Latest iteration of that laundry thing I’ve been working on.

I looked at nine Minnesota Supreme Court cases brought by women who suffered injuries in their workplaces between 1900 and 1913. In all of these cases, the injured worker was hurt on a machine called a mangle, a machine widely known as dangerous and usually run by women workers.[1] All of the injured women suffered a permanent disability to one hand, most involving some degree of amputation. Some of these injuries occurred in commercial industrial laundries, other occurred in laundries attached to other enterprises – a restaurant, a hotel, a hospital, and an underwear factory. To the best of my knowledge, these are all the Minnesota Supreme Court cases involving mangles. I argue that the women and their lawyers played on gender norms at the time in their courtroom performances. These courtroom performances appealed to common attitudes toward women in the attempt to get around prevalent common law defenses that employers used against workers seeking restitution for workplace injuries.
In what follows, I first narrate one instance of injury on a mangle in order to make clear the sort of injuries I am discussing. I then touch on the relevant historiography to which my research relates. Next, I go into more detail on what happened in the courtroom during these injury cases. I then discuss employer defenses and their gendered nature, in order to explain what happened in the courtroom, and discuss the implied right injured workers appealed to. In the final section of this paper I considering the effectiveness of this courtroom strategy, then conclude with a few speculations about the importance of women’s workplace injury cases.

A mangle commonly consisted of two rows of felt covered rollers and in the middle of the bottom row a larger metal roller, steam-heated to approximately 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The purpose of the mangle was to dry and press linens. The felt rollers fed the cloth forward to the steam-heated roller. The upper row of rollers pressed the cloth down on the steam-heated roller. Rollers beyond the steam-heated roller continued to move the cloth through the machine to where it would be removed by a second worker. When mangles got a hold of hands instead of fabric the results were terrible.
On June 30, 1900, Nettie Blom was feeding a linen tablecloth into the mangle – “mangling” the tablecloth, in the parlance of many laundry workers. The damp fabric stuck to her skin and pulled her hand pulled into the mangle along with it. A co-worker stopped the machine and helped Blom free her hand, or what was left of her hand. The back of her hand was black and blue to the wrist. Bone stuck through the skin on her index, middle, and ring fingers. The flesh looked like boiled meat. After extensive and painful surgeries, Blom could barely use her thumb and little finger, and lost her index, middle, and ring fingers. The middle was amputated entirely at the large knuckle, the other two were amputated at the next knuckle after, leaving small stumps.[2]
Nettie Blom was not unique as a woman worker. Women workers “made up about 30% of the labor force between 1900 and 1930 in major industrial cities.”[3] Nor was Blom unique as an injured worker. Between 1888 and 1908 there were approximately 35,000 workers killed and 536,000 workers injured on the job each year.[4] During this era, employers’ growing “drive for speed and efficiency (…) enhanced the risk of worker accidents.”[5] Rogers writes that
“industrial development (…) brought a much greater volume of accident cases to courts everywhere. While only 19 work-injury cases went on appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court before 1881, for example, 44 cases reached the high court during 1881-1890, 153 cases from 1891 to 1900, and 167 cases from 1901 and 1900. Similarly, in New York City’s trial courts, work-injury suits jumped from 0 in 1870, to 24 in 1890, to 160 in 1910.”[6]

Likewise, Christopher Tomlins attributes the growth in accidents to “pressures brought to bear on employees by their employers’ desires to minimize costs and maximize productivity,” manifested in lack of sufficient expenditure on safety measures – such as guards placed on mangles – and in the speeding up of the rate of production.[7]

Nettie Blom was not unique as an injured woman worker either. As I said, her case is one of nine Minnesota Supreme Court Cases dealing women’s injuries on mangles, one particular kind of machine. At the same time, women like Nettie Blom appear as anomalous within most historical scholarship, as little work has been done on women’s workplace injuries or workplace injury lawsuits.
Blom’s and other mangle cases sit somewhat awkwardly between different historical periodizations and bodies of scholarship. I mention them here in order to situate these cases and my current and future research within the field and within time. There is a large body of relevant scholarship on women workers.[8] There is also a large body of scholarship on industrialization.[9] I have barely begun to familiarize myself with either of these bodies of work. I believe the injury cases I looked at fall in the immediate aftermath of the periodization in terms of industrialization. There appears to be little scholarship on injury and specifically on injured women workers – let alone on injury lawsuits – in the literature on industrialization and on women’s labor history.
The mangle cases fall just before or right at the beginning of an era addressed by another body or perhaps multiple overlapping bodies of scholarship. I am referring to the growth of labor legislation, protective legislation for women, and welfare legislation. Again, I have barely begun to familiarize myself with this literature. My impressions are that in the period when the mangle cases occurred there were early attempts at regulation but few successes. Workers’ Compensation, the area I am most familiar with, began in earnest in the 1910s and changed rapidly until sometime in the early 1920s. The literature on Workers’ Compensation pays little attention to injury suits and almost no attention to women and gender.
The cases I looked at fall in a sort of window within workers’ rights between industrialization and state regulation of the economy in the name of protecting people. As far as I can tell, this window has largely not been studied in relation to women and gender. As Workers’ Compensation spread, the era when workers could bring suits against employers for workplace injuries slowly came to a close.[10] Gradually across the United States in the 1910s injured workers lost one option on that terrain, namely the option to sue their employer.[11] On balance, this transition may have been a positive development, but that assessment, particularly for women workers, can not be fully made without further research into what happened in women’s workplace injury suits. [12]

Before the Court
Nettie Blom took her employer to court because there was no guard on the front of the machine to prevent this sort of injury. Other injured women took their employers to court as well. The courtroom performance in these cases had a few common elements. The women expressed the painful nature of the injury at the moment of the accident, as well as the ongoing pain of the injury and the distress it caused. Nettie Blom testified, “I can’t describe the pain or what I suffered but just to give you an idea, three of the girls fainted.”[13] Minnie Jenson “suffered just agony” at the moment of the injury and afterward “all winter (…) until March or April.”[14]
Mary McInerny described the pain of her injury as “dreadful,” as was its aftermath because the injury left nerves on her hand exposed: “when they are left uncovered and [something] touch[es] them, it seems to thrill through my hand and the lower part of my arm.” Her lawyer asked, “That is the reason that you keep your maimed hand bandaged, then, so that it will not come in contact with anything?” She replied, “Well, it is partly that, and I have endeavored to keep it covered when I go out where anyone could see my hand. Very few have seen it, with the bandage off, until now.”[15]
McInerny’s “until now” refers to the moment when she showed her injured hand to the jury. As Barbara Welke writes, “the performance and narration of injury” could include subtle and visual elements such as “a knotted sleeve covering the stump of an arm.”[16] In all of the mangle cases the women kept their hands covered except for the moment when they revealed their injured hand to the jury. At least some of the women seemed uncomfortable with the visible presence of their injured hand, and re-covered their hands right after displaying them. In Nettie Blom’s case, when Blom was on the stand her attorney asked the judge’s permission to show the hand to the jury. This may have been because he wasn’t sure that showing the hand was relevant. It may have also been a device to build courtroom tension.[17] Blom’s lawyer also had another person describe Blom’s injury. Mary Scott, the co-worker who freed Blom’s hand, said the hand “was all mashed about – it was burned up to there,” indicating the back of the hand, “and the fingers were mashed and the bones were bare.”[18]
Clara Raasch’s injury resulted in the amputation of four fingers on one hand. She retained the first length (up to the knuckle) of her index finger, and none of her other fingers except the thumb. She uncovered her hand and showed it to the jury, after which her lawyer described the hand “so that it may appear on the record.” This narration of her injuries also served to keep the jury focused on the extent of her injuries for a longer time. In the narration, her lawyer pointed to each finger or where it had been and asked what was left of it. At one point Raasch’s answer is listed as inaudible in the transcript. This might be an indication of her becoming emotional during her testimony. [19] At the end of this description, Raasch covered her hand again.[20]
One attorney for a defendant complained about the presence of the injured hands in the courtroom. In Carlyn v. Kennedy, the defendant’s lawyer Robert Olds complained that “counsel for the plaintiff seized every opportunity to exhibit the hand to the jury, even going so far as to do this in the course of his closing address, shows that he fully appreciated the force of this appeal to the emotions.”[21] The plaintiff’s lawyer in Ludwig v. Spicer, J.W. Pinch, did the same thing that Olds complained about. During the testimony of Dr. F. T. Rogers, the doctor who examined Martha Ludwig’s hand, Pinch suggested “[p]erhaps you can explain [the injury] to the jury better with the aid of Martha’s hand.” The trial record states parenthetically that Ludwig “stood before the jury and exhibited her hand” while Rogers went into a detailed description of the injury Ludwig had suffered.[22]
Each case involved testimony by a physician about the severity and permanence of the woman’s injury. This testimony gave the seal of science and masculinity to the women’s claims. Physician’s testimony also provided more time for graphic descriptions of and visual attention to the injury with which to sway the jury.
The women’s lawyers stressed their gender and in particular referred to them via the diminutive term “girls” throughout the cases. Judges as well as expert witnesses such as laundry owners and doctors often did so as well.[23]
Edith Graseth’s lawyer stressed that Graseth was “a minor girl” who “when she was hired was only two months over the age of sixteen.”[24] Clara Raasch’s lawyers opened their complaint with a claim about Raasch’s age, “she is an infant, of the age of seventeen years.”[25] Martha Ludwig’s lawyer, J.W. Pinch, asked Ludwig when she took the stand, “Martha, you are the little girl that was hurt in the laundry?”[26] Throughout the trial and especially in his closing argument Pinch referred to Ludwig numerous times as a little girl. He referred as well to “her little hand.”[27] He urged the jury not to let “this little girl (…) go out of this court room with nothing and grope her way darkly through to the end of her life with this crippled little hand upon which she has been depending to earn her living.”[28]
Pinch said that the “little girls” who ran the mangle hadn’t given “any more thought of the dangers than an animal,” and remarked that “any man that is prudent, and wants to do what is right with his children or any children, when he puts them up against a dangerous thing” like a mangle would be sure to look after their safety in a way in which he said the laundry owner did not.[29] In his final remarks, Pinch appealed to the jury as literal and metaphorical fathers:
“If you want to make people who have charge of your children (if you have any) careful, so that they won’t injure them – your little girls and your little boys, perhaps – I don’t know as you have any that work in these factories, but there are thousands of them in this city – if you want to make people careful and see to it that they protect these little people or the inexperienced – and I say this little girl is a little girl; he talks of her as though she was a mature woman, coming in here with her short little skirts (…) a pretty little thing, as innocent as a babe unborn, almost; couldn’t tell an untruth, wouldn’t tell an untruth, couldn’t tell an untruth if she wanted to; – I say if you want to protect the children of this city, the little girls, the young ladies, if you please, anybody that is inexperienced, put to work by masters in places of dangers – concealed dangers – the way you can do it is by the verdict of the jury. When a man understands and when this community is told by the verdict of the jury that they haven’t any right to treat a child in the way this child was treated, they will learn better.”[30]

Barbara Welke writes that
“[e]vents are not born as legal stories. Rather, law, legal process, and culture combine to provide a structure, a narrative form into which an event must be translated to state a legal claim. Translating an event into a legal action is a form of storytelling. As this process suggests, injury was a fact; it was also a performance.”[31]

Moments in three of the mangle cases serve as a metaphor for the intent behind the women’s and their lawyers’ courtroom performance. The defendant’s attorney in Ludwig v. Spicer pointed out that Martha Ludwig was “not a little girl, as the plaintiff’s counsel says, but a woman.” He continued, stressing that she was “a woman 18 years of age, under the statutes of the State of Minnesota, having attained her majority, having the full rights of her status, being able to contract all kinds of contracts, and a man cannot contract them until he is 21 years of age.”[32]
Two other cases involved literal contracts rather than hypothetical ones. Shortly after her injury, Minnie Jensen signed a settlement releasing her right to sue, in exchange for $75.[33] While Jensen “signed a paper” she “did not then and does not now know the contents or nature of said paper so signed by her” because at the time she “was suffering great physical and mental pain and distress.”[34] The pain combined with doctor administered morphine meant that she was “then and there unfit and incapable mentally to attend to any business or to understand the nature and effect of the paper signed by her, and was wholly incapable of entering into a contract of any kind.”[35]
Hilma Maki also signed a settlement agreement shortly after her injury while in great pain and taking pain medication. Maki’s lawyer, O.J. Larson, asked Doctor Eklund, the physician who treated Maki after her injury and the surgery which amputated her hand, to “state to the jury the intensity of the shock” from Maki’s injury. “The shock from a burn is quite great, some more than from any other injuries,” great enough to “make [Maki] nervous and worried and weak.” Maki’s “mental condition was not good at any time” while Eklund treated her. “She was worrying; she cried a great deal and she undoubtedly had a great deal of pain, which was the cause of her nervous condition and her crying, weeping.” Larson asked, “Hysterical crying?” Eklund replied, “Yes, sir.” [36]
Larson asked, “was she in condition of mind that she could transact business,” to which the doctor expressed uncertainty. Larson followed up, “did she appear to have any will power of her own?” Eklund answered, “No.”[37] Larson’s aim was to convince the court that the settlement agreement Maki signed shortly after her injury should not be considered binding, as Maki was in no condition to transact business.
The invocation of contract in these three cases is a metaphor for much of the courtroom performance in these cases. Women and their lawyers hoped to convince jurors to hold women workers to a different standard than the standard to which workers were normally held. Explaining this point involves addressing the standard employer defenses and notion of contract they made use of.

Lawyers for the laundrymen who ran the laundries used legal defenses typical at the time, defenses which centered around a notion of free labor, where freedom involves a gendered competency. [38] The cultural definition of freedom – which is to say, the ideal type of the free man – in America “was constructed out of the understanding of the relationship among men’s status as citizens, their bodies, and their labor. Free men, by definition, were autonomous, self-controlling, energetic actors in charge of their own activities and choices; they were, in a word, independent.”[39]
According to the notion of free labor, free laborers were rational independent men who knew what they were doing when they entered into an employment contract, and did so willingly. Amy Dru-Stanley writes that in the general understanding,“[t]o contract was to incur a duty purely by choice,” and without external constraint.[40] A free laborer knew what he was getting into when he took a job. He took the job and performed the duties of the job without coercion. If the worker got hurt because of a danger he knew about, then that was just part of the price of his freedom. He freely decided to work in that dangerous condition. He benefited by doing so, in that he received wages. It would not be right for him to later punish the employer for that decision when it was the worker’s responsibility. That was the doctrines of assumption of risk, the defense which Nettie Blom’s employer used successfully.
Since Blom was a “bright, intelligent woman” of 28 with experience working in laundries, she knew that the lack of a guard made the mangle very dangerous.[41] This knowledge meant that, according to the legal doctrine at the time, Blom had assumed the risk of working on this machine, meaning that she was liable rather than her employer. The court ruled that by continuing to work on a dangerous mangle, Blom had implicitly agreed that the risk was her own or agreed to waive her right to hold her employer liable for injury resulting from the mangle. This was the justification for the court’s decision to rule against Blom.[42] If the worker got hurt because he chose to do his job in an unsafe manner, then that too was not the employer’s responsibility. It would not be right to punish an employer for the freely made decision of the worker to work unsafely. That was the doctrine of contributory negligence. In some cases, a worker might get hurt because of the actions of another worker. That was lamentable, but surely not the employer’s fault. That was the doctrine of fellow servant.
The notion of free labor was used against workers in the employers’ legal defenses. Injured workers were described as living up to the standards of freedom and competency, which meant they could not collect damages for their injuries. The employer defenses explain part of what happened in the courtroom in the mangle cases.
Defendants’ lawyers tried to narrate the injured women as falling under the typical employer defenses. The women’s lawyers and the women tried to perform a version of femininity which would allow the women to get around those defenses. The aim was to convince courts loosen the strictures of the employment contract as it applied to women workers. If they succeeded, the then-standard employer defenses would not apply, or not as strictly. In a sense, the lawyers attempted to show that the women prior to their injuries were in a position analogous to that which they were in afterward, a position of vulnerability in need of protection such that they could not be held to the normal male standard of free labor. Injury merely made explicit and pressing what had already been the case, viewed according to the masculine ideal of free labor.
The court was effectively asked to serve in the same role as the free labor ideology held that men stood in relation to their families, protectors and providers. Plaintiff’s lawyers asked jurors – ‘man to man,’ so to speak – to help the vulnerable “girl” now that she had suffered such a loss and was no longer able to help herself.[43] The request for protection appealed to one aspect of the free labor ideology, that contract freedom assured men property not only in themselves but in their wives.”[44] John Fabian Witt writes that a key piece of the notion of the idea of free labor “focused on the structure of the family.” Free labor “marked off the domestic sphere as a separate domain protected from the dangers of the marketplace.” That is, “the legitimacy of free labor rested on the sharp distinction it promised to preserve between markets in labor, on the one hand, and tranquility and virtue in the domestic sphere, on the other.”[45]
For Witt, despite the extension of contract during the nineteenth century, “[n]oncontractual status relationships (…) characterized the relations of husband and wife” and other social relations.[46] Injured women and their lawyers made an implied appeal for jurors to treat injured women workers according to their noncontractual status as women rather than their contractual position as workers. If free labor was gendered male, such that women workers could be said to have performed a sort of drag, the injuries consigned women back to the place of normal femininity which needed men as protectors and providers.

Injuries and Compensation
Barbara Welke argues that injury suits “asserted a right to physical, mental, and status integrity,” through the “embrace of vulnerability.”[47] Litigants sought compensation for the violation of this right. One part of the argument for compensation was the value of lost or damaged property: the injured body had a lower sale price as labor power, or was not salable at all. In this sense, arguments for damages were arguments that the loss of future wages should be compensated. A second part of the argument was recompense for pain and suffering.[48] A third part in the women’s cases seems to have been an appeal to a sort of right to welfare, connected to the second part, the body as damaged property.[49]
As Welke writes, by the end of the nineteenth century “all that most men had property in was their own bodies.”[50] A person who owned only their own body had no ability to access needed goods and services except through employment or through some sort of access to welfare, whether from family, charity, or another institution. Diminished employment prospects due to injury meant that the worker would be unable to get the things they needed to live. Arguments that women workers should receive large settlements were in part arguments that the women should be provided for despite their inability to work. Nettie Blom asserted that she had “suffered not only in body but I felt my only means of support had been taken from me.”[51] Pinch exhorted the jury that if Martha Ludwig was “not compensated for this injury” then she would “be an object of charity from now until the day she dies.”[52] Kathryn Carlin’s lawyer stressed that she would “never again be able to do any work or to earn a livelihood.”[53] He continued:
“what can the plaintiff do in the way of manual labor? She is uneducated, a domestic, or a waiter, and engaged in laundry work when hurt. She cannot perform such work in the future. She can more about and can do little things requiring only use of one hand. But it is difficult to imagine an employment, open to her, in which she can earn any wages.”[54]

Plaintiffs and defendants had an implied disagreement over an additional element of the injury which the women endured. Specifically, what sort of injury was disfigurement for women? Robert Olds argued in the appeal on behalf of his client
“that the plaintiff’s hand in this case presents the appearance of a hideous deformity, is not, of course, properly an element of damages, as the injury is not like a facial blemish, which cannot be concealed, but which of necessity must attract public attention.”[55]

Kathryn Carlin’s lawyer disagreed. Anderson wrote in his complaint that Carlin’s hand was “a hideous disfigurement” from which she had and would “continue to suffer intense pain and anguish, both of body and mind.”[56] Anderson repeated in his brief in response to Olds that being “hideously deformed” would be a source of “frightful anguish for a long period of time” for Carlin.[57] Edith Graseth’s lawyer described her injured hand as looking “like a bird’s claw, or like the hand and arm of a skeleton.”[58]
Women’s disfigurement was not discussed in this way in the cases explicitly, but I believe it is plausible that the lawyers had something like the following in mind. Part of the gendered imagination at the time involved a link between women’s femininity and their figures, so to speak.[59] This may have meant that disfigurement was a particularly grave thing for women. The importance of appearance to ideal standards of femininity could have meant that disfigurement for women could cause additional suffering for women in the form of mental anguish. Disfigurement might also be thought of as a status injury for women, placing them on a lower position within social hierarchies based on standards of appearance. Disfigurement might also have had an impact on the marriage prospects of injured women due to both appearance and reduced ability to perform housework for their husbands. To the degree in which marriage was an economic transaction and to the degree in which women’s (property in the form of their) appearance shaped that transaction, disfigurement would have been an economic injury, either in reduced likelihood to marry at all or in increased likelihood of less desirable marriages.[60]

Looking at the workplaces in which women operated mangles helps dramatize what I take to be the deliberate use of the gender roles performed in court. Aspects of the roles that women performed in court conflicted with the reality of working life in laundries. That is, the reality of laundry work demanded a very different sensibility or persona than that which women appeared in court. I point this out in order to strengthen my suggestion that women’s courtroom performance appears to have been deliberately chosen.
Laundry work required physical exertion not in keeping a notion of women as weak. The workplace culture in the industry was not one where men protected or provided for women, but rather tended to consist of all women sections[61] where women ran the machines, had at least some degree of knowledge about the production process, and acted in a boisterous fashion.[62]
By all accounts laundry work was very taxing. Women workers endured high levels of physical exertion in hot and damp for very long hours. The combination left many women exhausted.
Carola Woerishofer wrote that despite open windows, “the outside air does not come in very far to drive away the heat and the dampness. On going out at noon from a laundry” where she had worked “ all the morning at a breakneck pace,” I was struck by the coolness of the day. That night I discovered that the thermometer had been registering 96 degrees in the shade.”[63] While summer heat exacerbated the heat inside steam laundries, conditions were little better in winter. The Preliminary Report of the New York Factory Investigating Committee found that
“[p]oor ventilation often meant discomfort at work: a study of New York laundries, for example, discovered that most were not equipped with heating systems, and in the winter they simply closed all fans and windows to retain natural steam heat. This meant, of course, that “the air of almost every steam laundry is oppressive.”[64]

These conditions meant that within laundries, “women’s part in the industry [could] be performed only by unusually strong women.”[65] In her fictionalized account of work in industrial laundries, Dorothy Richardson has a co-worker say “If you ain’t strong as an ox it gits in your back and off ye go to the ‘orspital.”[66] Woerishofer said that “[n]early all laundry work is performed standing, and on heavy days, when the work is steady, except at lunch time, very few women get a chance to sit down during any part of the day.”[67]
Dorothy Richardson described the days of bending and lifting in the heat – which she claimed to have actually worked in order to write her novel – as causing “excruciating agony.” The workers felt “not only aching backs and arms and legs, but feet parboiled to a blister on the burning floors.” Richardson’s time in the laundry, “from the view-point of mere physical labor, were the most brutal in all my experience.”[68]
Women workers not only worked hard in laundries, they worked for long stretches of time. The Senate report found hours long in laundries, “days of 12, 13, or even 14 hours being reported” and said that a “spokesman for the laundrymen in their effort to defeat the Illinois 10-hour bill declared that about 80 percent of the laundries of Chicago were working more or less in excess of 10 hours a day at least once a week” on a regular basis.[69]
These long, hard, hot days were exhausting. “The loss of a finger, the maiming of a hand” were for Woerishofer, “though so much more salient, far less grave than the exhaustion” of women who went ostensibly uninjured in laundries.[70] Florence Kelley wrote that Chicago
“laundries maintain hours which are regularly irregular, Monday being a short day and Friday and Saturday having neither a beginning nor an ending except as work is completed. It is no rare thing for girls to faint at their work. Girls have been removed from the laundry to the hospital suffering exhausting after working sixteen, eighteen and even twenty hours in heat and dampness in ill-ventilated laundries.”[71]

Elizabeth Howard Westwood and Mary Alden Hopkins worked in laundries in hospitals and hotels and found conditions the same. Hopkins described her co-workers as “tired all the time. They dragged themselves out of bed” in the rooms provided to them by the hotel “at the last possible minute” before work and many “lay in their beds again at noon.”[72]
These accounts do not describe laundries as places of retiring or vulnerable femininity. The character of the helpless “girl” which women played in court would not have been able to work in the harsh conditions of the laundry. This suggests that women played the role of feminine vulnerability in court deliberately.
A second reality supports the view that women’s courtroom behaviors were a conscious decision. While their injuries were horrific and surely did limit their future employment opportunities, it is not the case that injuries of this sort necessarily meant the women could never work again. Dorothy Richardson narrates her first day in a commercial laundry, when a co-worker asked, “Ever worked at this job before?” Richardson said, “No. Have you?” Her co-worker “replied with a sharp laugh, and flinging back the sleeve of her kimono, thrust out the stump of wrist,” saying
“It happens every wunst in a while, when you was running the mangle and was tired. That’s the way it was with me: I was clean done out, one Saturday night, and I just couldn’t see no more; and first think I know – Wo-o-ow! and that hand went right straight clean into the rollers.”[73]

Like Nettie Blom, this co-worker received no compensation for her injury. She came back to the laundry industry out of need to make ends meet, and ended up getting work pushing the hand-trucks of laundry bundles, an activity she could do with her one hand and the stump of her other.
Since Richardson’s book is fictionalized, it’s not at all clear that this conversation actually happened. On the other hand, Richardson’s choice to include it in her reform-oriented social realist fiction may suggests a perception that women did go back to work in laundries after their injuries, as well as a perception that these sorts of injuries were common occurrences. Some women definitely did go back to work at the laundries where they were maimed. Among its list of workers suffering occupational ailments, the 1910 Senate Report lists three women who were maimed in mangles. Two were still convalescing. A third had been hurt three years prior at that laundry and still worked there, operating a mangle.[74]

It is hard to prove conclusively, but the evidence suggests that women’s courtroom strategy was effective. Compared with cases involving similar injuries to men, the women in the mangle cases had a ratio of wins to losses more favorable to the plaintiffs and generally received higher awards. This is in keeping with what Barbara Welke found in her study of injury suits brought by women railway passengers, that notions of gender likely made courts and juries more receptive to women’s claims.[75]
The table below provides a very brief summary of the cases I looked at, in order by the date of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision. The column labeled “process” describes the course of the trials from the point of view of the plaintiff. For example, Nettie Blom lost her case, appealed, and lost again. Minnie Jensen won her first trial. Her employer appealed, and the final ruling was for her employer, a loss for Jensen.
Table 1: Women’s cases
Amount of damages
Decision year
Nettie Blom
Loss, Appeal, Loss
Minnie Jensen
Win, Appeal, Loss
$1500 initially then none
Kathryn Carlin
Win, Appeal, Win
Martha Ludwig
Win, Appeal, Win
Clara Raasch
Win, Appeal, Win
Lena Dahly
Win, Appeal, Win
Mary McInerny
Win, Appeal, Win
Hilma Maki
Win, Appeal, Loss
$750 initially then none.
Hogan Graseth
Win, Appeal, Win

After Nettie Blom in 1902, every woman injured on a mangle whose case wound up in the Minnesota Supreme Court had won her initial trial. With the exception of Hilma Maki, every woman who brought a case like this won in the Minnesota Supreme Court. Maki received an initial settlement of $1000 from her employer, St. Luke’s Hospital Association of Duluth in return for waiving her right to sue. Maki later claimed that she did not understand this and that she had been tricked into signing.
Two thirds of the women in these cases won in the end. The six women who won in the end asked for a total of $90222 between them, and were awarded a total of $36222, approximately 40% of the damages sought.[76] The average award per woman who won in the end was $6037. I do not know how much all the women got paid, but I know some of their salaries. Mary McInerny, who held a supervisory position at St. Luke’s Hospital, was paid $30 per month plus board. Her award was equal to about 133 months of pay or just over eleven years. Kathryn Carlin was paid $6 per week. Her award was the equivalent to 1250 weeks or 24 years of pay. Assuming an average wage of $7 per week – which is higher than the typical pay for “mangle girls” listed in the 1911 U.S. Senate report – and using the figure of an average of $6037 per award, the average award for women injured on mangles equaled about 862 weeks or just under 17 years of pay.
Below is another table, listing cases of men who suffered somewhat similar injuries at work, injuries that resulted in the permanent disability of one hand and partial amputation. I searched for any men’s workplace injury cases in the same time period involving similar injuries to those suffered by women. I realize this is highly abstracted, but the comparison is interesting.[77]
Table 2: Men’s cases
Amount of damages
Decision year
Wesley Small
Lost, appealed, lost
Earnest Shalgren
Won, appealed, won
John Hagerty
Won, appealed,won
Matt Larson
Won appealed, won
John Miller
Won, appealed, won
William Snyder
Lost, appealed, unknown
David Lundberg
Lost, appealed, lost
Antone Zeuli
Lost, appealed, lost

Of these eight men’s cases, four won and four lost. This is a worse outcome for male plaintiffs than the 66% win rate for women.[78] The four men who won in the end asked for a total of $61995 between them, and were awarded a total of $15498.75, approximately 36% of the damages sought. [79]
The average award for men who received damages was approximately $5624. I do not know the amount these men received in wages, so I can’t speak to how much time this meant for them. It is safe to assume that the men made higher wages than women. If that was the case, then the women’s awards were higher in absolute terms and higher still in relative terms. The average award per man was about $400 less per person than what the women received. The amount may seem small from a modern perspective, but it was a sizable sum at the time. To Kathryn Carlin, for example, $400 would have been the equivalent of almost 67 weeks of pay, just under one year and 4 months at her ordinary rate of $6 per week.
Barbara Welke writes that in their daily lives and in their injury lawsuits, “[m]en suffered from the assumption of ableness” in regard to their bodily integrity. The standard employer defenses in workplace injury cases were another example of this disabling assumption of ableness. In general, alongside the paradoxically disempowering assumption of male independence, “women suffered from social and physical constraints on independence.”[80] Women who brought suits for workplace injury in a sense played on these assumptions and constraints. Women litigants used the assumption of their dependence and incompetence in the attempt to win their cases. With the mangle cases I looked at, this attempt appears to have worked.

Injured women workers, like all injured workers prior to the passage of Workmen’s Compensation, found the idea of free labor to be an obstacle to their injury lawsuits. The cases I looked at suggest that women workers and their lawyers enacted an implicit appeal to male jurors to use sympathy in addition to or instead of other considerations in deciding their cases. This implicit appeal asked male jurors to honor one part of their role as free men – as providers for dependent women – by lessening the degree to which women workers were held to the standards of free labor.
Clearly nine cases is too small of a sample to conclusively establish the presence of the dynamic that I think is present in these cases. I need to do more research before I can make strong claims. Still, I would like to end on a speculative note with regard to the significance of the mangle cases.
Witt writes that “the late nineteenth century presented a moment of possibility for alternative paths” for handling workplace injuries. Witt stress that the outcomes of this era were contingent, against what he implies is the overly teleological interpretation of other historians.[81] Witt insists that this era “stood as one of those seminal moments of possibility in American politics (…) a critical juncture in which the future of American law and policy was open to a number of different possible lines of development.”[82] The mangle cases I looked at come right at the end of one such moment, just before the consolidation of Workmen’s Compensation.
My research suggests that juries may have been more generous with women workers than with men. If that turns out to be true, then one of the alternate possibilities Witt mentions might have been the continued erosion of employers’ legal defenses for all injured workers, with women’s court cases being a key force in that erosion. This dynamic would be in keeping with the dynamic found in other studies. Barbara Welke found that women’s personal injury suits expanded the types of arguments that could be made in court, and that these arguments could later be made in men’s personal injury suits. Julie Novkov found a similar dynamic with regard to protective labor legislation. Courts that hesitated to pass maximum hour and minimum wage laws for men were sometimes more willing to do so for women. Once established, protections aimed at women could sometimes be later extended to men.
Leaving aside historical roads not taken, it remains to be seen what role, if any, women’s workplace injuries and lawsuits played in subsequent change. If these cases are representative, then injured women workers performed a role of feminine passivity in order to evoke a masculine protective response. In doing so, women to some degree hid their own agency in bringing about their suits. If it turns out that these cases had an impact on subsequent developments, it would mean that injured women workers shaped history through the active occlusion of their own agency. That would be a peculiar irony.

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Women’s cases:
Blom, Nettie, Blom v. Yellowstone Park Association, 86 Minn. 237 (1902). [LAW KFM 5445.9 .M56 1902 124-130]

Carlin, Kathryn, Carlin v. Kennedy, 97 Minn. 141 (1906); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.1905.140-147]

Dahly, Lena, Dahly v. Auxer, 108 Minn. 531; 122 N.W. 1135 (1909); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.1909.Apr163-167]

Graseth, Hogan, Graseth v. Northwestern Knitting Co., 128 Minn. 245 (1915) [LAW KFM5445.9.m56. 128:9[

Jensen, Minnie, Jensen v. Regan, 2 Minn. 323 (1904). [LAW KFM 5445.9.M56 1904 104-108]

Ludwig, Martha, Ludwig v. Spicer, 99 Minn. 400; 109 N.W. 832 (1906); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.1906. 70-73]

McInerny, Mary, McInerny v. St. Luke’s Hospital Association, 122 Minn. 10 (1913); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.122:14]

Maki, Hilma, Maki v. St. Luke’s Hospital Association, 122 Minn. 444 (1913); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.126:15]

Raasch, Clara, Raasch v. Elite Laundry Co., 98 Minn. 357 (1906); [LAW KFM5445.9.m56.1906.139-143]

Men’s cases
Hagerty, John, Hagerty v. St. Paul Brick Company, 98 Minn. 502 (1906)

Larson, Matt, Larson v. Charles F. Haglin, 103 Minn. 257 (1908)

Lundbeg, David, Lundberg v. Minneapolis Iron Store Company, 115 Minn. 174 (1911)

Miller, John, Miller v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company, 103 Minn. 443 (1908)

Shalgren, Earnest, Shalgren v. Red Cliff Lumber Company, 95 Minn. 450 (1905)

Small, Wesley, Small v. Brainerd Lumber Company, 95 Minn. 95 (1905)

Snyder, William, William Snyder v. Waldorf Box Board Company, 110 Minn. 40 (1910)

Zeuli, Antone, Antone Zeuli v Foot, Schulze, & Company, 130 Minn. 184 (1915)