Victoria Tafferner


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Inhuman Form/ Heart so Tender1: Visuality, Affect and Working Women in the Progressive Era

Upon reflecting on her life's work as a pioneer in the field of occupational medicine, Alice Hamilton lamented in her memoirs as to the comparative silence surrounding industrial health for American workers in respect to their European counterparts in the early part of the twentieth century. They appeared, she writes, only as bodies of interest when "tainted" by notions of "socialism and feminine sentimentality for the poor", rather than as subjects of scientific and medical discourse2. Hamilton's observations serve as a starting point for my thesis, which centers on the body of the working woman in industrial settings during the Progressive Era. In it, I trace the appearance of the bodies of working women from the late nineteenth century until shortly after the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911.

My research focuses in particular on the visual and visually descriptive modes by which working women's bodies were discussed and constituted across a wide range of sources, from popular fictional texts to slumming accounts, sociological reports and reformer's observations, newspapers and popular print and medical and industrial safety documents and films. With a particular emphasis on photography and illustration as Progressive Era methods of "knowing" the world, I argue that these images and visually descriptive texts were vital in the formation of affective publics. Affect theory as a burgeoning field has only been tenuously applied to historical texts, rooted until now firmly in literary theory. Nevertheless, the acknowledgement of affective publics in a particular historical moment allow us to better ascertain a more complex reading of the moment in question. By drawing particularly on Lauren Berlant's work on affective intimate publics of feminine sentimentality I propose a broader understanding of both fictional and scientific accounts of the working body as both constitutive and reflective of these sentimentalities3. Within the field of worker protection particularly for women workers, affective, emotional ascriptions of character and appropriate (domestic) desire filter through popular fictional accounts and form an important factor in policy decisions. A broader application of affective readings of visual documents as vital for a more nuanced understanding of how Progressive Era notions of womanhood and femininity shaped the larger field of labor history and served as a hindrance in the formation of actual policy reform for working women. Far too often, women's roles as wives and mothers outside of the factory were privileged above their safety concerns within the industrial landscape. Yet women's bodies, visually depicted and explained, were central to a larger Progressive Era public notion of social order and reform.

In looking toward the Triangle Factory Fire as a moment of significant representational crisis in the depiction of the working woman's body, I draw on these visual and visually descriptive sources to tease out a thicker description of the tensions exposed and written across the working woman's body between the interests of "socialism and feminine sentimentality" and how these directed attention away from concrete reform by clinging to particular representations of gendered behavior, attributes and responsibilities rather than the more pragmatic concerns of occupational health and safety.


  1. Van. Vorst, Bessie J. and Marie. The Women Who Toils: Being the Experience of Two Ladies as Factory Girls. (New York: Doubleday, 1903), 8.
  2. Hamilton, Alice. Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, M.D. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943), 115.
  3. Berlant, Lauren Gail. The Female Complaint the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft