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Women’s Sites of Struggles for Self-Determination: Rethinking the Long History of Woman Suffrage through Multidimensional Mobilizations (1800s-1970s)

The Boston Women’s Educational and Industrial Union: When Business Undergirded Claims to Political Participation (1877-1920)

Jeanne Boiteux


Cet article est une étude de cas portant sur une association de réforme féminine de l’ère Progressiste, la Women’s Educational and Industrial Union de Boston. Cette enquête révèle la façon dont certaines organisations du même type se sont approprié une façade commerciale afin de renforcer leur autorité, et ce, en particulier dans le contexte d’une coopération avec les pouvoirs publics. Avant la ratification du xixe amendement, alors qu’un mouvement de réforme municipale prenait de l’ampleur, des réformatrices, même si elles n’étaient pas suffragistes, ont mis à profit leur origine sociale pour créer des liens plus étroits avec les membres de la classe politique. En s’appuyant sur le cadre conceptuel récemment élaboré par Derrick Spires dans son analyse de la citoyenneté américaine et reposant sur l’idée d’une performance de la citoyenneté, nous nous intéresserons à la façon dont les premières générations de diplômées de l’université se sont constitué une identité économique et politique en tant que femmes d’affaires et gestionnaires de patrimoine.

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1“It is all very well for the Union to work for the ‘social, educational and industrial advancement of women,’ but so long as it continues to serve ‘especially large portions to gentlemen,’ it cannot be enrolled in the feminist movement”—this pique is the brief contribution from one anonymous employee of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU) of Boston to the newspaper circulated internally by its Employees’ Association between 1911 and 1914 (“Equal Rights As To Appetites” 5). To make sense of the joke, it is necessary to know that the women operating this Progressive social reform organization aimed at jointly improving women’s economic and civic status, and that they did so by providing educational and employment opportunities, through such businesses as clothing shops, a catering service, and several lunch rooms, tea rooms and restaurants.

2The WEIU was founded in 1877 in Boston as a female “self-help” association, one of several class-bridging women’s organizations in the city. The early leadership as well as more prominent and active members, who paid more than the bottom-tier $1 due, came from Boston’s middle and upper classes. Their male family members included Harvard professors, wealthy manufacturers, and politicians active at the state and federal levels. A study of the classes, lectures, and entertainments the WEIU offered its members suggests that they tended to be white, native-born women who were either housewives, professionals, or white-collar workers and petty entrepreneurs. Passing remarks made by contemporaries suggest, however, that from the early years the bulk of membership was socially mixed, and that the Union’s rooms offered resources of which both “ladies” and “poor wom[en]” could avail themselves—socialization for ladies, free newspapers and job offers for their poorer sisters (“Woman’s Work for Woman” 11). After 1890, college-trained women, both of college age and older, came to constitute a significant part of the organization’s membership and personnel.

3To study a women’s reform organization, it is essential to locate its leaders’ social backgrounds, especially when they developed ideas and programs aimed at bettering society. What reformers proposed to do was a function of who they were. In the case of the WEIU, the founders’ backgrounds shaped their goals of improving women’s chances as self-supporting individuals in the city. Over the course of decades, a changing leadership creatively dabbled with legal aid, vocational education, social science research, political advocacy, producers’ cooperatives, and cooperative banking, among many things. So it appeared that by 1913 “[t]he Women’s Educational and Industrial Union [was] noted for the length of its name, and the wide range of its activities. Under a single roof [were] manufactured delectable luncheons, economic theses on the status of woman, and sales-girls warranted not to chew gum” (“The Union Done in the Vest-Pocket Style” 12).

4Manufacturing things (or overseeing the process) is what the young, college-educated New Women who staffed and ran the WEIU at its peak saw themselves as doing. In the funny papers that they edited for their own enjoyment, they lamented the tyranny of the clock and expounded on the need to be ever more “efficient.” As much as they were reformers, they were also businesswomen engaged in productive, remunerated work outside of the home—which Carroll D. Wright, then US Commissioner of Labor, called “industrial” (Wright 219).

5In this sense, they only took previous associational developments to their logical conclusions. As soon as local female associations evolved from prayer circles and missionary societies in the 1790s, they had to contend with both the limits and the opportunities created by funding. Throughout the nineteenth century, women’s associations ran orphanages, asylums, schools, or boarding houses for working-class women. These activities were institutionalized by reforms in the provision of welfare in the 1820s, when the transfer of responsibility for poor relief from church to state benefited women’s private charities (McCarthy 34).

6In her study of several women’s “class-bridging” organizations in Boston over the period, Sarah Deutsch links changes in the organization’s structure and operation methods to the WEIU’s “desire to change the city and not just individual women” (397), which required more funds and more political and cultural capital. These women’s efforts to reshape the city led them to adopt a new posture and a language that centered on efficiency and was thus deemed more palatable by their male allies in the City Council and the state legislature, for whom good government had come to mean optimal use of financial resources (Deutsch 397).

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7WEIU women’s appetite for civic participation was shaped by their money-making inclinations, but the reverse was also true. Like many of their contemporaries, they considered that economic dependency on men was antithetical to the status of independent citizen, a view that we find articulated in a satire of anti-suffrage arguments reprinted by the WEIU.1 Following Derrick Spires’s recent exploration of how African-Americans theorized citizenship in the antebellum era, we might do well to look at the practices associated with citizenship. Spires, echoing Martha Jones, defines citizenship as a “relation created by and practiced between members of a community” (Spires 3-4; Jones, 2018 9-10). This definition encompasses others more explicitly focused on the individual rights and obligations towards the state resulting from the citizen’s act of consent to the social contract (Kerber 8). Spires argues that when the status of citizen is not explicitly defined, the performance of these rights and duties, whenever possible, can help individuals and their in-group inch closer to the coveted identity. In this sense, Spires is part of group of scholars who have recently taken to using the linguistic concepts of performance and performativity as lenses through which to view citizenship. They use “performativity” to study citizenship as a relation, or as a prism through which relations between different polities are mediated (Isin 46-47).

8This framework is relevant here because even comfortably-off white middle-class women had visibility and power to gain from membership in voluntary organizations. Throughout the nineteenth century, they were perceived as part of a larger group—women—whose claim to citizenship was disputed (Isenberg; Kerber 97), and whose socialization, to a large extent, took place in and was shaped by alternate spaces (Cott 98-99, 114-115, 168), and they were aware of it. The early Union made much of the universal sisterhood it tried to foster (Report, 1879 8).

9In the light of Spires’s approach to citizenship, if to be a good citizen was to take business concerns seriously because they were then construed as community concerns—what is good for business is good for the community—then it could be expected of at least some women to latch onto business ownership as a basis for the formulation of legitimate claims on citizenship. What follows is an exploration of the Boston Women’s Educational and Industrial Union’s use of their business activities to bolster their claims to participation in local politics, from its founding in 1877 to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, a watershed that opened a door for white women in participatory democracy. To the study of sources documenting the WEIU’s activities—annual reports, but also templates for filing cards, letters to members and suppliers, financial statements, and various pamphlets, advertisements, and publications, including the internal Union Bulletin—I have added articles published in local newspapers and in magazines that Union personnel read, and to which they contributed. This helps delineate their intellectual environment and shows that their ideas, while marginal, formed part of an undercurrent in middle- and upper-class women’s thought.

10What this case study of “philanthropic businesswomen” may illuminate is the enduring diversity of female reformers’ discourses and efforts in the Progressive Era. It has often been documented that after the turn of the 1890s, leaders in the women’s rights movement sharply narrowed down their focus on the vote. Scholars have recently highlighted the “alternate women’s rights discourse[s]” (Hamlin 169) which coexisted with mainstream suffrage activism and championed a diversity of causes. These included, but were not limited to, the rights of working mothers, the socialization of domestic tasks, or equal pay for equal work (Hayden 5-6; Vapnek; Orleck 88). What these alternate discourses seem to have shared was a focus on economic issues and the tendency to link up demands for political and economic equality.

11To contribute to this literature, I propose to delve deeper into the shift in rhetoric and organization that Sarah Deutsch identified in the WEIU—to try and see how business methods and business success were actively leveraged in negotiations with male elites. Progressive “New Women,” far from being interested in the labor question merely as observers, construed both earning power and managerial authority all at once as independence, as political credentials or capital, and as a means of staking a claim in their community. These are the three meanings of business activity as “performance of citizenship” that I will be analyzing, showing how the directors of the WEIU used their commercial activities to portray themselves as organized constituents, model employers, and adjuncts to the city government.

12Business ownership made it much easier to be heard as constituents—the bigger the business, the better. The WEIU played up, leaned into, and constructed a political identity as reformers at least as much as business owners. In a political climate which favored business interests, it was accepted that employers could and should defend them. This likely influenced the reception of the WEIU’s efforts by leading politicians, at least once the reformers had learned to wield their business expertise. Its commercial activities placed the WEIU in a unique position. It was a benevolent employer, but unlike welfare capitalists, its directors were first and foremost those of a social reform organization. The opportunities it created will be examined in a second part. Finally, efficient management could be parlayed into social authority, which is what the WEIU tried to do: I will show that when women’s organizations successfully painted themselves as competent adjuncts to the city government, they were rewarded with the means to carry out their vision as sanctioned providers of public services or public utilities.

Organized Constituents

13Boston’s postbellum municipal government was the site of a decades-long contest for power. As local elites turned away from cotton-manufacturing and towards developing the new western territories, they defended a vision of Boston as a financial hub. Families like the Lowells, the Cabots and the Appletons, among others, formed an old, especially resilient upper stratum. These “Boston Brahmins” controlled both the region’s manufacturing base and its cultural, educational, and associative life, but, frustratingly for them, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the democratically elected city government had become the province of “neighborhood businessmen, skilled workers, mechanics and tradesmen” (Maggor 179). From the 1850s to the 1880s, financiers had to work around them and plot and persuade in order to make the city a more amenable place to conduct their business (179). Eventually, despite this brief struggle, “the Boston political and economic elites merged, and government service advanced class power as well as class or individual honor” (Jaher 26).

14The defense of business interests was similarly taken up readily in many other eastern and mid-western cities. In Chicago, the businessmen who formed the bulk of the City Club’s membership shared a relatively similar view of the city as a space which rightfully belonged to them, and existed to be fashioned in such a way that their profits would be maximized. The key difference was that they had a greater presence in political life than the Brahmins did at the same time. In voluntary associations like the City Club, Chicago’s businessmen defended private subcontracting over government ownership of municipal services, arguing that tax money would be spent more efficiently, and thus more sparingly, and that maximizing private profits would benefit the entire community, not just the concerned entrepreneurs and their employees (Flanagan, 1990 1038, 1044). The popularity of such views was on the rise after the Civil War, as cities grew, sometimes exponentially, and became faced with ever more acute issues of improving sanitation, reducing crime, and redefining both municipal boundaries and the structure of local government. Entrepreneurs sensed that the provision of municipal services was a boon waiting to be appropriated, and they felt entitled to these opportunities. As Maureen Flanagan puts it, “despite businessmen and manufacturers replacing the older merchant oligarchy, […] economic status still conferred municipal political power and kept the municipal government’s focus on economic growth through private enterprise” (Flanagan, 2018 15).

15While we more readily associate patronage relations—and corruption—with political machines, in large cities like New York, where Democratic bosses had the tightest grip on public money and jobs, reformers adopted their own brand of exclusionary models. Their meetings were private, and invitations went to those concerned citizens who happened to be white professionals and merchants. Their eventual success was also that of business interests, so much so that the board meeting became the template for the new way of doing politics that followed their “municipal coup,” in the words of one historian (Ryan 275-276, 279). The redefinition of community interests as business interests—or, to phrase it differently, the growing identification of business interests and municipal interests—must not have gone unnoticed by the leaders of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of Boston.

16When it was established in the 1870s and 1880s, it was not the only women’s organization with hopes of operating as political power players and special interest groups themselves. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) eventually developed a strategy of officially backing dry candidates in local races; around the turn of the century, the National Consumers’ League (NCL) and other groups belonging to the growing consumer movement tried to apply pressure on legislators through a variety of means (Sklar). The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) itself—which cooperated with, and championed the efforts of, the NCL—gave its support to local initiatives. As reported in a Good Housekeeping article dedicated to the “agencies through which woman is reducing the cost of life” (Forrester 670-671), there were often two paths for women’s organizations to follow. They could cooperate with local governments in the hope of their taking the desired decisions, or embrace business-based solutions. Whereas members of the Housewives’ League cooperated with local authorities to establish open markets—to bypass middlemen and get better prices—the Marketing Club of Brooklyn chose to become a wholesaler of its own. This strategy landed the women of the Pittsburgh Marketing Club the same deal as that afforded the railroad company which had built a market house in East Pittsburgh: “[a] new ordinance drafted for Pittsburgh will give the Marketing Club the right to open a market house also, and a track to the trolley system will open the way to farmers” (Forrester 675).

17Club women championing the cause of pure food embraced what they considered both the efficacy and inevitability of lobbying, in the face of industrial interest groups sitting in Congress. What they could do to fight organized “money power” was to constitute themselves as an interest group. First, club women developed the concept of “municipal housekeeping”—the idea that municipal affairs concerned women, both because their homes occupied a certain location and because what happened outside had a vital impact upon family life (Gustafson 14, 16). Building upon it, other club women later compared housekeeping with business, as in a speech delivered to the mayor of Philadelphia on behalf of a delegation of 200 women concerned with corruption in municipal politics:

The word I have to say is in behalf of an industry more important than the most powerful corporation or the greatest industrial establishment: it is the business of housekeeping. We are obliged to come in touch with politics in our work. […] We are tax-payers: we contribute one-fifth of the revenue required to run the affairs of the municipality. Therefore, we are interested and concerned in the present revolt against dishonesty and corruption in our city. As women citizens, we comprise one-half of the population. We have no direct voice in saying what kind of politics shall affect our business: our only redress is through complaint. (“Philadelphia Club Women in Civic Affairs” 156)

18The women of the WEIU went further. They did not need to stop at using metaphors: they were literally conducting several businesses. In addition, they took an active role in fashioning local legislation. As early as 1879, two years after the organization’s founding, they envisioned the legislative changes that they could enact through applying the right kind of pressure. Considering protective legislation passed by the New York Legislature, they remarked: “We hope in due time to get such a law passed in Massachusetts” (Report, 1879 21). Through the 1880s, their efforts to get women hired as police matrons by Massachusetts cities converged with those of similar organizations, including the Buffalo WEIU (“Buffalo”), but the Befriending Committee did not hesitate to attribute itself full credit for the success of the movement. These efforts most likely consisted in private suasion through personal channels.

19Starting in the early 1900s, the WEIU engaged in more active lobbying at the state level, introducing some bills and supporting others. The organization offered assistance to legislators with its Research Fellows gathering and analyzing data, and out of these joint efforts came out several “simplified statements” of Massachusetts law on topics relevant to the working-class and middle-class women whom the Union wished to reach (Assignment of Wages; Simplified Statement of Laws).

20However, unlike the NCL or the GFWC, the WEIU leadership constructed a political identity not just as a group representing citizens’ interests, but also as employers and business owners. They exploited the fact that they were in charge of a not insignificant workforce—100 paid employees in 1910 (“World’s Fair Report” 8)—and that they too, after all, had reason enough to appear at state hearings whenever labor legislation was being considered, since it could affect them. Still, overall, they introduced and supported bills relating to a wide range of concerns, including labor relations, female employees’ well-being and earning power, and their ability to practice responsible financial management. The way that they interacted with government officials shows they believed that they were reformers with a unique insight into the commercial realm. They worked closely with leaders in the business community, who saw themselves as being especially civically-minded and uniquely positioned to effect radical change, and may have indeed identified with them.

21In the early years of their lobbying, however, WEIU women learned the hard way that they were perceived primarily as nosy citizens, not legitimate business owners, by the other business interests in the State Legislature. The failure of their “Employment Bill” showed them how political inexperience could thwart the most reasonable, democratic of intentions. The bill provided for a government investigation of employment offices in Massachusetts. The Union itself ran Class I and Class II employment offices to help domestic workers and college-educated women find jobs. As a result, it was well aware of the potential for abuse created by the absence of requirements for licensing, beyond a small fee. No provisions existed for regular inspections. The city’s Licensing Board was the state office in charge of licensing not only employment offices but also picnic groves, bowling alleys, and other related places of business where alcohol was served.

22In 1909, when the WEIU proposed to partner with the Board to conduct an investigation into the matter—something they and other women’s organizations often did—the Board turned the offer down. Undaunted, the reformers completed a small-scale investigation themselves, sending an agent to the City of Boston’s employment offices to gather data on their business methods and the fees they charged. The ensuing report was written from a scholarly rather than a professional perspective, and did not emphasize the WEIU’s credentials in the field (Employment Agency Situation).

23Despite initially favorable responses from Massachusetts politicians charged with reviewing the Union’s proposed bill, a vote was delayed and “unanimous” approbation inexplicably turned to opposition. This, the reformers learned months later, was the result of the Licensing Board moving against them. In February 1910, one week after the Legal Affairs Committee was presented with evidence gathered by the Union, their opponents were heard in what was supposed to be a business meeting of the Committee, “without notification to the petitioners,” that is, the Union (House Bill 781 n. p.). This move completely blindsided the reformers, who probably did not know, or at least expect, that official channels could be bypassed in such a way. It later came to light that the politicians who changed their minds about the Employment Bill did so because Licensing Board representative old them the Union agent investigating employment offices had usurped the Board’s authority.

24This was not the only action taken by the Board to oppose the reformers’ quest for transparency. In a move made more scandalous still by the Union’s status as manager of employment offices, the Board contacted all the other employment offices in the city to tell them not to cooperate with private investigators. After the House Ways and Means Committee reported unfavorably on the bill, little could be done to save it. The belated reminder to Union members to attend the hearings showed the reformers’ understanding of strength in numbers, but by then it was too late. Likely as retribution for the publication of an impassioned circular detailing the above, the Licensing Board refused to renew the Union’s licenses for its Appointment Bureau and its Domestic Reform League, and the Union had to close temporarily: to be in business meant to have skin in the game, and the risks from political fallout were real (House Bill 781).

25Why did the Licensing Board go to such lengths to counteract a government investigation into employment offices? Reformers suggested that it was the result of “the pressure of its other interests (saloons, picnic groves, skating rinks, billiard and pool tables, and bowling alleys)” (House Bill 781 n. p.). It is not inconceivable that liquor interests were so afraid of potential regulations that they fought to kill the measure. Despite the WEIU’s letter-writing campaign, in which the organization’s president tried to harness the collective power of Massachusetts women’s clubs (Kehew, 1909b) reformers failed to prevail.

26“Public-spirited [women],” even with their long business experience in the relevant field, found it hard to go against entrenched interests. In any case, the incident was used by the organization to reaffirm its definition of the democratic process and of the role of government. To WEIU women, the “right of citizens to ‘study and investigate’ a matter in which they are vitally concerned” had to be defended (House Bill 781 n. p.). As experts, potential clients of employment offices, and constituents, they claimed the right to play a part in the shaping of legislation on the matter, even as they were deprived of the franchise themselves. From their perspective, their status in the community marked them as citizens, and the matter at hand was a public one. They explicitly characterized the distribution of jobs as a task of public interest, but saw no contradiction in private firms carrying it out. What they wanted was enhanced cooperation between all involved parties, as well as increased government oversight. This was their political ideal, which they were refining in the publications of mixed-sex good government reform associations (Bulletin; New Boston). As per the closing lines of their appeal, “[u]nder the American ideal of democratic government, public officials are ‘the servants of the people,’ and a knowledge of their method of fulfilling their trust is the right of every citizen” (House Bill 781 n. p.).

27In subsequent attempts at introducing and championing legislation, WEIU women were more effective in using their employer status to gather and convincingly present conclusive supportive evidence. Just as these reformers were pushing for regulations of employment agencies, they were also taking an interest in the practices of short-term loan companies. As of 1906, the Union had been concerned with the limits of existing regulations and attempted to impress on lawmakers the need for better, smarter legislation, to no avail (Need of Legislation). The Union’s president reiterated her concerns in an appeal to legislators a few years later (Kehew, 1909a). In 1911, legislation concerning small loans was considered and eventually passed, with the support of the Union, a complement to a 1908 law which it had supported but found lacking (“Small Loans”).

28On the heels of its 1910 failure, the WEIU decided to greatly emphasize its insider knowledge. Its investigation was made possible by the fact that it could have its own employees contract loans and assign their wages, in the process collecting documents that companies were not willing to turn over. Assignment of wages was a practice by which money lenders could call on employers to turn over a worker’s wages directly to the loan company, in the event that he or she failed to make the necessary payments on time. Predatory loan agencies often resorted to byzantine arrangements that bordered on the illegal. The WEIU showed that in many cases, no binding assignment existed. When the loan companies contacted employers and demanded that they turn over their employees’ wages, employers just assumed that an assignment had been contracted (“Evidence” 24).

29Showing the ease with which agent Mabel Parton could sign away her wages, the WEIU argued that protecting workers’ financial standing was also in employers’ interests (“Evidence” 8). As the Union noted, eighteen retail dealers in New York had “combined” to fight “loan sharks,” both because anxious employees performed badly and because money paid in sky-high interests was not spent on consumer goods or services. The Union placed itself on the side of progressive employers. Like the department stores upon which it reported—and with which it worked to establish a School of Salesmanship—it started conducting a credit union to provide employees with a safe access to loans (Thirty-Seventh Annual Report 22). A test case could boost the conclusions of the WEIU’s investigation (“Conference of Committees” 2).

30WEIU women were benevolent employers concerned not only with improving house employees’ working conditions through methods evocative of welfare capitalism, but also with raising standards across the board. Through setting an example for other businesses to follow, for instance in instituting an eight-hour day or appointing a health inspector (Year Book 38; Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, 1896 18), they hoped to change customary standards. In that, they apprehended themselves as being part of a community of business-owners: “During the past year we have joined with other business houses in giving shorter hours to our employees, and must report that already their increased interest and faithfulness show the wisdom of the plan” (37).

31Through legislative action, they hoped to secure backing for both higher legal and customary standards. Unlike local paternalist employers, their ultimate goal was to protect all workers, not just their own milliners, clerks, saleswomen, and cooks. This, they thought, could be achieved through a delicate balance of employers’ good will, personal responsibility on the part of employees, and state control. Sound financial management, encouraged by the sale of WEIU-branded account books (“Books of Interest to College Women”), could only be practiced if the state stepped in to keep “loan sharks” in check, but there were limits to the government’s responsibility for employees’ use of their paychecks. All three components—corporate responsibility, individual responsibility, and state oversight—were essential to their vision of a more just society.

Model Employers Enhancing Women’s Economic Citizenship

32The Women’s Educational and Industrial Union backed its direct lobbying efforts with more indirect methods. The Union worked on portraying itself as a creditable business, with the idea that influential business owners played a part in establishing customary standards. Over time, this made it possible for the organization to make the case that, as a model employer, it could spearhead efforts to reshape local practices and labor legislation through sheer example. At the same time, by providing educated women with economic opportunities, the Union worked to enhance not only its own political standing as a women’s organization, but also that of its members or potential members.

33WEIU directors attempted to perform citizenship by making a show of the qualities expected of successful entrepreneurs as the Union cooperated with both other businesses and non-profits and the municipal and state governments. In its multi-faceted work of investigating social issues, devising and running social programs, and conducting political advocacy, reputation was key. Signaling savvy and responsibility was a component of building up a reputation as a trusted partner. As one historian puts it, in the late nineteenth century, Boston’s ethnic politicians “adopted the language of efficiency for their own purpose. Even small shop owners running for city council in Boston proclaimed themselves as business experts” (Connolly 84). This may explain why, in an appeal to Boston businessmen “for co-operation in carrying on and developing [Union] work,” WEIU president Mary Morton Kehew established the organization’s business skills to bolster its credibility:

The gain from business departments, where receipts are greater than expenses, was approximately $12,600 for the year ending April 1, 1906. The loss from those phases of educational, philanthropic and administrative work where expenses are necessarily greater than receipts, was about $27,000. The difference between net receipts and expenses represents the community’s indebtedness to the Union for the social-industrial work that was accomplished. (Kehew, 1906 n. p.).

More details follow, with a figure of 1,000 for average daily attendance in the Lunch Rooms. The letter ends on the offer to forward “reports of the work, or any specific information in regard to its cope and expenditure”: by showing themselves able to raise funds through commercial activity and render useful social services, the Union hoped to impress on Boston’s business community that it could be trusted to use the money “efficiently” (Kehew, 1906 n. p.).

34Having secured the goodwill and approval of influential men, the WEIU could go on to convince still more affluent Bostonians to fund its activities. A typical promotional leaflet published in the 1910s could consist of little more than words of praise from academics like Henry Lefavour, president of Simmons College, David Snedden, State Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, Edwin F. Gay, an economist and Harvard professor, and Richard C. Cabot, a fellow Harvard affiliate and prominent physician interested in social issues. These academics were actively involved in reshaping both public and private education in Massachusetts. By the 1910s, the WEIU could boast that such respected public figures considered the organization “one of the most active leaders of civic progress in Boston,” an “institution […] of the highest value [to] the community” (“Significance and quality of work” n. p.). These arguments were echoed in appeals to members and local businessmen for funding. In the “quasi-public city” (Flanagan, 2018 passim), where the interests of propertied male elites dictated the provision of public services, private philanthropic organizations could contribute their share only if they were able to convince officials that they were doing the right kind of work.

35In Progressive circles, “efficiency” was a cardinal value, which tied politics to business life. As Martin Schiesl writes, by 1900, middle-class reformers’ dissatisfaction with local politics had “led to an emphasis on governmental efficiency, which tended to be defined as the promotion of economic growth and development” (Schiesl 2-3). In other contexts as well, the term referred to a mix of skill, speed, and optimal use of human, material, and financial resources, so as to minimize expenditure and waste while maximizing results. Along with new tools of scientific management like time and motion studies, it was eagerly adopted by the Union, as it had been by home economists and social workers. Lectures by Frederick Taylor and others on such topics as “The Significance of Industrial Efficiency” were advertised to WEIU members. In the Union library, books like Where Have My Profits Gone? promised them not only a perspective on the business world, but also advice to directors and committee members (Admission Ticket; “New Material in the Library” 13).

36During the 1880s and 1890s, annual reports suggest that Union members were still ambivalent about their commercial activities. This is not surprising, given middle-class women reformers’ cultural and strategic reluctance to openly present themselves as anything more than agents of benevolence, even as the Civil War highlighted the usefulness of relying on traditionally male values like business efficiency (Ginzberg 173). Before 1900, only occasionally did the Union’s directors praise more “business-like” methods and practices, like using a horse and wagon or a telephone, which enabled them to make five daily deliveries (Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, 1896 37).

37More saliently than other women’s reform organizations, the WEIU constructed an identity as the operator of successful businesses. Business owners like the managers of the WEIU were far from unique as female proprietors, but they were unusual in that by the First World War the businesses they had built were large by the female standards of the time (Lewis 58-59). They were also very aware of the implications of their commercial activities for their status in their communities. In club women’s circles, the WEIU built visibility and a reputation that revolved around its money-making ventures. In the 1900s, it was one of several clubs influential enough to have a monthly calendar of its activities reprinted in the pages of the Federation Bulletin. In a typical month, half of the page is devoted to descriptions of, or advertisements for, the organization’s commercial activities. Alongside the announcement for a talk by a prominent trade unionist are advertisements for the fresh cream sold in the Union’s Food Sales Room or for its Easter sale, its Uji Tea Room, and its Millinery Shop (“Women’s Educational and Industrial Union Calendar”).

38The Exchange work carried out by the Industrial Department was justified as an “educational” program, because it provided skilled women with a shop window, a market for their wares, and professional advice. This, the Union emphasized in its promotional material and correspondence with consignors (Peabody). From its inception to the 1900s, reports grouped the Exchange with other programs in headings like “Education and Industrial Arts” (Year Book 3). Only later, in the 1910s, was a clear distinction made between the “industrial” and “social-educational” departments, with mentions of the former supporting the latter financially (Thirty-Fifth Annual Report 53).

39What did the reformers mean by “social-educational”? Under that heading were an employment bureau and various services aiming at facilitating women’s entry on the job market. All the shops would also start to welcome students interested in learning management techniques. The goal of these social-educational programs was not only to improve individual women’s economic prospects, both inside and outside the home. It was to broaden their choices and enable them to become less dependent on others’ incomes. At the same time as the WEIU was consolidating its existing businesses, it was revamping its employment bureau for college-educated women and stepping up its lobbying activities. The WEIU’s experimental impulse was strong, but these various programs should not be seen as a disparate collage of experiments. What united the organization’s activities after the turn of the century was their ability to enhance women’s citizenship, in many cases by enhancing their economic citizenship.

40Explorations of the concept of economic citizenship by Alice Kessler-Harris and Lara Vapnek have drawn attention to the very real impact that women’s degraded status on the marketplace had on labor and social rights legislation. Succinctly put, economic citizenship can be defined as the ways one’s economic contribution to society—and sometimes the perception of it—can either hinder or grant access to the rights and privileges of citizenship, like suffrage and various social benefits. When a “gendered imagination” shapes the terms of policy debates, it is in turn nourished by the decidedly gendered outcomes of policy (Kessler-Harris 10-14). In a similarly circular fashion, women’s alleged non-economic nature and their intended exclusion from the sphere of profit-making have not only been rhetorical tools of disenfranchisement: they have shaped legislation hindering women’s access to education and jobs. Faced with the reality of most women’s economically dependent status, legislators could find it easy to keep excluding them from the franchise. This is why taxpayer and breadwinner statuses were deployed by individuals and groups fighting for women’s suffrage. Female factory workers fighting for recognition knew that at stake were not only better wages, but a political identity, a voice, authority, legitimacy—all of which, when secured, would turn them into a much more efficient interest group (Vapnek 1, 7).

41In the nineteenth-century United States, control of one’s own body and property was seen as the prerequisite to making free choices. In the foundational language of natural rights, choice directly translated into the ability to consent to obligations towards the state created by the social contract (Kerber 8). The case can be made that by the close of the century, that political construct had expanded to include the ability to choose to engage in remunerated employment and enjoy its consequent benefits—whether in the form of wages, salaries, or any money earned. Elite men rhapsodized about the way the implicitly masculine value of “free labor” shored up a “civic manhood” that “glorified participation in the marketplace” (Rothberg 14). In that context, women’s restricted choices in the marketplace would have been read as a further sign that their citizenship was of a different kind than men’s.

42The WEIU cultivated a reputation for efficiency as a means of generating money and opportunities, both directly and indirectly, for themselves and other women. A good business reputation facilitated fundraising, but could also be a sale argument in and of itself, while legitimizing the fact that women, especially college-educated, could legitimately fill roles as entrepreneurs and buyers or managers in large corporations.

43At first, between 1890 and 1905, as new blood reinvigorated the organization, they gained greater acceptance for being businesswomen out to generate a profit, if only because it was becoming increasingly necessary for their shops to be self-supporting. As early as 1891, the Lunch Committee could congratulate itself that “the work of the Lunch Committee rests fundamentally on the old question of supply and demand. […] [T]he demand has been constant, the ‘supply’ never-failing, and the results most satisfactory financially” (Report of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, 1891 32). Over time, the Union put department after department on what they called a “business basis” (Deutsch 393). In November 1907 came the conclusion of a decade-long experiment (Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, 1896 12-13), when the Union’s Board of Government notified members and consignors that following successful results, the association would end the practice of consignment and turn to “buying outright.” The commission rate would be raised to thirty percent—a far cry from the ten-percent commission of the early days (Letter to Consignors of the Food Sales Room).

44As the Industrial Department split in two, becoming the Handiwork (later Handwork) Shop and Food Sales Rooms, operations expanded. As early as 1905, the organization provided Bostonians with “the unique spectacle of a business that employs one hundred and twenty paid workers and yields yearly receipts of more than $168,000.00, conducted by one hundred and ten different women, distributed among a Board of Government and sixteen standing committees” (Year Book 14). By the First World War, the WEIU’s successful business plan all came together in a network of related ventures. Growth was fostered by the integration of their business dealings into a loose commercial network. Green Gables, in Magnolia, Massachusetts, was a “Vacation house” placed “under the management of the WEIU, Boston.” Its Tea Room sold “Union cakes received fresh daily” and promotional material suggested that orders could be filled by Boston workers and promptly delivered. In the Gift Shop, guests could buy exclusive toys made for the Union, touted as evidence of “a reputation that [would] be sustained” (Advertisement for Green Gables n. p.). Creating a local presence and reputation ensured that customers would not hesitate to try different types of goods made in Union-managed shops which they had not patronized yet. Increasingly, the Industrial Department’s managers underlined their identity as business owners in their advertising materials. In order to impress prospective consumers, they stressed their efficiency and promptness in filling orders, and invited the public to inspect their “plants,” turning what had been a necessary change in organizational methods into a sale argument (Boylston Street Lunch Room Menu).

  • 2 As is shown by Blanche Baird Shelp’s 1918 bibliography of “business methods” and related volumes: “ (...)

45Adopting business methods meant that employees replaced volunteers and their work was more tightly controlled by management. Wage scales and fixed hours were only the beginning. Eventually, Union managers got to the details of overtime and lateness, and restricted what might once have been subject to informal arrangements between employees. To keep track of situations in which employees were substituting for one another, a complex filing and index system was used, the sort that would become commonplace in American workplaces by the First World War.2 Each department used a number of forms, each with its own identifier; many were for strictly internal use, like justifying and tracking down expenses. Attempts at quantification not only concerned stock but also consignors’ production costs and work time (Order slip; General rules for employees; Overtime and substitutes).

46When the Union officially championed an eight-hour day and minimum wage for women and children, it did so as a progressive employer. By implementing such measures, the Union was able to paint itself as a model employer, especially as several of its activities rested on consignment by home workers, at a time when the exploitation of home workers was deemed a social and public health crisis. The Union hoped to lead by example and show what could be done to improve workers’ lives while still maintaining an acceptable level of business efficiency. The Union hired a health inspector and formalized an employment contract providing employees with at least one week’s paid leave a year after six months—two weeks after a year—in order to protect both workers and consumers from poor hygiene and infectious diseases, overwork, and poor service caused by overwork (Contract of Employment).

47That was not all, however: the work of the health inspector meant more than commitment to middle-class standards of hygiene. She was first hired to provide the WEIU insight into the consignors’ business methods, collecting statistics as to the cost of consignments “with an attempt to estimate, as closely as possible, the per cent of profit and earnings per hour” and “to encourage some simple system of book-keeping as well as business-like habits and methods of work wherever these do not already prevail” (Potter 225).

48Practicing what it preached, the Union aimed to demonstrate it was possible for employers to implement workplace reforms voluntarily, as a complement to regulation, without sacrificing profits. These workplace practices preceded and may have inspired the 1914 report on industrial home work drafted by the Research Department in support of an overhaul of home work legislation in Massachusetts. The impetus for the report lay in the WEIU’s concern for women’s working conditions, wherever their work happened to take place—the shop, or the home. The WEIU’s effort to develop its exchange and shops paralleled its increasing support for placement work. After the report was issued by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics as the first issue in a series of Labor Bulletins, a conference of reform organizations—including the WEIU, the Massachusetts Consumers’ League, and the Massachusetts Child Labor Committee—met to discuss its findings and sent a committee to confer with the State Board of Labor and Industries. The Board being apparently too disorganized to analyze its own records of licensed home workers, it arranged for the WEIU to do so. The findings of this second report enabled the above-mentioned organizations, along with other local players like the Massachusetts Women’s Trade Union League and the Associated Charities, to draft and endorse a bill for the regulation of industrial home work “for the protection of public health” (Industrial Home Work ix-xii).

49Out of all the people involved in this campaign, the WEIU directors were the best acquainted with women’s home manufactures, since the organization sold the products of such activities in its shops. They were perhaps also all the more disappointed to conclude that a revival of women’s handcrafts and domestic industries was not a viable path to economic independence in the twentieth century: “the present system is in no sense a return to the domestic system, nor does it show any tendency to rehabilitate production in the home whereby women may evade economic parasitism” (Industrial Home Work vii).

50The argument could be made that the Union bridged the gap between the worlds of business and reform in other ways, namely by bringing the same spirit of experimentation and “public service” to all of their ventures. The tea rooms and lunch rooms were initially conceived as safe spaces for women working downtown to socialize and have lunch, whether they brought it themselves or bought it there, but profit-making was always on the agenda. This finally brings us to a last parallel between the Union’s commercial activities and those of larger businesses, the expanding corporations which were becoming synonymous with modernity (Marchand). In their quest for recognition through commercial activity, the reformers of the WEIU benefited from the emergence of discourses linking production, consumption, and citizenship in new ways. Industrialists, who were the modern face of production, directly through their lobbying activity and indirectly through the organization of advertising as a new economic sector, claimed the right to a special political role. This, the WEIU had grasped when it tried to establish itself as a necessary help to the city government.

Sub-contractors: Adjuncts to the Local Government

51The WEIU cast itself in the role of adjunct to the city government by attempting to provide necessary social services. In this section, we will look both at the Union’s School Lunch program and its related domestic science apprenticeships. While the School Lunch program eventually received official recognition from the city government, the Union never became a sanctioned educational provider, but its ties to Simmons College enhanced its standing within the community. Through both initiatives, the WEIU played the part of a public utility provider.

52From its inception, the organization cultivated a relationship with Boston’s authorities. Like other women’s voluntary associations, the Union had, from its early days, sought the approval and help of the municipal government. Securing a charter from the state government was only the first, most basic step in seeking institutional recognition. Their early annual meetings and genteel fundraising entertainments, like their 1887 kirmess or the Venetian carnival they put on the following year, were held in churches or in public halls like Mechanics’ Hall. On these occasions, the local press would report on the presence of the Mayor of Boston or the Governor of Massachusetts, both of whom opened the program for the Union’s 1887 fundraising kirmess. That granted WEIU fundraisers the same status as citywide industrial exhibitions like the Mechanics’ Fair, which in 1887 was opened by the very same pair of prominent politicians. This was a sign that women’s organizations, when their members or activities were significant enough, could get symbolic backing from the corporate elite governing the city (“The Coming Kirmess”; “New England: Venetian Dancers”; “The Mechanics’ Fair in Boston”).

53Eventually, the Union came to see itself as providing necessary social services, in response to the “call for public service” (Moran and Pulsifer n. p.). Assistance was a two-way street. At the state level in particular, the WEIU, like other voluntary associations, worked closely with the newly established Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the early days of the organization, in the 1880s, members had little experience with tabulating data. They had to rely on trained statisticians. The deal was simple. Volunteers would do the investigating and gather raw data, before turning them over to the Bureau. Both could then put the findings to use in designing social programs (Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, 1898 50). Such cooperation ramped up in the years before the First World War, as the organization explicitly embraced the ideas and methods of the new social sciences, and worked to put its research-producing capacities to the service of the State government (Industrial Home Work; Eaves) and even that of the federal government, as one late report suggests (Thirty-Ninth Annual Report xiii).

54Because of the way female reformers conceptualized citizenship, these offers for help and cooperation were not disinterested, despite the occasional claim to the contrary. Over the course of the nineteenth century, similar organizations increasingly offered their “assistance” to the authorities, for instance in reporting fraud. By the 1900s, club women taking up social reform work aimed to become the investigating arm of the state, each housewife a potential health and safety inspector. If the nation required men’s “assistance to run its gear” by casting a ballot, then women, even disenfranchised, could be called upon to help, albeit in a peculiarly feminine way (Forrester 673).

55White club women conceived of their civic role as different from men’s, because the citizenship to which they had access was arguably a female one. They were subject to a specific set of rights and obligations which formed the “components of white women’s citizenship” (Gullett 13; Kerber 97). By the 1890s, when the organized women’s club movement was coming into its own at a national level, both gender and race were firmly entrenched as salient factors in the delineation of a different tier of citizenship. Still, the slow erosion of the legal tradition of coverture created an atmosphere of legal and judicial uncertainty (Kerber 38-39). Derrick Spires has analyzed how free black men took advantage of similar circumstances in the antebellum era to argue that they, too, could claim the full array of rights enjoyed by white male citizens, if they only found ways to take on civic responsibilities (Spires). Linda Kerber’s comparison of the roles of gender and race in the definition of citizenship suggests that when women’s organizations cast themselves as private providers of municipal services, they attempted to receive credit for the role they played in the community.

56The Union’s School Lunch program is a concrete example of the type of public-private partnerships which abounded in the Progressive Era city. In the last decades of the nineteenth century charities, the Home and School League, and mothers’ clubs started providing free meals to disadvantaged schoolchildren. Often, especially in high schools, janitors or their wives sold baked goods and candy to students for a small profit. With the emergence of nutrition science and the realization that children’s health and school performance could be improved through diet, home economists and reformers active in women’s clubs started investigating the possibility of government-sponsored school lunches. It was increasingly believed that strong, healthy citizens could be made at school. With nutritionally-balanced meals, children could be taught how to eat healthfully for cheap, a lesson home economists hoped would improve working-class standards of living (Levine 30-34). Mary H. Moran and Julia Pulsifer, the Union workers in charge of its School Lunch Program, summed up the opinion of many a reformer when they stated that school lunch programs originated in “modern urban conditions of living, as well as modern conceptions of the State’s responsibilities to its citizens” (Moran and Pulsifer n. p.).

57Because school lunch programs were local affairs, various models existed. As a home economist reported, “[i]n several cities such as Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester, New York, St. Louis and Denver, the school boards actively support the work. In others such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston, there is passive cooperation and tolerance” (Bryant 476). The municipal government, when involved, could pay part or all of the expenses incurred in providing schoolchildren with meals. Sometimes, labor, including that of cooking the meals and supervising their distribution, was paid for by public appropriations; more often than not, it was not. Equipment was also often donated by local charities, or paid for through fundraisers. Similarly, profits could either be reinjected into the program or directly transferred to the city coffers for more general uses. Overall, the recurring pattern, as in Buffalo, New York, was that of a woman’s club testing out the waters and showing the program’s popularity and efficacy, before the city government moved towards at least partial supervision or administration (School Luncheons).

58In 1894, home economics pioneer Ellen Swallow Richards convinced the Boston School Committee to entrust her with a lunch program conducted on a scientific basis. Richards had the approval of the Committee of Hygiene of the School Board, which installed counters and food-serving equipment in nine schools, but she had to raise the rest of the necessary funds. As a result, the scheme was conducted “as a private enterprise” (Moran and Pulsifer n. p.). Thirteen years later, the WEIU took over the management of the New England Kitchen and the school lunch program it conducted at cost in cooperation with the Head Masters’ Association of Boston High and Latin Schools. Per an agreement with the School Board, an Advisory Committee on School Lunches was constituted, made up in equal parts of representatives of the Union, including its president, and headmasters elected annually by the Head Masters’ Association. Any profit was to be turned back to the students “in the shape of better food, lower prices, more efficient service, etc.” (Moran and Pulsifer n. p.). Part of the facilities in which the lunches were prepared, before being packed and sent for sale in the high schools, were also used by the Union’s catering service.

59There were growing pains. Business and cooking methods were largely the same, with the largest difference lying in distribution and the coordination of as many as 30 paid workers and 45 “student assistants,” that is to say domestic science students. The Union’s report of their first day of conducting the school lunch program is an amusing tale of unexpected problems and last-minute solutions. A railroad wreck tied up Boston’s milk supply, a baker fell ill, and the delay in bread-baking left cake makers with cold ovens; the electric ice cream freezer broke down, and an intoxicated “expressman” showed up with too small a wagon. Still, despite these setbacks, by the end of the day lunch had been served to 1,500 pupils in 8 schools. One year later, 13 high schools were served, for a total of 2,500 to 3,000 students out of 8,000 in attendance. By 1925, the School Lunch Department served 12,000 to 13,000 pupils daily. Between 4 and 11 elementary schools were also served, in a significant extension of the work. To put these figures in perspective, it should be noted that the average daily attendance in the Boylston Street Restaurant and Members’ Lunch Rooms numbered 800 to 900, and in the New England Kitchen 700 (Moran and Pulsifer; Forty-Seventh Annual Report 10-11).

60As the Union figured out the logistics of providing meals for schoolchildren, it also established a framework for the management of the program. Eventually, the WEIU set up a joint committee with the headmasters of the schools it serviced, an initiative that was seconded by an official agreement with the Boston school board. The terms of their cooperation required that “the school board provide the room and the equipment and a certain amount of the care, while the union prepare and serve the food” (Hunt 14).

61Just as the Union came to the school lunch business with experience in running their Food Sales Room and several lunch rooms, so did the work deepen managers’ insight into institutional management. In 1913, the New England Kitchen took over the management of a lunch room at South End House for the Business Men’s Club. The managers in the New England Kitchen were not just benevolent lunch ladies. Some left the WEIU to open their own businesses or to take a manager position in other organizations (Thirty-Seventh Annual Report 22); all welcomed visitors eager to learn the ropes, often recent college graduates seeking a practice field.

62The Union did not stop at becoming a subcontractor for the city government. It also sought to establish itself as a provider of educational opportunities. In 1910-1911, 18 students in the institutional management courses in Simmons College came to the lunch rooms for 8 weeks, using at least a day a week for hands-on practice—accounting, making menus, marketing, cooking, and supervising service. One of them, who specialized in school lunch room management, became an assistant in the Union’s dedicated department. If lunch room management seems to have been one of the chief positions eyed by college graduates interested in pursuing business careers, at least two studied methods of food shop management, catering, and cooperative buying, and another spent a month at the Handwork Shop, training in gift shop management, which included a full study of “buying, advertising, salesmanship, clerical records, and distribution” (Thirty-Fourth Annual Report 48). Union directors considered their businesses a “unique educational opportunity to would-be shop managers,” owing to the variety of the work they conducted. By 1915, yet a new business, the “food laboratory and cake kitchen,” promised to provide an even more deliberate training environment for young women interested in institutional management (Thirty-Seventh Annual Report 21).

63The WEIU perceived its work as that of a local institution, on a par with other businesses, educational institutions, and the city government. Its leaders and members thought of themselves as citizens, public-spirited members of their community. The administration of social programs, carried out with the city government’s approval, endowed them with an institutional legitimacy which they were quick to acknowledge. Interestingly, they made little distinction between the authority and public responsibilities of the business community, and those of the government. In the words of New England Kitchen employees contributing to the annual “department vaudeville” of the Union’s Employees Association: “Efficiency and then some more / we haul our lunches by the score / to schools in many a hopeless flight / to many a child that was never fed right / till we took the crank / And we’re here as ready and always steady / as any great big national bank” (“School Song” 16).

64The reformers and managers active in the Union were part of several networks, both educational and decidedly commercial and political. Nowhere is it clearer than in the active part they played in the movement for vocational education, as they tried to maximize the “efficiency” of young girls and college graduates alike and fit them for business (Dollar).

65It is little wonder that they embraced business solutions to social issues. Their dual status as both reformers and employers meant that it was easier for them to build bridges and effect the quintessentially Progressive ideal of cooperation between civil society, business, and government. In a 1912 review of the Union’s history, its president “showed how the desire to help women [...] has led to the development of new departments, and new lines of effort, until the Union has come to be an educational and legislative force in the community” (“Mrs. Kehew Talks” 3). This was the same year that the Union’s president and the director of its Research Department worked with the Social Research Council of Boston, a group of socially-minded scholars who sought to “assist in promoting useful investigations into the community life of Greater Boston” and saw research as a panacea for social ills (Bulletin 7). Pointing out that the State Bureau of Statistics alone could not do the work, they suggested it was necessary that research be conducted “by associations that represent the wider civic interests and seek to secure the enactment of legislation” (Bulletin 10). They made no distinction between men’s and women’s organizations or efforts, or between public and private initiatives—because, in their view, what mattered was the municipal vision for which they strove as citizens. And, along with other women like them, they wanted to be taken as seriously as the “businessmen” who were hailed as “the most persistent and practical of idealists, bringing their large powers of constructive imagination to the service of the community to make the community’s best dreams come true” (Nolen 7).


66The uses to which a women’s organization like the WEIU put entrepreneurship are indicative of the depth of the connection between business life and civic involvement in the Progressive city. In their quest for visibility and legitimacy, pre-suffrage groups had at their disposal a variety of strategies, the breadth of which should be properly acknowledged. Suffragists sold suffrage-themed trinkets and memorabilia, but these commercial activities form but one node in a network of businesses run by women with feminist goals in mind, whether it be creating jobs, filling local needs for a specific service, or advocating for better working conditions through sheer example (Finnegan).

67The WEIU’s Food Sales Room, Ice Cream Plant, various clothing shops and lunch rooms, and its School Lunch Program were instrumental in furthering the organization’s vision. As the Union’s leadership rationalized both management and production methods and phased out volunteers in favor of a trained, paid workforce, they came to see how a reputation for efficiency could be leveraged politically. This case study highlights the fact that contested visions for the future of the city were not always gendered, but could instead be class-based (Simpson). The role of the state and municipal governments in protecting both workers and consumers, residents’ relation to one another, including what they did or did not owe one another—these were points of especial interest for the New Women running the Women’s Union in downtown Boston. If politics can be defined as collective decision-making, then citizenship is the ability to participate in that process, however indirectly. Derrick Spires emphasizes the relational, or community-based, quality of nineteenth-century American citizenship. For Union women, business relations certainly fell under the umbrella of saliently political community relations.

68More attention should be paid to this type of development, for it was taking place more largely in American society as a wave of consumer activism surged in the 1890s and early 1900s. To be an American citizen would slowly come to mean buying the right food, the right clothing, and the right consumer goods, in order to achieve the higher “standard of living” championed by reformers (Currarino). The rise of consumers’ interest groups paralleled that of corporate power, at a time when welfare capitalists sought to enshrine their businesses as local institutions with special responsibilities towards the community (Marchand 2). For women concerned with issues of autonomy, being able to spend was not enough—earning came to matter increasingly, as the quest for suffrage was becoming an accepted goal. As a reform organization, the WEIU looked both for symbolic recognition and effective means of action to shape women’s life choices and outcomes. Entrepreneurial activities were not just a means of raising money to that end, creating opportunities for training, or giving housewives a better access to the market—these very goals were part of a cohesive view of employer or manufacturer status as politically validating.

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Primary sources

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1 “To give women the ballot, then, would be to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Perhaps, to be more correct, I should say, to kill the gender that lays the golden egg, or if not to kill him, at least to irritate him so he wouldn’t lay any more” (Johnson 19).

2 As is shown by Blanche Baird Shelp’s 1918 bibliography of “business methods” and related volumes: “No attempt has been made to present a complete bibliography. The field is too wide to admit a comprehensive treatment in the time devoted to the subject. Preference has been given to those books and articles, published since 1910, which seem to represent the best business methods” (Shelp 3).

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Jeanne Boiteux, « The Boston Women’s Educational and Industrial Union: When Business Undergirded Claims to Political Participation (1877-1920) »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 mai 2020, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeanne Boiteux

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3

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