In 1982, twenty thousand Chinese-American garment workersmostly women--went on strike in New York's Chinatown and forced every Chinese garment industry employer in the city to sign a union contract. In this pioneering study, Xiaolan Bao penetrates to the heart of Chinese-American society to explain how this militancy and organized protest, seemingly so at odds with traditional Chinese female behavior, came about.
Bao conducted more than a hundred interviews, primarily with Chinese immigrant women who were working or had worked in the Chinatown garment shops and garment-related institutions in the city. Blending these poignant, often dramatic personal stories with a detailed history of the garment industry, Chinese immigrant labor, and the Chinese community in New York, Bao shows how the high rate of married women participating in wage-earning labor outside the home profoundly transformed family culture and with it the image and empowerment of Chinese-American women.
Bao offers a complex and subtle discussion of the interplay of ethnic and class factors within the garment industry in New York City. She examines the exploitative paternalism, rooted in ethnic social and economic structures, by which operators sustained low wages and marginal working conditions. She also documents the uneasy relationship between the ILGWU and rank-and-file women garment workers whose claim to direct representation was essentially ignored by union leadership.
Through the words of the women workers themselves, Bao shows how their changing positions within their families and within the workplace galvanized them to unite and stand up for themselves. Passionately told and prodigiously documented, Holding Up More Than Half the Sky is an important contribution to Asian-American history, labor history, and the history of women.