August 22, 1998

Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens

(615) 322-2706

Sociologists find political implications

for feminization of U.S. labor movement

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The AFL-CIO, over time, has become more interested in issues of concern to women in its political and policy agenda, which has significant implications for the revitalization of the labor movement, according to two Vanderbilt University sociologists.

Examples of issues affecting women in which the AFL-CIO has taken a stance include childcare, affirmative action, sexual harassment in the workplace and the gender gap in pay.

"One of the underlying notions that we are looking at is that by taking a more inclusive approach to women workers in its political and policy agenda, the labor

movement will be able to help women workers address their problems by helping them to unionize," said Dan Cornfield, professor of sociology. "This, in turn, will help revitalize the labor movement."

Women comprise almost 40 percent of the U.S. labor union membership. However, only about 12 percent of all women workers are in unions, compared to about 16 percent of male workers, he noted.

Most research on women and labor unions focuses on factors that encourage women to join unions and to participate in labor union leadership positions, Cornfield

said. "Little or no research has examined the consequences of the feminization of the labor movement for labor's political agenda," he said.

Cornfield and sociology doctoral student Melinda Kane document their findings in "Gender Segmentation, Union, Decline, and Women Workers: Changes in the AFL-CIO

Policy Agenda, 1955-1993." Kane will present the paper at the 93rd annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Aug. 21-25 in San Francisco.

Cornfield will also present the paper this fall at the triennial conference of the British scholarly journal, "Work, Employment, and Society." The journal is an official publication of the British Sociological Association and is printed by Cambridge University Press.

Cornfield said one issue discussed in their research is the halting growth of women's issues on the AFL-CIO policy agenda from 1955 to the present. "Our study

is the first to document this trend in women's issues," Cornfield said.

Cornfield and Kane inventoried the proceedings of AFL-CIO conventions from 1955 through 1993. Their research was conducted with partial assistance and support from the National Science Foundation and the Vanderbilt University Research Council with a team of several sociology doctoral students.

Cornfield said his research is part of the developing area of the sociology of labor revitalization, which uncovers the conditions that promote and hinder the self-organization of working people of all skill levels.

In Cornfield's 1989 book, "Becoming a Mighty Voice," he deals not only with gender, but also with ethnicity and race. Through this book and subsequent publications, Cornfield said he developed his "status-conflict theory" about the diversification of union membership and leadership.

Gender and work issues is also a growing area of research, and Vanderbilt sociologists have strong ties to the field. Cornfield edits the international sociological

journal "Work and Occupations," and several faculty members and doctoral students have editorial roles on the journal. The journal has been listed as the third most frequently cited sociology research journal by scholars. The May 1998 edition was a special issue on "Gendered Work and Workplaces."


Vanderbilt University is a private research university of approximately 5,900 undergraduates and 4,300 graduate and professional students. Founded in 1873, the University comprises 10 schools, a public policy institute, a distinguished medical center and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt offers undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, education and human development, engineering and music, and a full range of graduate and professional degrees.

For more news about Vanderbilt, visit the News and Public Affairs home page on the Internet at

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Document updated August 31, 1998.