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Review: "Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace"

Updated on May 13, 2017
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson is a graduate student who specializes in the field of Russian and Ukrainian history.

"Freedom is Not Enough" by Nancy MacLean
"Freedom is Not Enough" by Nancy MacLean | Source


Throughout Nancy MacLean’s work, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace, the author provides a rich and detailed analysis of the struggles that minority groups faced in their pursuit of racial and gender equality during the twentieth-century. MacLean’s work traces the development of this struggle over a fifty-year span, beginning her analysis with the years following World War Two. In these early years, MacLean argues that minority groups faced a “culture of exclusion;” a culture in which non-whites and females were excluded from high-paying jobs, career advancement, as well as access to higher education (MacLean, 9). During these years of exclusion, MacLean asserts that minorities were often confined to “a restricted range of less desirable jobs” that provided few benefits and low pay (MacLean, 7.) With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and other activists groups (such as the NAACP and the National Organization for Women), however, MacLean’s work effectively demonstrates that minorities were able to wage a “vast and varied effort” against discriminatory practices (particularly in the workplace) that profoundly changed and refashioned “American conservatism, liberalism,” business practices, and politics in the decades that followed (MacLean, 10). In their efforts to gain access to jobs once restricted to white males, MacLean posits that minority groups fundamentally “altered traditions that had been centuries in the making;” forever changing American society and its workplace standards (MacLean, 10).

MacLean's Main Points

In their struggle for racial and gender equality, MacLean argues that minority groups (such as African-Americans, Latinos, and women) relied heavily on the federal government to protect their rights, and to prevent discriminatory actions from businesses that sought to restrict access to the job market. To accomplish this, MacLean argues that political leaders initiated new government programs and policies (such as integration, Title VII, and Affirmative Action) that aimed to promote equality in the workplace, while also providing less-privileged minority groups with newfound opportunities to advance in society. Echoing the phrase from President Lyndon B. Johnson that “Freedom is Not Enough,” MacLean asserts that workplace and economic freedom was essential as it served as the only reasonable alternative for minority groups to achieve social equality with the dominant white population of America. However, MacLean argues that challenges to the status quo often proved quite difficult for minority groups (even with federal backing) as business leaders, politicians, as well as white traditionalists sought to fight any sort of encroachment that challenged their social hegemony.

From lawsuits to charges of “reverse-discrimination,” MacLean argues that the battle for equality remained an uphill battle for minorities, particularly in the years of neo-conservatism and the rise of a reshaped Republican party under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan. Yet, even though these individuals and groups sought to limit the gains made by affirmative action and progressive reformers, MacLean argues that the efforts of minorities were not in vain, as she argues that their movement for equality created “new possibilities” in which African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and women gained “a presence and voice as never before;” a voice that is still heard today (MacLean, 346).

Personal Thoughts

MacLean presents a well-argued and articulated account of race relations and the daily struggles of minority groups during the latter half of the twentieth-century. In constructing her main arguments, MacLean’s work offers a thorough and compelling account that is both highly readable and engaging with its overall content. I was particularly impressed with the organization of MacLean’s work, as she devotes entire chapters to specific minority groups (and their experiences) in a manner that flows exceptionally well. Moreover, I enjoyed how each page of her monograph serves a unique purpose, and consistently adds veracity and credibility to her argument throughout its entirety.

In her attempt to break away from scholarship that focuses on the “dramatic showdowns” and “attacks” of the Civil Rights era, MacLean effectively challenges traditional scholarship by focusing her attention on the more important, “quiet struggles” of minority groups that are too often ignored by historians (MacLean, 5). The end result is an argument that delivers a detailed account of lesser-known struggles in the twentieth-century political, business, and social realms. MacLean’s book is highly informative, and relies on a large array of primary source materials that include: personal memoirs, U.S. Supreme Court records, courtroom documents, newspaper accounts (such as the New York Times), activist group records (such as files from the NAACP and the National Council of Jewish Women), as well as testimonies and oral history records (in particular, the Duke University records on Civil Rights). These sources, combined with an impressive assortment of secondary materials, provide a rich and varied source-base for her work that adds substantially to MacLean’s overall argument.

In addition, I was also impressed with the author’s decision to document the experiences of multiple ethnic and minority groups since most accounts of the Civil Rights Movement tend to focus solely on the contributions of African-Americans. This was important for MacLean to include, as this movement touched the lives of numerous individuals from all walks of life. Even with all of these groups represented in her work, however, it is important to note that MacLean does not always address the experiences of minorities in an even manner. For instance, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans are only briefly discussed within this work. While it is fair to argue that a lengthier discussion of these groups would have increased the size of her book tremendously, I believe that their stories matter significantly to the era of Civil Rights. As such, I was a bit disappointed that she did not expand more on their experiences and contributions.

Finally, I was also disappointed with the fact that MacLean does not provide a proper bibliographical section to her book. While her endnotes are copious and detailed, it is difficult to locate (and sort through) particular sources that she cites in her work. Moreover, the inclusion of additional photos would have been a welcome addition as well. With so many individuals being discussed in this work, I believe that MacLean missed a great opportunity to provide more “faces” to the people that she introduces.

All in all, I give MacLean's work 4/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in twentieth-century American history; particularly the era of Civil Rights. While MacLean's work certainly maintains a strong political bias with its arguments, I believe that the underlying theme of this book contains a message that all individuals can agree on and support. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

General Questions and Comments

In regard to questions that this book raised for me, I found myself drawn to issues surrounding the role of the federal government as well as its relationship with minority groups (particularly in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement). For starters, did the Civil Rights Movement depend on the federal government too much, especially in its early years of development? More specifically, did dependence on the federal government often give the Civil Rights movement a false sense of hope and security since it was believed that federal power was both reliable and capable of defending their interests? If so, did this dependency help (or hurt) minority groups in their quest for greater freedom and social mobility (especially in the future)? Could minority groups and individuals have succeeded without the aid of government intervention on their behalf?

In addition to these questions, some more general thoughts concerning the role of government come to mind as well. Did the federal government handle its policies of integration and “equality” in a proper manner (particularly in the 1950s and 1960s)? Could other measures have been adopted that would have been better for minorities in the long term? Moreover, did the government’s use of force with integration (and in later years, affirmative action) only accentuate the problems of racism and discrimination towards minorities in America? Consequently, are the problems with race relations today a result of the federal government and its early failures with the Civil Rights Movement? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was the federal government ever truly concerned with the challenges that faced minority groups? Or did politicians only care about the potential votes that could be generated through their support of minorities?

Could the Civil Rights Movement have succeeded without the help of the Federal Government?

See results

Questions for Further Discussion

1.) What was MacLean's thesis? What were some of the author's main points? Was her argument(s) persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) What type of primary source materials does MacLean rely upon? Does this help or hinder her overall argument?

3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? In what ways could the author have improved this book?

4.) What did you like most about this book? Did you find any of the facts that MacLean references to be surprising?

5.) What type of audience was this book intended for? Can both academics and the general public, alike, benefit from the contents of this work?

6.) Would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend?

Works Cited:

MacLean, Nancy. Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Work Place. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.


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      John Ward 3 months ago

      Both Interesting and Intriguing. I will definitely read the article again.