Civilizing Capitalism

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Civilizing Capitalism: The National Comumers' League, Womens Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era. By Landon R. Y. Storrs. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xvi, 392 pp. Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 0-8078-2527-1.)


In Civilizing Capitalism: The National Comumers' League, Womens Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era, Lyndon R.Y. Storrs examines the more than century-old National Consumers' League's(NCL) role in shaping New Deal legislation. Labor reform is possibly the most important and longest-lasting of the myriad of New Deal legislation (both for its successes and failures), and Storrs argues that the NCL played a vital role in crafting and promoting this legislation. In fact, Storrs claims that "Without the NCL's work during the 1930s, the New Deal record on labor standards would have been quite different."(7) Unlike militant feminists of the era, the NCL felt that women specific reforms could be leverages as what Storrs calls and "entering wedge" as a means to eventually promote the improvement of working conditions for all. Throughout the book, Storrs follows this process, and the role of the NCL as "The change from state-level, women-only labor standards laws to the national, male inclusive policy that passed in 1938 occurred gradually and unevenly."(178)

Storrs uses a series of case studies from around the country to trace this arc. In particular, Storrs reflects the approach on many New Deal historians in assessing a great weight to New Deal policy makers' considerations of the South. She notes that labor organizers recognized, "Low wages and long hours in the South not only hurt southern workers, they discouraged state legislations elsewhere and national regulation as well."(62) The NCL sought to improve the conditions of not just women workers, but also that of black workers. She believes that the NCL's efforts to institute not only sex-based reforms, but also broader, cross-race labor reforms led to its marginalization by feminist movements as a whole. As she says, "Wary of equal rights rhetoric, and perhaps overoptimistic about their own influence on men's views, progressive feminists in the 1930s would try to advance women's equality through their own exemplary achievement and through general social justice arguments more often than through the language of women's rights."(90) However, as noted above, this was a slow and contentious process, as different groups strove to define feminism, reform, and equality.


KA Fall 2009

Storrs does a nice job of assessing the different feminist approaches to labor reform during the New Deal. While not a bottom approach by any means, it is nice to see that Storrs has made a conscious effort to challenge the notion that New Deal policies simply sprang from the heads of federal policy makers, stating, "this study seeks to correct an overemphasis in the New Deal literature on government actors."(7) Additionally, she adds an interesting chapter to labor history by focusing on an advocacy group, rather than the traditional unions and political parties. Perhaps contradictorily however, she affords the NCL great influence when it achieved success, but excuses its failures by claiming its progressivism marginalized it from mainstream politics. This criticism aside, Civilizing Capitalism gives a nice overview of feminism, women in the labor movement, and the NCL during the New Deal-all of which often receive little to no attention to in New Deal histories.

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