s1130 - Racialized and Gendered Experiences with Consumer Capitalism

Friday, June 2, 2017: 1:45 PM-3:15 PM
BRESL 100 (Hofstra University)
Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania
African American Women and the Sears, Roebuck, and Company Cases
Traci Parker, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Kathy Peiss, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

Consumption has long served as a site of fruitful investigation for historians of women and gender. Scholars have examined where and why women purchased goods, how consumer activities shaped gender relations and identities, and whether consumption enabled or discouraged women's political and economic agency. Yet buying comprises only one side of a commercial transaction—that of the customer. Historians have devoted considerably less attention to how gender influenced the approaches and experiences of those involved in retailing. The choices made by retail capitalists and workers sustained America’s culture of consumption. Existing scholarship has focused primarily on advertising or female-dominated industries, such as beauty and weddings. This panel expands the scope of the conversation by examining how women and gender have shaped many taken-for-granted aspects of modern retail, from sales strategies and shopping environments to work culture and conditions.

In so doing, this panel moves beyond an earlier generation of feminist scholarship that tended to isolate female consumer culture from its economic and social contexts. By focusing on retail, the papers reconnect consumer capitalism to state power, urban policing, and the law, and illuminate its relationship to domestic economy and precarity. The first paper explores Chicago retailers’ uses of police authority to create a central business district that was safe and inviting for unescorted women. The second paper investigates efforts of African American retail employees to eliminate racial and gender discrimination at Sears Roebuck. The final paper traces the development of direct sales at Amway Corporation as a mode of family economy.

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