Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2021-01-05

Angels of the workplace: women and the construction of gender relations in the Canadian clothing industry, 1890-1940

Document type Book
Author Steedman, Mercedes
Publisher Oxford University Press; Toronto
Date 1997
ISBN 978-0-19-541308-3
Pages ix, 333 pages: illustrations, portraits


In this study of the clothing industry in Canada, historian Mercedes Steedman examines how the intricate weaving together of the meanings of class, gender, ethnicity, family, and workplace served, often unconsciously, to create a job ghetto for women. Although 'girls', as working women were labelled, comprised a significant majority of garment workers - 80 per cent in 1881, at the very beginnings of industrialization; 68 per cent in 1941, when the percentage of women in all industrial sectors in Canada was only just over 15 per cent - their roles were circumscribed both in the workplace and in the trade union bureaucracy. When strikes occurred, women were at the front of picket lines, gaining sympathy and favourable media coverage for the workers' cause. But when negotiations among union leaders, management, and government officials took place, women were conspicuous by their absence, and the subsequent agreements and job classifications invariably left them with lower wages and marginal status - in an industry where they were numerically dominant and often valued as the better workers." "In Angels of the Workplace, Professor Steedman presents a history of both the garment industry and the role of women in it. The rise of left-wing unionism held out some hope for a more equitable work environment, but by the 1930s a 'new unionism' that focused on labour-management co-operation - and on maintaining male hegemony on the shop floor and at the bargaining table - had formalized gender discrimination in the needle trades for the rest of the century. -- Publisher's description.