Blog, Blog and News

Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class – Aimee Loiselle

In the 1970s, Gloria Maldonado and Crystal Lee Sutton decided to become active in their unions. Challenging work conditions in the textile and apparel industry—the low wages and lack of dignity—was a core motivation, but both women also wanted to experience a greater sense of meaning in their life, beyond raising their beloved children. The labor movement provided a space where Maldonado and Sutton could surpass the conventions of their racialized working-class femininity and become leaders in ways neighbourhood, marriage, motherhood, and low-wage manufacturing did not permit.

Their union activism as organizers, educators, and speakers brought them into the arena of cultural politics, where participants with unequal economic, social, and cultural capital struggle to gain access to mainstream media production, shape the products, and accrue the rewards. In this capacity, Maldonado and Sutton also fought to influence the dominant popular understanding of the American working class.

Although both women participated in media projects with the intention of influencing public conversation about work and unions, only Sutton, an attractive white southern millhand, became the focus of commercial producers. Her association with them in the 1970s led to the 1979 Hollywood movie, Norma Rae, which had a much wider reach than the scholarly public history project Maldonado contributed to from 1984 to 1985. The popularity of Norma Rae, and effusive praise for Sally Field as the lead, forced Sutton into visibility in a way she did not choose and without remuneration—yet granted her a platform for public speaking, an avenue to prominent labor events, and a basis for demanding payment. These events and Sutton’s decision to step into the spotlight and question the creative choices in Norma Rae resulted in a large presence across multiple archives.

The difference between the archives for Sutton and Maldonado does not reflect the intensity of their work or labor activism—Maldonado had more years as a union member and more positions in the labor movement. Neither does it reflect a disparity in the women’s interest in culture. Both Maldonado and Sutton recognized the importance of media for how people understand the working class and unionizing. The scope of their archives derives from each woman’s position in the arena of cultural politics and her relationships to the means of major media production, which are all run through with intersections of gender, race, class, status, and citizenship.[1]

Maldonado entered the arena of cultural politics in the mid-1980s, just as Norma Rae was becoming a standard of American cinema. She joined a dozen needleworkers who spoke with three female Puerto Rican scholars brought together by Rina Benmayor at Hunter College-CUNY for “Nosotras Trabajamos en la Costura.”[2] Maldonado expressed her ambitions for the project to an interviewer, “You’ll get this thing out, you’ll publish it, and I hope you get enough publicity so people will really know about it.”[3] She knew cultural contests were crucial to public understanding and wanted to contribute to an effort that articulated her version of the American working class.

“Nosotras Trabajamos” produced oral history transcripts that became source material for photography exhibits, bilingual panels, and an award-winning radio documentary. They still do cultural work from the archive, serving an alternative narrative of the American working class. Without these public history productions, there would be fewer challenges to the dominant narrative of isolated scrappy white factory workers, and the ways it operates to impact labor policy, employment, worker resistance, and other political-economic practices.

At that time, Norma Rae became a celebrated Hollywood movie and Field won numerous awards, including her first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1980. Coverage of the movie and Field’s critical acclaim continued into the late 1980s and generated a popular icon. The icon’s visual component shows Field as Norma standing alone, holding a sign overhead that says UNION. Its linguistic component indicates the deeper narrative and affect: “having a Norma Rae moment” or “going Norma Rae,” a passing act of individual defiance. Norma Rae and the icon transmitted this antagonistic, yet aspirational, sensation tied to a narrative of the unapologetic aggrieved individual who triumphs by making a personal stand.

The icon converged with other popular texts reconstituting meanings for a white American working class, and it aligned with a structure of feeling that saturated a burgeoning cultural formation of neoliberal individualism. The Norma Rae icon circulated through magazines and television during the 1980s and 1990s along with multiplying texts from radical libertarian economists, right-wing politicians, and evangelical activists who were producing channels of discourse, imaginaries, and sound bites with narrative and affective emphasis on the generic private individual and oppositional defiance. The icon and these mainstream texts all worked to construct the mainstream formation of neoliberal individualism, which helped make certain political-economic policies and practices captivating, appealing, and normalized.[4]

With these braided arguments about working women in the union movement and in the arena of cultural politics, Beyond Norma Rae contributes to the fields of women’s history, labor studies, film studies, and the history of capitalism. It also supports the argument that popular culture is a highly contested arena that impacts not only the way society perceives economic relations, but also the unfolding of economic relations. Culture is interactive, not merely descriptive or reflective.

Aimee Loiselle is an assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in the modern United States as a hub for transnational labor with an interest in women manufacturing workers, gender, race, and popular representations of work. Her book, Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class (University of North Carolina Press, 2023), tells a history of women industrial workers in struggles over working conditions and pop culture in the late-twentieth century.


[1] Devon W. Carbado, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vicki M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson, “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory,” DuBois Review 10, no. 2 (2013): 303-312; Sumi Cho, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall, “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 38, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 785-810.

[2] Translation: We Work in the Garment Industry.

[3] “Gloria Maldonado,” 8/8/1984, Box 229, Folder 3, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Collection, Series XIX: Audio-Visual (1973-1999), Oral History Transcripts, Centro Library & Archives at Hunter College-CUNY, 38-39.

[4] Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004); Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture(Cambridge: Harvard University, 2011); Eileen Appelbaum and Rose Batt, Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014).


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.