Nontraditional Career, Unconventional History

The following is a guest post by Aimee Loiselle, author of Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class, which tells a history of women industrial workers in struggles over working conditions and pop culture in the late-twentieth century. Beyond Norma Rae is now available wherever books are sold.

The successful publication of a book results from a deliberated and yet totally unpredictable convergence of factors. Access to research and travel funds, household and health conditions, trends in one’s research field, relationships with mentors and colleagues, family background and interactions, and personal motivations impact the ability to write, revise, and share a manuscript. In the case of Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class, a nontraditional career was also a key ingredient. Experiences and solidarities formed in that career had built respect, trust, and mutual storytelling with colleagues, some of whom had become close friends and altered the trajectory of my research at a crucial stage.

This nontraditional career, with an erratic path to a doctorate in history, has roots in my teenage years when I was a student at an average public high school in Massachusetts. Attendance at Harvard University’s Secondary Summer Program and at Dartmouth College for a bachelor’s degree laid bare the realities of elite academic preparation and the profound powers it held for students. I became dedicated to the possibility of sharing some version of elite academic preparation with students not usually granted the privileges. As I prepared to graduate from Dartmouth, a PhD (already mysterious to a kid from a working-class background) did not appear to offer any connection to educational justice work. I went on to teach 9-12 public high school and alternative education for pregnant and parenting adolescent girls and for students transitioning to college from adult basic education, English language learning, carceral institutions, and unemployment.

In these jobs, I met students, colleagues, and friends who inspired me to examine my own unarticulated academic dreams and envision the possibility of earning a PhD and writing a book. During my first year in the doctoral program at forty-two years old, I started researching the 1979 movie Norma Rae because it appeared in every search about 1970s and 1980s working-class women in the United States. I read about southern textile workers because the movie is set in a southern mill town and discovered the woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, who was the basis of the main character. At that time, interrogating the dominant narrative of US industrialization (with the Northeast as a definitive starting point, followed by a linear relocation of factories to the South and then the Global South) was not a top priority. I also accepted the traditional emphasis on quantity and size as the primary markers of industrial capitalism and the common idea that “southern millhands” all worked in cotton textiles, especially on heavy weaving looms. 

The first rupture in my thinking and research happened during a conversation with a Puerto Rican woman and close friend. After I described my early research into the textile and garment industry of the 1960s and 1970s, she told me that her mother had moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and then Springfield, Massachusetts, to work in apparel factories in the 1970s. I had read Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir When I was Puerto Rican (1993) and remembered Santiago’s mother had sewn undergarments on the main island in the 1950s. Now I learned about a Puerto Rican woman sewing in New England in the 1970s and early 1980s. That prompted immediate questions: where and when did Puerto Rican women work in textiles and garments, and were there any popular representations of them as industrial workers? Did southern millhands and Puerto Rican needleworkers work for the same conglomerates or join the same unions? I discovered three journal articles and scattered archival material about Puerto Rican women that complicated both US labor historiography and the dominant narrative of deindustrialization that centers the continental United States.

The successful publication of a book results from a deliberated and yet totally unpredictable convergence of factors.

I also returned to the 1961 movie West Side Story and realized the two main women characters, Maria and Anita, sew in a New York City garment business idealized as a romantic bridal shop. Almost twenty years before a white woman mill hand is the central character in a Hollywood movie, Puerto Rican needleworkers migrating from the archipelago to the Northeast appeared on the big screen. The embedded cultural narrative of West Side Story, however, articulated the Puerto Rican women as exotic beauties and troubled urban teens rather than as American workers. In development, performances, reviews, and scholarship, people did not discuss West Side Story as part of any public conversation about industrial workers or the American working class. Even in her 2013 memoir, Rita Moreno, who portrayed Anita, does not mention labor or the relevance of women’s sewing jobs to her character or the film, despite the fact her mother worked in island sweatshops and northeastern factories.

My research went in these new directions because of the one conversation with a close friend who I had first met in educational work with teenage girls. My project still built on the amazing scholarship of historians who study southern millhands and Puerto Rican needleworkers, including Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, John Salmond, Mary Frederickson, Timothy Minchin, Eileen Boris, Altagracia Ortiz, María del Carmen Baerga, Eileen Findlay, and Carmen Whalen. But my friendships—not a monograph, article, or theoretical framework—prompted the new directions for my research and historical analysis, and these friendships came from my nontraditional career rather than academia. The working collaborations, storytelling, laughter, and dancing with women in educational justice had transformed my perspective and perceptions in ways a traditional academic career would not have been able to. I do not know why they trusted me, but they shared the stories of their mothers and abuelas and also allowed me to include them in the book. They helped me to see how we can and must write new histories across archival and scholarly divides.

The racialization and colonization of labor, with the subsequent fragmentation of archives, historical scholarship, and popular representations—and concomitant gendered, racialized, and nationalized narratives of industry and American workers—obscured long-running links between southern and Puerto Rican women. Even though the great majority of women did not personally know each other, the systems and conditions of their labor were interrelated if not the same. The fragmentations helped to cultivate an American fascination with poor southern white women, which made Norma Rae a viable $5-million project. The movie then launched into popular consciousness as a canonical representation of the American working class, with its conceptualization of white industrial workers in isolated settings. Norma Rae derives from and reiterates labor-market and historical-records fractures, and so perpetuates the erasure of Puerto Rican women from the American working class. My friends, particularly Irma Medina and Maria Salgado-Cartagena, led me to question this erasure and pursue the interconnections (not equivalencies) between Puerto Rican and southern women in the US textile and apparel industry of the twentieth century.

I hope this scholarship and the publication of Beyond Norma Rae help highlight the tremendous possibilities in welcoming more nontraditional (i.e. older and first-generation) scholars to our universities and their presses.

Aimee Loiselle is an assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in the modern United States as a hub for transnational labor with an interest in women manufacturing workers, gender, race, and popular representations of work.