Mai Ngai The Lucky Ones Podcast

Recorded on February 14, 2018: Discussion of The Lucky Ones  by May Ngai


Struggling for Ladyhood

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

After reading “core” labor histories last semester, it was a relief to find a different perspective on this tumultuous period of labor history. Enstad set the stage for her book by asking the reader to question the default idea of a worker or laborer that dominates labor history, a brawny white blue-collar man. Enstad argues that this image of American laborers in the twentieth century was the result of perceived threats to masculinity during rapid industrialization, and a desire of working class women to be perceived as ladies as well as workers.

Enstad’s focus is primarily on the ways that egalitarian ideas about fashion, popular culture, and worker’s rights flourished in the generation of young women who came of age during the turn of the century and would be known as “New Women”. The growing availability of ready-made garments that kept up with the fashion trends in Europe, an explosion of literacy and affordable fiction, as well as a level of autonomy that had not been available to many women before the twentieth century allowed working class women to participate in American culture (as they saw it) like never before. Many of these women were immigrants who quickly adopted the accoutrements of fellow working women in order to be accepted as American and maintain employment.

1909 Shirtwaist Strikers in NYC. Note their hats.

The ability to work and spend a portion of their earnings as they saw fit, created identities as individual political actors as well as collective laborers. The example of Clara Lemlich’s list of demands during a shirtwaist strike including the desire for a hat stand demonstrates the power of fashion as a signifier of autonomy and power (8-12). When the worker’s hats got trampled during the work day, it was symbolic of the way companies were trampling over the rights of the women who worked in the factories. Consumer culture has mostly been missing from other labor histories that I have read, but Enstad demonstrates the way that the growing consumer culture allowed these workers to create identities that lead to political and collective bargaining power.

Enstad is clear to set working class women apart from middle class women. Middle class women, according to Enstad sought to strengthen Victorian ideas of middle class domesticity to set themselves apart from the working class. Enstad cites the differences in fashion and in literature as evidence of the desire to create a dichotomy between the “virtuous and enlightened” middle class and the “irrational and scandalous” working class. Enstad sets up a dichotomy between women who were inherently considered “ladies” and working women who struggled to gain “ladyhood”. I found this section of Enstad’s argument difficult to get behind completely; particularly since many of the working-class women were employed by the families of middle class women; literally giving them their class status. While the minutia of fashion and novels may provide stark differences in culture and self-identities, Enstad makes broad categorizations of very diverse groups of women.

I found the portion of her book that focused on the ways that popular culture informed working-class women’s decisions to strike and become politically active much more persuasive. Enstad discusses how the desire to achieve ladyhood gave male union leaders an opening to dismiss the strength of female workers; emphasizing their inherent vulnerability and frivolity as proof that they needed to be protected but that their work was not as skilled as the male dominated mills (See David Montgomery’s Fall of the House of Labor for more on the manly experience of working in a mill).

On its own, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure is a good introduction into immigration and labor studies; when combined with books that take a larger focus on women’s history, immigrant history, or labor history Enstad’s book adds a much needed glimpse into popular culture and working class identities at the turn of the century.

Womens Trade Union League of New York
Women’s Trade Union League of New York. Circa 1909

Reconstructing Gender, Class, and Race

Laura Edwards. Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1997.

The theme for this week’s readings is Reconstruction, and women’s place within the turmoil that accompanied the end of the Civil War. Laura Edwards argues in Gendered Strife and Confusion  that the social upheaval that resulted with the end of slavery caused Southern white men to seek a way to reinforce the patriarchal structure upon which southern society rested. Edwards builds on the foundation we explored with Stephanie McCurry’s book Masters of Small Worlds, and Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work to craft her argument. Edwards breaks down the role of gender, class, and race in reinforcing and redefining the social hierarchy in the post-bellum south through the reinforcement of marriage as a legal, and patriarchal contract.

In her example of Susan Daniels and Henderson Cooper, Edwards demonstrates the perceived fragility of white female virtue after emancipation. In an interesting case that began before the Civil War, a white woman’s accusation of rape changed in significance after Emancipation. Edwards argues that before Emancipation, Daniels would have been ignored as a victim because she was an unmarried poor white woman, known to be promiscuous; and as such would not have been worth the resources as there was no benefit to society in protecting her person. After Emancipation, Daniels’ virtue gained value as the racial hierarchy was ruptured; so prosecution of her accused rapists gained significance as a means of reinforcing white supremacy (despite class) in southern society.

It was through overcoming these class divisions that had structured Antebellum white society that politicians were able to create a rhetoric that united (or attempted to unite) southern whites through creating racial hierarchies based on gendered notions of white virtue and black hypersexuality. These political ideas of white feminine virtue were not only negotiated in the public spheres of Reconstruction but also within the homes of individuals, as revealed through court cases where the patriarchal role of husbands and fathers were challenged.

In many ways this book, in connection with Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom,  and Janney’s Burying the Dead (I haven’t read any of Glymph’s book but look forward to Kim’s response to it) add insight into David Blight’s Race and Reunion. While Blight argues that Reconstruction was dominated by three visions of Reconstruction, these books show how in practice those visions were more complicated and often obstructed. I have found myself enjoying more, and more exploring Reconstruction and the many different ways that it ruptured and restructured American life, and the echoes of that rhetoric and rupture that continue into the twenty-first century.

Reading Schedule for Spring 2018

We are excited to have US History MA student, Kimberly Hodges joining us this semester as we continue our exploration of Women’s History (soon with a real microphone). Here is our reading schedule as it currently stands:

Week 1 January 16-19

a. Laura Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction, University of Illinois Press, 1997 Sarah

b. Hunter, Tera. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, Harvard University Press, 1997. Amber

c. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage Kim

d. Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead, but not the past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause Michelle

Week 2 January 22-26

Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s work

Week 3 January 29- February 2

Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters Kim

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements Amber

Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure Sarah

Elizabeth Clement, Love for Sale Michelle

Week 4 February 5-9

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization

Week 5 February 12-16

Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones

Week 6 February 19-23

Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls Amber

Allison Sneider, Suffrage in the Imperial Age Sarah

Goodier and Pasquarello, Women will Vote Kim

Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch Michelle

Week 7 February 26- March 2

Alice Kessler Harris, In Pursuit of Equity

Week 8 March 5-9

Susan Cahn, Sexual Reckonings

Spring Break March 12-16

Week 9 March 19- 23

Margot Canaday, The Straight State Michelle and Sarah

Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit Amber and Kim

Week 10 March 26-30

Professor Watson visit and blogging opportunities

March 21, March 27, and March 29:


Week 11 April 2- 6

a. Meyerowitz, Joanne. ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post-War America, Temple University Press, 1994. Kim

b. Rebecca Jo Plant, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood Amber

c. Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic Michelle

d. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound Sarah


Week 12 April 9-13

Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement Amber

Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace. Michelle

Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open Sarah

Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand Kim

Week 13 April 16-20

a. Leslie Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies Amber

b. Mary Zeigler, After Roe Kim

c. Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage Books, 1997. Sarah

d. Joanna Schoen, Choice and Coercion Michelle

Week 14 April 23-27

Andi Zeisler, We were feminists once

Comparative Review Essay, Glenda Gilmore and Tera Hunter

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War; Tera W. Hunter. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920; Glenda Gilmore. University of North Carolina Press (1996).

Review Essay

In Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom, and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, Black women’s experiences after emancipation are examined through their positions as workers, activists, and mothers within Southern society. Tera Hunter and Glenda Gilmore each provide comprehensive analyses of the subjects of their respective works during the period of time between Reconstruction and World War I. Both books are focused on a period of time that saw enfranchisement and then rapid disenfranchisement of Black men, through the lens of African American women’s participation in social, political, and economic spheres. Though each book largely excludes the socioeconomic group of the other in its narrative, Hunter follows Black women’s labor, primarily in Atlanta, GA, while Gilmore focused on the concepts of race and gender that helped shape the emerging middle class in North Carolina, each book provides crucial insight into the women it focuses on, and when read together, these two books reveal the nuanced, and conflicting, worlds that these women lived in.

Hunter’s examination looks not only at the type of work that was available to Black women in this period, but the wages, working conditions, and impact on their family situations that the work had. Emancipation gave Black women freedom to dictate many of the terms and conditions of their own labors that had been denied to them under slavery. Hunter is clear to describe the lack of freedom from assault, racial persecution, and gender hierarchies that working class African American women faced, and the related decrease in autonomy many African American women had because of these threats. The struggle to balance the vulnerability of Black bodies with the crucial roles that Black women filled as laundresses and domestic servants in white households provides the reader with an understanding of the tenuous place within society that these women held. Hunter does not shy away from exploring the conflict between the African American laboring women and their white employers to highlight the labor struggles and the power that these women ultimately were able to summon through the washerwomen strikes in Jackson, Galveston, and Atlanta.

Both works look at the emergence of southern progressivism, and the violent resistance to that progress. Atlanta is the center of Hunter’s analysis as it represented an intersection of urban development and rural migration; the city had a reputation of forward-thinking progressivism while at the same time was one of the breeding grounds for what Gilmore coined New Men. Gilmore credits New Men with promoting Jim Crow and escalating violence against African Americans because their white male masculinity felt threated by successful and prominent African Americans, who these New Men considered a threat to the future of democracy. Gilmore’s analysis centers on the political and feminist ties that united white and Black women in the fight for women’s suffrage as evidence of the progressivism that was present in North Carolina during this period. The expansive educational opportunities available to Black women and men, compared to those available to white women, serve as further evidence of progressive ideals at work in North Carolina. These educational opportunities allowed African American women to postpone marriage and gain higher educational levels that were deemed necessary to create the “Best” men and women to lead the next generation.

Gilmore argues that shifting concepts of masculinity, racial superiority, and political power prevailing in the post-bellum period forced African Americans to battle the creation of Jim Crow legislation by embracing Victorian ideals of Domesticity, education, and hard work. Black women, seeing their families cut off from participation in politics joined with each other and, more tenuously, with white women for reform for their communities, in the form of schools, temperance societies, and health care as activists to promote change. Using the concept of “Best men” and “Best women” to contextualize the accommodationist beliefs that Black men and women needed to act as ambassadors for their race, an idea made popular by Booker T. Washington, Gilmore explains the burden felt by the first generation of middle class African Americans after the end of slavery.[1] It was the success of the “Best” men and women in demonstrating their equality to white middle class men and women that eventually brought a backlash of racism and violence through the New Men, who felt the established racial and gender hierarchies slipping away. Within the discussions of racial violence and oppression, Gilmore and Hunter both demonstrate the fracturing effects of Jim Crow on  the African American communities, a much ignored aspect of Reconstruction history.

Women attempted to reclaim their identities from the racial oppression by engaging in recreational activities such as dancing, being active in their church communities, and forming aid groups to help their communities and to promote solidarity among their professions and class. Gilmore highlights the interplay of class divisions and racial identities in creating a nebulous boundary for “Best men” or “Best women” and the problems that emerged from those definitions in Jim Crow as younger generations of men and women came of age, and sought to carve out their own identities in society. Through leisure excursions, such as dancing and listening to jazz as a means of asserting individuality and expanding Black culture, “Best” men and women’s vision of racial uplift was challenged by this younger generation. Gilmore’s examination of gender and the formation of Best Black Men and Women highlights the double edged sword that such behavior seemed to carry, bringing criticism on younger generations of African Americans from both the white community, who, Hunter highlights, viewed Black sexuality as a threat to society and inseparable from jazz and dance, and the middle class Black community who viewed this behavior as undermining the progress of equality. Neither author fully explores this fragmentation, leaving a fascinating research path underdeveloped.

Highlighting role of class in determining the struggles and causes that these women faced in post-bellum society gave voice to silenced women in both working and middle class communities in southern societies.  For Gilmore, a post-bellum generation of middle-class Black women emerged as educated diplomats to white society, focused on reform movements to improve their communities and change prevailing racial stereotypes of African Americans that were formed within antebellum society. The working class women whom Hunter focused on embraced the autonomy to move from the country to the city to escape oppressive conditions, and later the freedom to move out of Atlanta to northern cities that defined the Great Migration to seek opportunities. However, both authors focus on the struggles that existed for each group within Jim Crow, and the ways that those tensions complicate the understanding of the experiences of African American women, and more broadly African American communities, in the early twentieth century. One their own, each book is an insightful and crucial work for understanding African American, Women’s, and Social histories at the turn of the twentieth century; when paired together these two works offer a well-rounded insight into the divisions and struggles that were present within these communities, most importantly they reveal the divergent ideas of racial uplift that dominated the twentieth century in action. I cannot recommend reading these two books enough.


[1] Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois had well-known, and well documented, differing opinions regarding racial uplift. Washington was an accomodationist who believed that in order to earn the respect of white supremacists African Americans needed to emulate and surpass middle class white families in their behavior, education, and business acumen.

Gender, Violence, and Memory

The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Nayanika Mookherjee; Duke University Press, 2015.

The Spectral Wound

What is the goal of studying the experiences of women in history? This is a unifying question for many women historians I think. How we come to terms with violence, war, and women’s histories has become something that I find myself more focused on this semester as the classes I have been taking are focused on the intersections of rupture, memory, and violence. Rape narratives are fundamental to the narrative of collective memory of the war, and in the case of the Bangladesh War of 1971, the struggle for independence. In The Spectral Wound, Nayanika Mookherjee tries to understand the memory of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan through the national recognition of rape victims by the Bengali government; not only has the government recognized the victims but they named them birangonas, or heroinesPublic memory or as Mookherjee calls it, the “pathological public sphere,” forces the deconstruction, reconstruction, and reinterpretation of the events of 1971 that results in shifting politics and a continual search for compensation and closure by the victims.

The mantel of birangona grants victims of rape during the war a status that absolves them of the shame that often accompanies sexual violence in Muslim cultures. At the same time, many of the birangonas are expected or coerced into sharing their accounts of rape publicly as a means of reinforcing the anti-Pakistan rhetoric. A point that Mookherjee emphasized throughout the book is the need to incorporate women as part of the new nation, that created the need to form the emblematic heroine as a way of not only incorporating women into the nation, but as protecting the future of the nation. Personal memories become public in the recollection of the war, and the victims are reliving their trauma in everyday life as other victims of violence do, but must also relive it on the public stage. In the foreword, Veena Das explains the dichotomy of expected behavior and reality, but also highlights the role of the expectations that the victims must navigate, “It was often alleged various people in Bangladesh that women from respectable families who were raped never told their stories and that stories of rape were a ruse for poor women to extract something from the government” (xii). It is these divisions that continue to keep this spectral wound open in Bangladesh.

These women serve as the wound that Bangladesh suffered during war and symbolize the wounds the Bangladeshi people suffered before independence. It is a difficult concept to understand how a woman can be heralded as birangonas and at the same time shamed because they are not adhering to the gendered expectations of society by remaining silent; though perhaps it is not too difficult to understand in the wake of so many high profile sexual assault charges in the news that women are both called heroines and expected to remain demure and silent. What bothers me about these accounts of rape is the way agency is stripped from the women, and though they are birangonas they remain a subject of derision.

The term spectral is an interesting choice, do we think this means that the women, their families, and the nation are haunted by the memories because they don’t know how to put the “ghosts” of the rupture to peace? Is there ever peace for the victims of violent sexual assault or do they have to learn to live with their ghost? It is the threat of continuous rupture that puts these women in a difficult space of belonging; political violence (which these rapes most certainly were) doesn’t end when the violence has ended, but echoes into the future.

Mookherjee provides a nuanced, and thoughtful exploration of the ways that Bangladesh honors victims of sexual violence even as they strip the “heroines” of agency through the commercialization of their memories. In addition to exploring the ways that state intervention in the rape of hundreds of thousands during the war for independence changes both the public and individual memories of that rape, Mookerhejee also examines the way that the loss of masculinity through sexual assault extends the trauma through time and across relationships. By refusing to focus solely on the female victims of the war, Mookherjee swings at the gendered dimensions of history and memory.

Even though Mookherjee’s work is focused across the globe and a century after my own research interests, I believe that her insights and her approach to the topic provide tools to navigating my own research and the ways that those wounds remain open. I found watching Mookherjee talk about her process and the lives that these individuals found outside of their role as birangonas shifted my perspective on the research that she did; this becomes a story with a glimmer of hope.

Talk Given by Mookherjee

This is an NPR story that I came across the morning that I finished this book on the legacy of sexual violence in Korea:

A Social Healer

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990).

A Midwife’s Tale is divided up into ten chapters, each focused on a specific aspect of Martha Ballard’s life, and the corresponding diary entries.  Ballard’s accounts are so rich in material that “the problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed” (25). So much of Thatcher Ulrich’s writing seems to connect to other readings that we have done as part of our blog; it is easy to make connections to Home and Work, to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, to Revolutionary Backlash, to Damned Women, and especially Revolutionary Conceptions.

Several aspects of Martha Ballard’s diary stand out to me, but I am afraid I can only address a couple of them. In the first chapter, Thatcher Ulrich sets out to define the circles that a midwife would have fit into; something that became increasingly important as professionalization of medicine began to gain momentum in the early nineteenth century. Labeling Martha Ballard and her sister midwives as “social healers” Thatcher Ulrich takes the concepts which we have seen used to define early American economy and community by authors such as Boydston, and applies that to the craft of the midwife. It is important to define the place in the community that a midwife would have held, as Martha Ballard and Thatcher Ulrich make clear her only job was not to deliver babies; a midwife was expected to treat the ill, provide herbal medications, ensure safe delivery of children, help prepare the bodies of the dead, observe autopsies, and of course maintain her own home and garden. These expectations of the midwife would not have been fruitful if there wasn’t a social support system in place to assist her; hired helpers, daughters, nieces, neighbors, and even occasionally husbands or other men from the community would be called upon for assistance to ensure the success of the midwife. Thatcher Ulrich stresses that Martha Ballard’s experiences were not exceptional and that she was, “one among many women with acknowledged medical skills. Furthermore, her strengths were sustained by a much larger group of casual helpers” (62). This revelation (perhaps too strong a word) gives much more importance to the practice of calling on neighbors; in order to maintain the social network and bonds that were needed to keep her successful, a midwife (or really any woman during that time) would have had to maintain her relationships with as many of her neighbors as she could so that she would be confident in her ability to call on them for help. As I was reading this I kept thinking back to the ways that these social calls were portrayed in period dramas, Anne of Green Gables (1985) stood out to me. Rachel Lynde is the pesky neighbor who is always seen calling on Marilla Cuthbert in the 1985 version, and Rachel is portrayed as a bit of an overbearing, nosey neighbor who is determined to interfere in the Cuthbert’s affairs. The 2017 version of Anne of Green Gables however shows a more realistic relationship between Marilla and Rachel; Rachel comes to help Marilla with canning, and the share a friendship that works to highlight both the solitude of housekeeping in the late 18th and early 19th century, but also the important bonds that women shared through helping each other with larger tasks. This is the invisible work that Boydston argued allowed for the survival and success of the community.

The other aspect that I would like to focus on is the breadth of sources that Thatcher Ulrich pulled from to create this book. She clearly spent a lot of time working on reading and transcribing parts of Martha Ballard’s diary, but she also used the diaries of several men from the town, court documents, county and state census data, store ledgers, and personal correspondence when she could find it to pull Martha Ballard’s life from the shelf and give her story to the world. I readily admit that I am jealous of how many sources Thatcher Ulrich was able to compile for this project, as I continue to struggle to find personal letters and diaries of the women who I would like to write about. I would be curious to know how much time she spent on her research before she was able to piece together a firs

t draft. However jealous I am of her source material, I do recognize that it is Thatcher Ulrich’s ability to weave it together in a compelling narrative that not only made this such a powerful book for me to read, but won her the Pulitzer.

Image of Martha Ballard’s Diary

Thatcher Ulrich closes the book with Martha Ballard’s death in 1812 at the age of 77 by saying this:

Her restraint in recording the sins of her neighbors, her humility in acknowledging her own, her charitableness, even her martyrdom and self-pity, were molded by this ethic of caring. But unlike the thousands of midwives and ordinary Christians who have always lived by these standards, Martha Ballard ensured that she would not be forgotten… To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power—and poverty—of written records (342-343).

I am so happy that I read this book, not just because of the wealth of information that it provided me, but also for the insight into the life of eighteenth century women. I do not think this level of insight would have been possible without having her own words available to us.

It might be clear that I really liked the newer deeper version of the tale of Anne Shirley, here is a link to the trailer:

Trailer for Anne of Green Gables on Netflix:

 This is an excellent documentary from the BBC on British homes. The documentaries demonstrate exactly how much work was put into “everyday” tasks such as cooking and cleaning. No wonder Martha Ballard would rather have the girls do the washing!

Lucy Worsley If Walls Could Talk “bedrooms”