services, school lunches, and organized milk distribution.

To accomplish these goals, organizations such as the WEIU learned how to navigate city politics for access to buildings and finances. While interaction with the male-dominated government did not always bring about desired results, it is also far from true that women were merely tools in a changing political culture, in which male politicians were beginning to see that the issues the women promoted could help them consolidate their political bases. In this environment, women learned to play politics:

The result was more complex than co-optation of women or domestication of men for women did succeed in transforming, somewhat at least not only themselves and the public roles of women, but the city and its government in their own image. Within the middle-class world of gender, the city had learned to behave, because of these women, if not more liked a sister and neighbor (the original version), then more like a mother. The city now provided milk and school lunches, vocational guidance, and kindergarten.

Until women got the vote in 1920, their ability to directly influence and participate in political structures was extremely limited. Of course, doors did not suddenly open with the vote, nor were a flood of women suddenly elected to public office in Boston. Being able to vote provided women with an opportunity to inhabit the world of politics in a way that was previously impossible. However, the ability to run for office did not immediately translate into political power. While women had success with school boards, the legislature, and appointive offices, they found it difficult to win seats in Boston’s important power center, its City Council.

Some of the first women who ran for office found themselves being judged not on their political abilities, but on their skills as housewives. Women who were not supported by political organizations found it almost impossible to get coverage in the press. In addition, female politicians found, as they do today, that being female does not guarantee that other women will vote for you. Class, political orientation, and ethnic background also played a large role. In fact, it was not until 1937 that a woman, Mabel Gleason Harris, was elected to the City Council. The key factor in her election was not her status as a female politician, but her kinship connections to Boston’s powerful Irish community.

valuing women’s labor

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