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Consensus, Dissensus, and Enforcement: Legal Protection of Working Women from the Time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to Today

Marcia L. McCormick, St. Louis University School of Law

Abstract

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy mobilized the labor movement and progressive reformers, and provided part of the political will to enact significant protective health and safety legislation for workers. And while the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire has been The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy mobilized the labor movement and progressive reformers, and provided part of the political will to enact significant protective health and safety legislation for workers. And while the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire has been cited in legal literature as an important event in the movement for workplace safety standards, however, the gendered nature of the tragedy and its place in the development of laws protecting women as women, rather than as beneficiaries of laws protecting all workers, has not been as fully explored. This contribution seeks to do that.

Part I of this article will situate the fire and the subsequent reforms in the social movements of the time, at the intersection of the labor movement and other progressive causes championed by women. It will also describe why the success of early protective labor legislation depended, in part, on gender. Part II will describe the shift in law from protecting women workers as workers to protecting women workers as women, describing the rise of legislation banning sex discrimination in the workplace, and the tensions in that legislation caused by competing visions of sex equality. Finally, Part III will draw on lessons about enforcement of gender-protective legislation from the era of the fire to today. It will conclude that legislation can serve as a positive first step but, without broad consensus supporting it, it tends to be under-enforced or wholly unenforced and therefore not effective at achieving real or lasting social change. I end with a

brief application of these lessons to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, New York's recent extension of protections to home care workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women and many of whom are immigrants, just like the labor force at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.

Suggested Citation

Marcia L. McCormick. "Consensus, Dissensus, and Enforcement: Legal Protection of Working Women from the Time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to Today" New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy 14.4 (2011): 645-695.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/marcia_mccormick/10