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READ: Unit 4 Overview — Transformation of Labor and Social Relations

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, what is society?
  2. How does the author define identity, and what does he mean when he says identity is not fixed?
  3. What was the abolitionist movement, and did it succeed?
  4. What kinds of reforms were labor reformers working for, according to the article?
  5. According to the author, had political revolutions automatically led to expanded political rights for women?
  6. Why did reformers want children to go to school, according to the author?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How do you think the author of this article views the reformers discussed in this article? Do you think that affected how he wrote the article? Why or why not?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Unit 4: Transformation of Labor and Social Relations

Photo of women's suffrage protestors marching down a street holding a sign with the slogan, "To fight, to struggle, to right the wrong".
By Trevor Getz
Reformers created networks striving to making things better—ending slavery, improving labor conditions, liberating women, and supervising children. Not everyone benefited.
One of the purposes of this course is to help you to develop a usable relationship with the world history of the past 270 years or so. The best reason to study the past is so it can inform your understanding of the present. You'll start to notice how the events and trends from 1750 to 1914, that Long Nineteenth Century, create a blueprint for the world we live in today.
In terms of how we govern our societies, for example, an important line can be drawn from that period to the present. Political revolutions of liberalism and nationalism back then gave birth to the modern nation-state. That's how we got the system of citizenship governing our world today. We can similarly see how the Industrial Revolution gave us the factory system and the economy in which most people work. These big changes are really important, but let's face it—they're pretty easy to spot.
Some changes in the Long Nineteenth Century are harder to see, but just as important in creating our modern world. These were changes to what we call society. By society, we don't just mean who's trending and who isn't (though that was part of it). Society in this context means a kind of network: the web of relationships defining who people are to each other. These relationships may be economic—employer to worker. They may be political—the rulers to the ruled. But even family relationships—parent to child, or between spouses—and people living in the same community saw their roles redefined.
To talk about these relationships, historians sometimes start with identity —the way that people are classified by others or see themselves. In the modern world, these identities include gender, race, and social class. But importantly, none of these are entirely fixed things. Our ideas about what constitutes a race, class, or gender, or how people in those categories should act, constantly change. In the nineteenth century, they changed quite a bit.
And the thing is, these identities and relationships matter. They affect how people live and how they experience the world around them. Our social identities and relationships today will set the pattern for how future generations experience life.
So while it's important—and obvious—that the Long Nineteenth Century was an era of dramatic political and economic change, the less obvious revolutions in social relationships need equal attention. How did the Industrial Revolution and political revolutions help transform the way people worked, lived, and learned? How did all of these changes help make the world we live in now? In this unit, we provide some evidence to help you answer those questions.

Labor reforms and emancipation

First, we look at attempts to change the system under which people worked. One of the biggest struggles in this type of reform was the abolition of slavery. Even in this era, many people still felt that enslavement was an acceptable, profitable system of labor, despite clear evidence that it was an abusive, exploitive, inhumane system. Abolitionists—people who wanted to end slavery—fought long campaigns to convince the public that it should be abolished, and to some degree they succeeded. The legal status of slavery was eliminated in some countries, but something similar to slavery often remained. In other countries it stayed legal, so the abolition campaign continued.
In fact, the abolitionist movement evolved over the course of the century into a battle not just to free the enslaved but to improve conditions for all workers. In the industrialized cities of this period, factory and mine jobs were dangerous, difficult, and unending. In 1750, there was no weekend, no rules to protect workers, and no health insurance for those who were hurt on the job. Conditions were equally hard in many rural, farming areas, where peasant workers labored on land owned by big landowners. Workers had to fight hard for better conditions. That struggle took decades and, in many ways, has never ended.
The result was a global economic system balanced between two motives: the capitalist belief that a free market will help everyone and the socialist belief that workers must be protected and helped. The debate over which position is right, or how they can work together, still occurs in many places today.
Illustration of several men crowded together, holding a political banner.
Part of Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico” mural at the National Palace in Mexico City. Emiliano Zapata (left with sombrero), Felipe Carrillo Puerto (center), and José Guadalupe Rodríquez (right with sombrero) behind banner featuring the Zapatista slogan, “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty). Public domain.

Gender and childhood

Abolition and workers' rights dominated social movements in the Long Nineteenth Century. But these movements connected with others. The same people often worked on campaigns against slavery, to improve working conditions, and for women's rights. These connections produced networks of activists. In the second lesson of this unit, we look at attempts to reform and improve conditions for women and children in some parts of the world. In 1750, ideas about the roles women should play in society were hardening in some ways. So, for example, women were largely excluded from the benefits of political revolutions in the United States, France, and Latin America despite helping to make them happen. The fight for women's rights took a long time and was part of a broader attempt to rethink gender roles in society. There were many important achievements toward women's equality, but as with workers' rights, the fight is far from over.
Just as the roles and rights of women was debated during this time, the roles and rights of children began to matter as well. Debates emerged in many societies about what it meant to be a child and how children should be treated and governed. Industrialization had put many children to work in mines, factories, and industrialized plantations. As with adults who did the same work, it was grueling and nonstop, and there were no rules against it even if you were a third grader. Also, there were no third graders because compulsory public school wasn't a thing yet. Reformers saw this and wanted to rethink childhood. They began to suggest that children should be put into schools, where they might gain enough intellectual and social knowledge for future success. There were a couple reasons for this: Reformers saw children as potentially dangerous and wanted them "off the streets." But children were also seen as the future of the nation—educating them would produce better workers, leaders, and soldiers. Changing ideas about childhood in this era, in other words, are what put you in your history classroom today. So… you're welcome?
Photo of two young girls wearing a sash with the slogan "Abolish child slavery" written in both English and Yiddish.
Two American children wearing banners with the slogan “abolish child slavery” in English and Yiddish at a 1909 Labor Day parade in New York City. By Bain News Service, public domain.
But of course, these changes weren't final. Gender, work, childhood, and other issues would continue to be rethought and to change after 1914. Both in the Long Nineteenth Century and beyond, these reforms were not global. They affected people differently depending on where they lived in the world, and at different times. In particular, empires sought to limit these reforms in their colonies, even when they were happening back home. We will see how this difference operated when we get to Unit 5, which focuses on imperialism and colonialism as the last theme through which we look at the Long Nineteenth Century.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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