Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book Report: "The Other Women's Movement" by Dorothy Sue Cobble

highwayscribery wanted to tell you about "The Other Women's Movement,"by a Rutgers University professor named Dorothy Sue Cobble.

The text relates specifically to organized labor and focusing on it through a patented highwayscribery "book report" maintains continuity with the previous post’s theme - the Teamsters organizing victory at the L.A. Times.

The reason for reading this academic thesis was a little primary research for a screenplay dramatizing the 1964 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union drive to organize bunnies at the Detroit Playboy Club.

The force behind this effort was a left-over from 1930s union activism, one Myra Wolfgang, “the battling belle of Detroit.” A rebel woman who had helped organize the Woolworths lunch counters during the Great Depression.

Years later, she was something of a national figure to the extent women were paid attention to at all and held a position as a national vice president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

She was old school. Betty Friedan called her an “Aunt Tom,” for what she considered Wolfgang's subservience to union bosses. Wolfgang responded that Friedan was the Chamber of Commerce’s Aunt Tom.

Anyway, Wolfgang sent her 17-year old daughter into the Playboy Club as a union “salt”- an insider - and began the successful drive.

She said Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” perpetuated the notion that women should be, “Obscene and Not Heard.”

That’s the scribe’s title. Go ahead and try to steal it, he can use the publicity.

Anyway, Cobble knows a lot about Myra Wolfgang, waitress unions, and the Playboy campaign in particular so the scribe went out and ordered her book from Princeton University Press.

It was the wrong book. The one (hopefully) with all the Playboy stuff is in “Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the 20th Century.”

But this book was interesting and will serve to deepen the scribe's indoctrination prior to scribbling that story.

“The Other Women’s Movement,” is what Cobble believes to have been a forgotten generation largely excluded from the story of feminism as currently redacted.

That story, and the scribe admits to not having known this, involved a “first wave” of feminists in the suffragettes’ era (early 1900s) and a “second wave” of the 1960s spawned and led by the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems of the world.

Cobble’s thesis is that in between these two waves was a crucial period peopled with a special breed of “labor feminists” who took root and then cover in their unions during what was the heyday of organized syndicates in the United States. They took the form of activists in large feminine “auxiliaries” to the unions, and later as members and leaders themselves.

The labor feminists tackled, early, the questions women are still dealing with today; the need to make employers understand that “time” itself is the most valuable commodity to a woman with family; and that less work, rather than more money, is preferable to them.

This book reviews the debate between working class women in unions and those in a more conservative outfit called the National Women’s Party, which first (and the scribe did not know this either) floated the idea of that Equal Rights Amendment feminists pushed until the mid-‘80s.

Later, all feminists were behind ERA, but in the beginning, the factory girls and servers felt it was a Republican ruse for allowing employers to circumvent the real issues of industrial democracy, wages, and job security they fought for in statehouses and at the collective bargaining table.

Cobble successfully renders the exciting rebel-girl beginnings of, Wolfgang, Anne Draper, Ruth Young, Esther Peterson, Gladys Dickason, and a long cast of worthwhile characters you’ve never heard of, and follows the threads of each’s long career dedicated to the same issues that fired their youths.

Labor feminists were split amongst themselves and others in the women's movement over whether special labor laws protecting women in particular (capping hours, preventing dismissal for pregnancy) actually kept women apart, or separate, and thus more vulnerable to being judged as “less” than men.

Others wanted no special protections, just the same rights everybody else had. These latter eventually won out, but only with the slow passing of the labor feminists and their influence on women in America

So that is what was interesting about the thesis; the airing out of bread and butter issues afoot in the land or at least among the womanry. It shows the cracks and coalescence and the interests that separated women by class and race when it came to defining exactly the kind of “progress” women should aspire to.

It reminds us that these debates are going on today and provides a primer on the roots of those debates.

More than anything, and as was to be expected, the labor feminists were concerned with the workplace and Cobble argues that such should be the focus today, work having the feature role it does in most our lives.

The sixties wave of feminism offered some correctives to the labor feminist doctrine, Cobble says, but also accepted, rather quietly, some if its most important analyses of work, class and their relation to women’s position in society, beyond gender itself.

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