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Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Enstad, Nan. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, Nan Enstad explores how working-class women used popular culture as a resource to construct their identity at the turn of the twentieth-century.[1] The book illuminates how these young Jewish and Italian immigrant women remade themselves as “American ladies” through consuming dime novels, fashion, and film, and how their distinct forms of consumption shaped their labor activism during the shirtwaist strike of 1909. Enstad illustrates how these working-class women developed their identities as ladies against middle-class identities and values that attempted to subdue them.[2] Enstad actively contests prevalent labor scholarship that traditionally has focused solely on white men and middle-class sensibilities. She argues that previous historians who insisted that popular culture consumerism was a frivolous distraction to labor’s real (“manly”) business of serious union politics ended up overlooking how these everyday activities shaped female strikers’ identities.[3]

The book’s introduction, “Mud in Our French Heels,” begins with Enstad’s reflections on an American Studies Association conference session entitled, “Does Cultural Studies Neglect Class?” One of the panelists who argued “yes” urged historians and cultural critics to make sure that they have “materialist mud on [their] boots.”[4] Enstad notes that the phrase conjured a very specific image of work boots with “tough, thick soles and heavy leather uppers, a man’s boots, well worn from labor and the ‘mud’ of daily life.”[5] For her study, she transmutes that image into women’s shoes with “cheap French heels” because they signaled “Americanization and ‘ladyhood’” for the women she researched.[6] At first glance, this pairing appears to be simply a logical, astute move on Enstad’s part to impart an image of her mission to her readers. However, a more philosophical underlying message may be present.

Enstad appears to be pointing to Walter Benjamin in her opening chapter to set the tone for the rest of her book. In addition to these allusions, she explains in a later chapter that her subjects redefine themselves through engaging with the “wish images” (a term coined by Benjamin) embedded in the popular culture products they consumed.[7] Although these products were not able to “emancipate people from oppressive labor or class structures, as wish images they engaged a potentially revolutionary or egalitarian impulse within the imagination.”[8] In other words, the films, dime novels, and fashions helped these women to not only redefine themselves, but also to enact social change.

In dime novel narratives, marriage to the wealthy hero is the ultimate reward for the challenges working women had to endure.[9] Marriage, in these stories, symbolized triumph over evil and the restoration of moral, heterosexual order.[10] Rose Harriet Pastor is an example of a working girl who “fulfilled the dime novel fantasy  and married millionaire Graham Phelps Stokes in 1905, just four years before the shirtwaist strike.”[11] Rose Pastor Stokes’ early life, in some ways, reflected the lives of the young working-class women who adored her; yet, in many ways, she was no longer one of them.

Born Rose Harriet Wieslander in Augustova, Poland, on July 18, 1879, she moved to “the squalid slums of London’s East End England” with her mother at age three.[12] At the age of eight, she was forced to leave school and join the workforce. In 1890, she moved to America with her mother and family, and worked for twelve years in a cigar-sweatshop where many Jews labored. Looking back, Rose viewed this time period as formative for her identity.[13] In 1901, she became a regular contributor to Yidishes Tageblat (Jewish daily news), which led to a full-time position as a resident columnist in New York City. She was able to explore political themes and express her opinions in her writing. She even rebuked working-class women for reading dime novel romances, “With our free circulating libraries what excuse is there other than ignorance for any girl who reads the crazy phantasies from the imbecile brains of Laura Jean Libbey, The Duchess, and others of their ilk!… I appeal to you- if you read those books- stop! stop!”[14] As one of the “ladies of labor” Rose Schneiderman later explained in her memoir, “I knew nothing about going to a public library and taking out any book my heart desired… I did not even know about the College Settlement House which was only a block away.”[15] Enstad shows that dime novels were more accessible to these women than libraries because “pushcarts and newsstands put dime novels into the hands of working women without first requiring other cultural competencies.”[16]

Through the Tageblat, Rose Pastor also met her future husband, James Graham Phelps Stokes, a reform-minded millionaire from a prominent family.[17] After they married, she joined his world of philanthropic reformism and, within a few years, they both joined the Socialist Party of America in 1906. Stokes redefined herself as the voice of the worker to help working-class women.[18] She was immensely popular at all of the rallies and shop meetings that she attended. Enstad points out that “the young Hebrew girls on the east side regard her as an oracle and a friend.”[19] “Stokes’ support suggested that there was no contradiction between the dime novel ending and a strike,” according to Enstad.[20]

Although the notion of marrying a millionaire does not seem compatible with a strike, in this case, reality reflected the fantasy, which contributed to Rose Pastor Stokes’ popularity and effectiveness during the strike. Enstad notes that in the dime novels, “married heroines regularly returned to the factories” to assert their working class loyalties.[21] Stokes’ return during the strike could be seen as the “ultimate fulfillment of the dime novel ending.”[22] As Enstad points out, the working ladies did not simply imbibe (consume) wish images, they “enacted wish images when they made themselves into ladies.”[23]

According to Google Scholar, Ladies of Labor is cited within 42 other works. Many of these books and articles focus on topics situated at the intersection of class, gender, and popular culture, such as Tony Michel’s A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (2009), Deirdre Clemente’s “Striking Ensembles: The Importance of Clothing on the Picket Line” (2006), Bridgett Kenny’s “Servicing Modernity: White Women Shop Workers on the Rand and Changing Gendered Respectabilities, 1940s–1970s” (2008), and Lori Meresh’s “Factory Labor and Literary Aesthetics: The ‘Lowell Mill Girl,’ Popular Fiction, and the Proletarian Grotesque” (2012). Other works that reference Ladies of Labor focus more specifically on film and theater, such as Eric Loren Smoodin’s Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960 (2004) and Paula Marie Seniors’ Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater (2009). A number of works that reference Enstad include discussions about Jewish and Italian female immigrants during the early twentieth century, fashion, popular fiction, and class performity. Enstad’s research in Ladies of Labor lends itself to a broad range of future works.

[1] The book is based on her 1993 dissertation from the University of Minnesota, “Compromised positions: Working-class women, popular culture and labor politics, 1890-1920.”

[2] Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 13.

[3] Ibid., 3, 126, 212n16.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1-2.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Judith Rosenbaum, “Rose Pastor Stokes: 1879 – 1933,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, accessed November 16, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Enstad, 49.

[15] Ibid., 55.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Rosenbaum,

[18] Ibid. This biographical information, which I found to be very informative for understanding Stokes’ place in this story, was not presented by Enstad in the book. Perhaps it was present in her dissertation.

[19] Enstad, 157.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Ibid., 157-58.

[22] Ibid., 158.

[23] Ibid., 69. Emphasis in original.