Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Sandra F. VanBurkleo


This study provides a narrative of laborers' fight for legal protection through the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Since American law was one of the most important forces in shaping and limiting workplace reform, both labor unionists and reformers used the law to try to solve labor problems. Reformers employed the law to force state control over women and children, while labor unionists attempted to craft legislation to allow working men control over industrial relations.

Although society and the law treated men as independent agents, working men were not truly free. Common law designated workers as servants. Employers denied laboring men the ability to make choices about hours of work, wages, employment conditions, and, in some cases, how free time was spent. Working men were free to contract their labor, but could not negotiate the terms of the contract. They did not sit equally at the bargaining table with employers. To assert control over industrial relations, unionists sought protective labor legislation. Contrary to scholarly assumptions about men eschewing protective labor legislation, unionized men embraced protectionism; they did not think that protective labor laws would upset their status as wage earners or were an affront to their masculinity.

Constructions of gender transformed the way that workers fought for protection in the workplace and the manner in which legal officials implemented and interpreted protective labor laws. Despite labor activists' campaigning, the Michigan judiciary denied male workers protection while validating protective laws for women and children; in doing so, they created a gendered labor state. Public policy reinforced separate spheres of work for men and women and preserved breadwinning for men. This study shows how the state shaped workers experiences and how workers attempted to shape the state; it illustrates how gender transformed legal results for laborers. It shows the commitment of the courts to a free labor ideology, but reveals the decisive role that masculinity played in judicial responses to labor law.