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Edward Linenthal
Editor, Journal of American History

Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009

'Journal of American History' examines 1937 sewing room strike, other topics

April 20, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In July 1937, women working in a WPA sewing room in Tampa, Fla., staged a sit-down strike over low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of job security. While short-lived and unsuccessful, the strike yielded lessons about issues of gender, race and labor in the New Deal era, Elna C. Green writes in the latest issue of The Journal of American History.

Journal of American History

Mabel Hagan led the 1937 sit-down strike at a WPA sewing room in Tampa, Fla.

Print-Quality Photo

The quarterly journal is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington.

The March 2009 issue also features a round table on American diplomatic history including "The Diplomatic History Bandwagon: A State of the Field" by Thomas W. Zeiler, professor of history at the University of Colorado, and perspectives from four other scholars. The Journal's monthly podcast is a conversation between editor Ed Linenthal and Zeiler about the article.

Also in the issue:

  • Nell Irvin Painter examines Ralph Waldo Emerson as the "philosopher-king of American white-race theory" for his writings and lectures extolling the virtues of the American "Saxon."
  • Nicholas Guyatt writes about groups that advocated the removal of free blacks and Native Americans from the United States in the early 19th century. He argues that they represented not rising racism, but the idea that nonwhites could develop successful societies -- if they moved outside the American republic.
  • Marcus Gräser, a scholar at the University of Frankfurt am Main, in Germany, writes that a transnational perspective on U.S. history is not a recent trend but dates from 1890-1920. His essay won the David Thelen Award for 2008, named for an IU professor emeritus of history and former editor of The Journal of American History.
  • Several historians write about curricular issues in the section "Textbooks and Teaching."

In "The Tampa Sewing-Room Strike and the Right to Welfare," Green, the Allen Morris professor of history at Florida State University, describes the "relief work" that the government provided for women while men did construction work and learned trades working for the Works Project Administration and other programs. The work was a lifeboat for some women, but their pay was low and hours were unstable. Classes for women were devoted to homemaking and child-rearing skills, as men were seen as the breadwinners.

The strike accentuated the different circumstances of women in Tampa's white, African-American and "Latin" (Cuban, Spanish and Italian) communities, Green writes. And while strikers adopted the language of organized labor, they found that language unsuited to their situation.

"The sit-down strike was more closely related to the welfare rights movement of the 1960s than to the labor movement of the 1930s," Green writes. "But women in the sewing rooms in 1937 did not have the language of 'welfare rights' at their disposal. They could articulate their protest only in the terms of organized labor."

For more on The Journal of American History, including online articles from the current and past issues, please see