Invisible Threads: Maintaining the Social Fabric in the Twentieth-Century United States

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Labor and Working-Class; Social Welfare and Public Health


This panel examines hidden forms of labor performed by women and marginalized groups in the twentieth-century United States whose contributions to the wellbeing of their fellow citizens were largely unrecognized and uncompensated. Kimberly Enderle’s paper examines how public narratives of the work performed by the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II contrasted with the pilots’ lived experiences and had the effect of erasing their contributions to the labor of war. Greta de Jong describes how citizen volunteers who served on court-ordered parent and community councils that were set up to help implement school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s took on tasks, without pay, that school and city officials had abdicated or left unfunded. Jane Berger’s paper examines the unpaid caretaking labor that was forced upon low-income and working-poor African American women in the wake of cuts to social services in the 1980s. Together these papers expose the ways that political leaders’ failure to adequately provide for the public welfare created an invisible labor force made up of those who donated time, energy, and expertise to maintaining the nation’s fraying social fabric.

Papers Presented

The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II: Public Images and Private Realities and the Burdens of Lasting Progress

This interdisciplinary paper explores the wartime labor of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II from a social constructionist epistemology and the theoretical framework of a feminist historian. It examines the public image that Jacqueline Cochran (Director of Women Pilots, U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II) sought to portray in the media not only of herself but also of the WASP program participants, in contrast with media reporting on the WASP program and the private lived experiences of individual WASPs. The WASPs volunteered to serve in the Army Air Forces for the duration of the national emergency plus six months, with a promise of militarization during their wartime service. However, as government contract employees they were forced to pay for transportation to attend training, uniforms, meals, and lodging, and when 38 women were killed during their military service, their sister WASPs had to take up a collection to transport them home, and their families paid for their burials. Moreover, inaccurate media reporting, portrayals in Hollywood films, and a strategic campaign by male Civil Aviation Administration contract pilots resulted in Congress’s failure to pass WASP militarization legislation and early termination of the program on December 20, 1944. After the war, the WASPs’ service was largely forgotten, and they were denied veteran’s status, financial compensation, and GI Bill benefits. The arguments presented in this paper are supported by interviews with five WASP veterans. By examining these women’s wartime military service, as pilots in a field heretofore deemed masculine or “men’s work,” this paper provides insights into the rewards and punishments associated with gender nonconformity and female masculinity in the labor force during and after the war. This work adds to the literature by providing new understandings of WASP veterans’ lived experiences within the cultural and gendered norms of the pre– and post–World War II era.

Presented By
Kimberly Ann Enderle, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Making Schools Work: Parent Labor in the Desegregation of Boston Public Schools, 1974–1985

This paper examines the hidden labor performed by citizens who served on court-ordered parent and community councils that were set up to monitor progress toward desegregation and help improve the quality of education provided in Boston public schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Federal judge W. Arthur Garrity made citizen participation a core component of the desegregation order, creating an extensive network of volunteer councils made up of parents and representatives of business, labor, cultural, education, and community institutions. The people who served on these councils donated inordinate amounts of time and labor to “make schools work” for their own and others’ children. Parents’ insistence on having a say in all aspects of their children’s education expanded their roles and increased their workloads. Meanwhile, school officials provided little support and frequently tried to obstruct council activities, while city leaders disinvested in public education, citing financial constraints. As a result, parent and citizen volunteers took on responsibilities that government officials had either abdicated or left unfunded. This research challenges popular narratives of school desegregation in Boston that paint Garrity as a tyrannical federal judge imposing his will on an unwilling populace, instead highlighting the work of citizens who supported integration and used the court order as an opportunity to implement broad reforms in the school system. It also shows how the voids caused by deficient political leadership and declining support for public services increased the burdens shouldered by citizen volunteers in the late twentieth century.

Presented By
Greta Elizabeth de Jong, University of Nevada, Reno

"Watch[ing] Their Children’s Every Move": Race, Gender and Caretaking During the Era of Austerity in Baltimore

During the 1970s and 1980s, as the federal government decreased its commitment to combating poverty with wealth redistribution, low-income residents in Baltimore lost access to needed public services. With fewer federal funds to hire workers to mow the grass and trim bushes in the city’s public parks; provide rat eradication and winterization services; check for lead paint; and assist the elderly with chores they could no longer quite manage, the city abandoned or cut back severely on those and other antipoverty efforts. Meanwhile, the federal government tightened the eligibility requirements for entitlements, including Food Stamps and Medicaid. Despite the cuts, the city’s children still needed safe places to play and live. Many elderly residents still needed support. And residents continued to need food and someone to care for them when they were sick. In the wake of the cuts, some simply did without. But women with low incomes, most of them African American, also stepped up to try to fill the voids. They monitored their children’s play; taped up garbage bags to keep out the vermin and cold; checked in on their elderly neighbors; traveled to distant food pantries; and stayed up late and missed work to monitor health scares. And they fought to restore needed funding. All the while, they were derided as welfare queens. This paper identifies the invisible labor women with low incomes performed to compensate for federal policies that shifted wealth up the economic ladder.

Presented By
Jane Berger, Moravian College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Beth Robinson, Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi

Presenter: Jane Berger, Moravian College
Jane Berger is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program at Moravian College. Her research focuses on public-sector workers and unions and the relationship between the provision of public welfare services and women’s gendered caretaking roles. She has a book on those topics forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Presenter: Greta Elizabeth de Jong, University of Nevada, Reno
Greta de Jong is a scholar of African American history and a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on black struggles for justice in the twentieth century with particular attention to intersections of race and class. Her most recent publication is You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (UNC Press, 2016).

Presenter: Kimberly Ann Enderle, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Kimberly Enderle is a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst specializing in women’s history and military history in the twentieth century. Her research explores the representation of women veterans in American culture and media in contrast with women’s lived experiences. Kim is combat veteran herself who served in the Pentagon for five years and spent seven years abroad in Korea, Kuwait, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.