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Working and Schooling: A critical geography of early 20th C. child labor and compulsory education laws in the US

Authors: Meghan Cope*, University of Vermont
Topics: Historical Geography, Qualitative Research, Legal Geography
Keywords: childhood, historical, legal, gender, Black geographies
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The legal and activist struggles to limit child labor and compel children to attend school in early twentieth century United States reveal constructions of ‘childhood’ that varied spatially, and by class, race, and gender. Child labor laws were enacted on a state-by-state basis, with exceptions for particular industries and with racialized and gendered unevenness, until the National Labor Relations Act in 1938 established some universal minimum protections. Archival work with records from the Children's Bureau, the National Child Labor Committee, and the census reveals piecemeal legal landscapes that produced contradictory geographies through scale processes, regional inconsistency, a North/South divide in family ideology, appeals to the idealized identities of states and the nation, and widely diverging everyday spaces of childhood. Compulsory schooling had a similarly fragmented history, and was socially and spatially interwoven with restrictions on child labor: the gradual expansion of educational requirements was rhetorically linked by its supporters to the construction of a literate democratic citizenry, a patriotic subject, and an idealized nation. Overall, who ‘counted’ as a child was framed by intersectional, place-bound policies of exploitation/privilege. Children of color were seen as no-longer-children at younger ages than whites, a practice rooted in slavery and reflected in the selective moral panics around white children working in textile mills while the experiences of young Black agricultural workers were ignored. These and other examples demonstrate the multi-layered and slippery concepts of childhood, laws, and place, which in turn help to reveal broader structures of power, exploitation, and construction of the ‘nation’.

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