Date of Completion

4-24-2019

Embargo Period

10-21-2019

Keywords

Norma Rae, labor, south, Puerto Rican needleworkers, textiles, garments, apparel industry, global capitalism, unions, TWUA, Crystal Lee Sutton, Gloria Maldonado, deindustrialization, 1970s, neoliberalism, film history, Sally Field, southern mills, women workers

Major Advisor

Micki McElya

Associate Advisor

Peter Baldwin

Associate Advisor

Christopher Clark

Field of Study

History

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access

Abstract

This dissertation uses the 1979 movie Norma Rae as an entry into the global textile and garment industry and as an example of contested cultural production. It argues that U.S. colonial experimentation with the labor of Puerto Rican needleworkers helped to propel a disaggregation of manufacturing, but an American fascination with poor white southerners led media to focus on Crystal Lee Sutton in the 1970s. In recycling the narrative of white working-class individuals in isolated circumstances, Norma Rae elided a history of collective southern activism and contributed to the erasure of Puerto Rican women. The dissertation does not simply recover Sutton but reevaluates the context in which she labored, expanding it to the Atlantic U.S. as a whole, including Puerto Rico. The dissertation makes a vital contribution in its use of archives fragmented by colonialism and racialized labor practices. The women were interconnected, if not interchangeable, labor markets critical to how the diverse working class coalesced. The argument contradicts the dominant historical narrative of industry relocating in a direct line from the Northeast to the South to a final stage in the Global South.

A detailed study of Norma Rae then shows how popular culture works to rearticulate familiar meanings and obscure such disconcerting complexities due to its own reliance on gendered, racialized, and colonial narratives. The dissertation argues Hollywood professionals used legal and financial contrivances to remove Sutton from the production when her insistence on the collective efforts of workers did not suit their commercial ambitions. It reveals the importance of status and capitalist mechanisms in the arena of cultural politics, especially regarding questions of who contests and shapes the visibility and meanings for “working class,” “worker,” and “American.” These contests in the business and politics of culture generated the Norma Rae icon, a representation of a white woman standing alone, with its individualist narrative and affect of inspirational defiance.

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