Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History

by editors Dubois Ellen Carol and Vicki L. Ruiz

Paperback, 1990




Routledge, 1990 (1990), Edition: Highlighting, 496 pages


This revised and expanded edition comprises some of the most ground-breaking work in women's and feminist history. Addressing issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality, it provides a more accurate and inclusive history of US women.


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In the Introduction trace the evolution of women's history. First it was mono-racial (only focused on white women in the North, then it became bi-racial (encompassing black and white women in the south), and finally it is now becoming multicultural. This new multicultural history privileges the
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history of the West, as this is where the widest variety of identities emerge. The volume of essays cover the multicultural perspective in the following topical areas:

Family, Work, Politics, Sexuality, Women's Relationships, History's purposes.

In "Beyond the Search for Sisterhood: American Women's History in the 1980s," Nancy A. Hewitt discusses the ways in which women have identified with class loyalties over bonds of cross-class sisterly solidarity.


Her project is "comparing the creation, conditions and practices of communal life among black and white working-class women with the at among the bourgeoisie." (p. 1)

Barbara Welter, Nancy Cott and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg developed the idea of a separate women's sphere as a trope of analysis. This provided continuity in a history of women focused primarily on the middle class. It allowed for a coherent narrative of America's response to industrialization.

"By the late nineteenth century, domestic skills and social power would converge in 'social housekeeping,' embracing and justifying women's participation in urban development, social welfare programs, social work, the settlement house movement, immigrant education, labor reform and electoral politics." (p. 2)

"Some plantation mistresses, for instance, decried, at least in their private diaries, the sexual double standard reflected in white men's abuse of slave women." (p. 2)

Role of modernization

"Certainly bourgeois women were not so separate from same-class men at to disengage them from the prejudices and power inherent in their class position." (p. 3) Evidence for this is as follows:

white suffragists use of racist rhetoric
Protestant charitable ladies denial of aid to Catholics
affluent women's refusal to support working women's strikes
moral reformers' abhorrence of working-class sexual mores
settlement house educators' denigration of immigrant class culture
All of this seems to mitigate against cross-class sisterhood.


Slave women - sexual division of labor in field and household lead to solidarity.

"From the perspective of the slave experience, then, strong communal ties among women were rooted not in the culture-bound concept of the separation of spheres but in the material realities of the sexual division of labor." (p. 5)

Deep shaft mining and textile manufacturing

"Triumphs on the shop floor were directly tied to the tenaciousness of working-class women in keeping their families and households fed and functioning." (p. 6)

Examples of strikers' wives in Cripple Creek, Colorado and Lawrence, KS.

Female community riven by class conflict in which:

"The sisterly bonds that bolstered working-class communities, like those among slaves, extended from the domestic enclave into the public domain, were forged from material necessity, and were employed in the interests of men as well as women." (p. 7)

Yankee women refused to support immigrant women in the mills of New England, and white women formed a union in 1896 Atlanta to defend the textile mill against the employment of black women.


Building on Mary Ryan's insight into mothers' role in protection of the family's status by raising middle class sons.

"True women," as educators, writers, dispensers of charity and missionaries to the heathen touted their own lifestyle, expressed and covered its contradictions in their public espousals of privatized domesticity, and took little cognizance of the values and mores of those being aided ... In family planning campaigns, the economic burden of large numbers of children and the technical control of conception led women to advocate small nuclear families as the model for all groups, without attention to different cultural and social meanings of motherhood." (p. 9)

Campaigns against prostitution and alcoholism exhibited the same callous disregard for the real lives of their subjects.

Class aspects of WTUL put votes over bread and butter issues. Other reformers fought for the "family wage," which kept women's wages lower for women who needed to work for economic reasons. Relief workers gave priority to those families whose lifestyle most closely resembled the middle class, encouraging immigrant women to abandon communal modes of food preparation and child care -- all in favor of the privatized bourgeois home.

"... evidence from the lives of slaves, mill operatives, miners' wives, immigrants, and southern industrial workers as well as from "true women" indicates that there was no single women's culture or sphere." (p. 11)

Need for historiographical emphasis on sisterhood in early history of the discipline. Now women's history is mature enough to recognize that the history of women, like that of men, is as much one of contest and conflict as it is of gender solidarity.
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