pp. 897-899

A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s, Nancy Woloch

Reviewed by Vanessa May





Nancy Woloch tells the story of protective labor legislation from the early twentieth century to the 1990s, recounting the activism of workers and social feminists who supported the laws and evaluating equal rights feminists’ and manufacturers’ critiques of protection. Woloch’s approach is largely narrative, but it reveals the impossible choice that feminists faced throughout this period: they could fight for a fictional equality that ignored the gender pay gap, bias in hiring, the bodily realities of childbirth, and women’s cultural responsibility for child care, or they could accept gender differences inscribed in law.

Woloch’s story begins in the early twentieth century, when Florence Kelley’s National Consumers League began to pursue maximum hours laws for women workers. From the beginning, Woloch argues, the court system fundamentally shaped the form and function of labor laws. The courts had proven hostile to labor legislation, invalidating laws protecting male workers, laws framed as public health measures, and laws that seemed to favor one “class” of citizens over another. The Consumers League tried to thread this legal needle by promoting women-only protective labor legislation. The league claimed that as “mothers of the race,” women needed state protection from the health effects of industria

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