Class in the 20th Century: Economic and Cultural Distinctions

The first three decades of the 20th century were difficult times for many Americans at home and abroad. Aside from the First World War, many of the issues that the American public had to deal with were domestic and deeply ingrained in American society. Women continued their struggle for economic and social equality even after suffrage was given to them. Labor unions struggled on two fronts: economic mobility and solidarity. While facing an uphill battle with their employers and industrialists, they had to find a solution to the inner struggles of the multi-faceted labor movement.

African Americans attempted to break through the cement ceiling of segregation in the United States by economic protests such as the boycotting of businesses with unfair employment practices. All of these struggles were tied into each other by a larger struggle over class identification and mobility. Authors such as Michael McGerr and Nancy Cott address the issue of class in very different manners that reflect the dynamic nature of the problems of class structure in the United States Understanding the nature of class in the early 20th century in the United States is key to any study of American history.

This presentation of class struggle cannot go any further without talking about definitions of class. Class is an elusive social structure to identify and has been interpreted many different ways. In general, it can be said that studies of class can be divided between cultural definitions and economic definitions. Aage B. Sorenson speaks to economic divisions as a means to class definition in the article, “Toward a Sounder Basis for Class Analysis.” Sorenson’s definition of class falls into three economic tiers: nominal characterization, “class as life conditions,” and the Marxist class concept. Nominal characterization studies class in terms of observable stratifying conditions, most notably income and occupational prestige.

These characterizations are applied in studying “class as life conditions,” which is essentially the comparison of different living styles based on the results of nominal characterization. Any inequalities that are found in this second analysis are based on market driven inequalities. Associations are made between the way people live and what material goods they have. At a much more critical level, Marxist concepts of class provide the structural theory for inequality in class. According to this, the economy is based on exploitation and class is the tool of suppressing the masses. These explanations by Sorenson provide an understanding of class as an economical outcome.

Class can also be defined in terms of how culture divides and fortifies certain groups. E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class in the 1950s as a new course for the study of working class history. Thompson was strongly influenced by the New Left in England while attempting to exorcise the remaining demons of Stalinism and idealistic Communist thought. In “The Making,” Thompson explores class consciousness and solidarity not in terms of common means of production but of a complex and long term search for identity.

This identity was created by lower class workers and artisans as a result of brief successes and embarrassing failures in dealing with industrialists and political leaders. Thompson viewed the working class not in their workplace environment but in their everyday lives and in their social interactions, giving primacy to cultural events in shaping class identity. E.P. Thompson’s work proved to be important to the New Labor History of the 1970s and to other studies of class as a cultural phenomenon.

It is necessary to establish a working definition of class for the purpose of this analysis. The most logical conclusion to make from the above commentary on class distinctions is that it is a mixture of both Sorenson and Thompson’s idea of class. However, it is not sufficient to simply meld the two definitions of class together; both economic and culture are not similar in their importance in determining social structures. The definition of class that will prove useful is that class is the division of society along lines of economic qualifications such as salary and professional prestige, with the consequences of these divisions showing themselves in cultural events like the creation of families, popular culture, and ethnic celebrations of tradition. In the following analysis, two books about the nature of class in the early 20th century will be discussed in terms of the previous definition of class. They will also be placed in perspective with the debate between economic and cultural class analyses.

Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent portrays the Progressive movement as a group of middle class reformers who wanted to influence the class system in the United States. Specifically, the Progressives wanted the upper and lower classes to be transformed as they had been from the Victorian ideas of the late 19th century. As McGerr states, “Progressives seldom suggested that middle-class status itself was problematic…the problems belonged to…wealthy, workers, and farmers.” McGerr looks at the relationship the Progressives had in dealing with the upper and lower classes of the United States in a number of different historical scenarios. The example that seems most appropriate here is that of the anthracite strike of 1902 and the attempts to bridge the gap between industrialists and miners.

The goal of the Progressives in mediating the anthracite dispute of 1902 was much more than solving labor issue or placating the “upper ten;” it was a struggle for the middle class to forge an identity as the integral part of what McGerr referred to as “interclass harmony.” Knowing that they could not simply take the avenue of economic appeasement or an increase in industrial authority, Progressive mediation involved supporting both industrial solutions to labor woes and recognizing in lower class workers the importance of social ties outside of work. To this end, Progressives seem to have been working on the side of industry because of the primacy of economic concerns on cultural environments.

McGerr observes that industrial capitalists were faced with the choice of bludgeoning their workers or winning their support from labor unions. The former was accomplished by the “open-shop” drive, which sought to win back control over factory operations from organized workers and foremen gone awry with power. McGerr’s reasoning for the laborers wanting the union friendly “closed shop” was that laborers wanted to control the size and output of the workforce. This seems to be too sinister a plot for those organizing and working just to maintain their livelihood. More likely, the “open shop” was the factory owner’s way of keeping social solidarity out of the economic sphere. Factories that remained open to company unions and more aggressive strikebreaking measures would reinforce only the worst parts of social interaction, typically racial prejudice. The more likely reason for labor’s “closed shop” drive was to survive against the tides of industrial labor measures, not to overthrow industrial capitalism as a whole.

The more effective means through which factory owners sought to solve rising labor issues was welfare capitalism. McGerr defines welfare capitalism as “…the provision to employees of service and benefits not mandated by the state,” and describes the various components of this solution. Factory owners started to provide housing, schooling, and recreation as a benefit to working with and staying loyal to their employer. In McGerr’s account, this seems to have been an effective and creative way to subdue labor tensions. This seems accurate because it strikes at the very nature of class conflict. Factory owners were solving economic problems and inefficiencies with cultural solutions, specifically affecting family relationships, quality of life, and recreation.

The middle class were ostensibly representing the lower class in labor disputes, though it seems that the Progressives were also contending for their own position in the upper-lower class battle. McGerr’s major contention in this particular section is that the Progressives were sympathetic to unified labor and its concerns, but was wary of engaging the industrial capitalist elite on their behalf except to incite a “moral revolution.” After all, the purpose of the Progressives in this work was to change the class structure to become more friendly in its operations to the educated middle class. Progressives, enamored with guilds and organizing of any kind, encouraged groups to get together for the purpose of “association” and “fellow-feeling.” The contribution of the middle class to solving the anthracite strike and other labor issues was to inject its philosophies on class structure in America into the negotiations. Largely, this endeavor proved to be folly and the middle class was left to continue its search for identity.

Michael McGerr’s analysis fits near the middle of the economic-cultural class spectrum, though it leans closer to a cultural emphasis. Nancy Cott, on the other hand, seems to aim toward an economic analysis of class in The Grounding of Modern Feminism. Though the topic of feminism’s origins and the language of women’s suffrage would seem to indicate that it was a cultural movement, it relied heavily on economic factors like wage earning and occupational prestige. Cott’s thesis of studying “consciousness” in the feminist movement of the early 20th century is fulfilled by a significant study of economic forces.

Chapter Four of Cott’s book, entitled “Equal Rights and Economic Roles,” seems to be the chapter that is central to this analysis of feminism. Cott speaks to the debate between women in the National Women’s Party (NWP), those who wanted an amendment for equal rights, and women who were involved in the labor movement, or those who wanted to maintain protective legislation for female laborers. Even before this dispute is discussed, Cott deems it important to state that the feminist identity was almost entirely tied to independent wage earning, instead of merely attaining political equality. Economics were only the fulfillment of basic necessity for women helping support families, but the importance of independence in the workplace and in wage earning became paramount to the feminist identity.

After qualifying the rest of the chapter with this statement, Cott goes into detail regarding the relationship of the National Women’s Party with women who were not members and were increasingly critical of the Party. Leaders of the NWP like Alice Paul were engaged in a struggle over the identity of the feminist movement. They saw the next step for their movement in the pursuit of the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional reform that would guarantee equality in the economy and society for women. In opposition to this were lower class women and those bothered by the zealous nature of the NWP, who wanted to keep the gains made by protective labor legislation. In cases like Muller v. Oregon and by the wider spread of organization amongst women, significant gains were made to lower work hours, raise wages, and make workplaces safer. However, this legislation sacrificed the ability for women to advance beyond the roles given to them as “inferiors” by these laws. The debate, therefore, was between a slow but steady path toward limited economic gains and a faster but more difficult path toward guarantees of equality for women nationwide.

The fight over an amendment to the Constitution was consistently won by proponents of protective legislation. The idea that women were “weak, dependent, and overburdened” seemed to overwhelm any of the prior ideas of feminism as an equalizing force. Another strike against the amendment was that the prime movers in the effort for better working conditions, white lower and middle class women, were gaining enough to not go to such extremes. Little or no consideration was given to minority women in similar jobs and an amendment would necessarily guarantee equal rights for all women regardless of race. White women were climbing to “white collar” jobs that promised at the very least job protection and a decent wage. However, these jobs did not promise much in the way of mobility and women were pressed against the glass ceiling looking up at an unfulfilled potential. Minority women, on the other hand, were stuck in part time, difficult jobs that kept them underneath a concrete ceiling, with no promise for their economic future.

Cott delves into cultural explanations for the vehement opposition to the ERA by discussing the opinions of working class women. In Cott’s view, it was quite apparent that working women were not prepared to engage in a lengthy fight over equal rights. The majority of working class women were content with the wages they earned, the conditions they worked in, and their relationship not only to men but to other women. This contentment, or resignation, was based on cultural characteristics of the lower class. Many women based their views on the workplace and the home on religious doctrines of dependence for women and reliance on patriarchal tradition. Cott states that immigrant women were likely to base their workplace mentality on their views on neighborhood and kinship developments, relying on interdependence and social ties. This particular overview by Cott, along with comments on sexuality, is intimately tied into her economic arguments and shows the consequences, not the causes, of the feminist movement.

Having analyzed two works on class in the early 20th century, it is now important to look at where these works fit in our definition of class. McGerr’s analysis of the Progressive movement and its involvement in negotiating the anthracite strike of 1902 fits well into the definition of cultural primacy. It is obvious from this particular chapter and from the book as a whole that McGerr deems cultural identity as the most important part of the Progressive program and the upper-lower class conflict. Economic conflict allowed the educated middle class to have a means to spread their doctrine of “fellow-feeling” and to assert their role as intermediary in American society. They agreed with reforms in the work place like scientific management and welfare capitalism not because it was to help the worker in any way; rather, they agreed with these reforms because they felt that the average worker could be transformed into a stronger economic actor. The consequences of these reforms were to improve economic efficiency and to provide the Progressives a place at the bargaining table; anything culturally or socially that came from the reforms was secondary to the movement.

McGerr makes the point in his conclusion that the middle class was not successful in asserting itself as a mediator. Progressives in the second and third generations of the movement partook in the decadence of the 1920s and were ambivalent about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the long run, the Progressive movement failed to fully address the cultural elements of class by assuming the economic and social malleability of the individual.

McGerr’s account of this time period is considerably different in tenor to Linda Cott’s and there is a significant difference in its relationship to definitions of class. Despite discussions of issues like domesticity and sexual rights, the bulk of The Grounding is based on economic issues and their resolutions. Before the National Women’s Party labored for suffrage, there were ties between the amount of work and the type of work done by women and their importance at home. These ties were modified after the Nineteenth Amendment, but still remained in spirit. Women associated the post-vote feminist movement with independence at work and problems like fairer wages and better working conditions. After the vote, leadership groups like the NWP became associated more with the educated and the upper class than with those at the ground floor of women’s issues. This shift in the composition of leadership turned many off to the Equal Rights Amendment and the majority of working women did not feel that they were represented by their leaders. The women’s movement, in short, was not sure how to deal with women after its initial demands were met. Economic improvement and the promise of political power were achieved, leaving a nebulous movement of women to figure out their next fight.

The problems of the United States in the 20th century have revolved around issues of class and changing definitions of the class structure. Two of the problems discussed in this paper, labor and women, have remained to this day issues without any substantive resolution in sight. The reason for the ongoing nature of such issues is that class has remained an elusive and amorphous concept for academics, politicians, and the general public alike. Even the classifications of class as economic or cultural prove to be difficult in pinpointing definitions of what class is and in how class is intertwined with other issues in America. However, these general areas of analysis and the working definition used in this paper show that issues of defining class need to be addressed in various ways in order to create a dialogue in studies of class. This dialogue is necessary in order to dispel myths about class analysis. It is also necessary to pave the way for future authors like McGerr and Cott to discuss the history of American society through the lens of class struggles.

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