Few historians have contributed more to our understanding of the history of women, and women's effect on history, than Alice Kessler-Harris. Author of the classic Out to Work, she is one of the country's leading scholars of gender, the economy, and public policy.
In this volume, Kessler-Harris pierces the skin of arguments and legislation to grasp the preconceptions that have shaped the experience of women: a "gendered imagination" that has defined what men and women alike think of as fair and desirable. In this brilliant account that traces social policy from the New Deal to the 1970s, she shows how a deeply embedded set of beliefs has distorted seemingly neutral social legislation to further limit the freedom and equality of women. Government rules generally sought to protect women from exploitation, even from employment itself; but at the same time, they attached the most important benefits to wage work. To be a real citizen, one must earn--and most policymakers (even female ones) assumed from the beginning that women were not, and should not be breadwinners. Kessler-Harris traces the impact of this gender bias in the New Deal programs of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and fair labor standards, in Federal income tax policy, and the new discussion of women's rights that emerged after World War II. "For generations," she writes, "American women lacked not merely the practice, but frequently the idea of individual economic freedom." Only in the 1960s and '70s did old assumptions begin to break down--yet the process is far from complete.
Even today, with women closer to full economic citizenship than ever before, Kessler-Harris's insights offer a keen new understanding of the issues that dominate the headlines, from the marriage penalty in the tax code to the glass ceiling in corporate America.
A leading scholar on women's history and public policy, Kessler-Harris expands the work she began in her previous book, Out to Work: The History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States, to examine not just women's employment history, but also the forces that have shaped economic policy for the past 100 years. In the introduction, she says, "For generations, American women lacked not merely the practice but frequently the idea of individual economic freedom." For anyone even remotely familiar with employment trends, this doesn't seem like a revelatory comment, but Kessler-Harris proceeds to make it one. By looking at crucial pieces of legislation and important court cases, she reveals the subtle shifts in language that marked progress for women and changed the work landscape. She points out that some employment areas, like Social Security legislation and tax laws, proved to be particularly resistant to equality for women, and changed very slowly over decades. Others, like the corporate glass ceiling, have yet to budge in some industries. Although focused on the larger issues of gender and economic policy, the book is also a refreshingly compact and useful primer on 50 years of employment legislation, detailing the crucial arguments and heated congressional debates that brought both men and women from the depths of the depression to the brink of equal economic citizenship. Historical perspective is especially important in later chapters, as she describes the effects of legislation that gave many middle-class women economic freedom, but had unforeseen negative consequences for poor women and women of color. But Kessler-Harris's cautious optimism about our shared economic future is hard toresist. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.