The Paradox of Lucile Eaves

David Sackman
Mar 7 · 9 min read

How could such a brilliant woman, dedicated to improving the lives of the underprivileged, express such racist ideas?

Lucile Eaves (1/9/1869–1/20/1953) — Illustration by Jerolyn Crute Sackman, from A History of California Labor Legislation: Revised and Updated Centennial Edition (Queen Calafia Publishing 2012)

Lucile Eaves was a brilliant academician, one of the “Chicago Network” of notable women sociologists, who pioneered research in sociology, law and history, a dedicated social worker, and a tireless activist for the rights of labor, children, women and the elderly. At the same time, Eaves expressed unabashedly racist beliefs, and worked with the same vigor for racist causes as she did for the underprivileged.

In her book, A History of California Labor Legislation, she criticized “idealists who were loath to recognize the world-old significance of race in the application of their theories of political and social equality” and saluted “the persistent efforts of the working people of California” through which “first the state and then the nation have been converted to the policy of Oriental exclusion.

I submit that the paradox of Lucile Eaves is the paradox of this Nation. It cannot be ignored or “cancelled” but must be faced head-on.

Lucile Eaves was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1869. Her family moved for a time to Lapwai, Idaho, where her father was Superintendent of the Lapwai Industrial School for the Nez Perces. Eaves herself was a teacher there, before she went to college. This was one of the first “schools” designed by the government to assimilate Native Americans into the “American” culture, nearly destroying the native culture. See Arthur Maxwell Taylor, Tradition to Acculturation: A Case Study on the Impacts Created by Chemawa Indian Boarding School Upon the Nez Perce Family Structure From 1879 to 1945 (Masters Thesis, Loyala University Chicago 2010)

Eaves was one of the first women admitted to Stanford University in 1891, and received her degree in 1894. After graduating, she served four years as head of the History Department at a San Diego high school. She then went to Chicago University in 1898, alongside such future scholars and activists as Sophonisba Breckenridge, Frances Kellor, and Marion Talbot, who would later be known as the “Chicago Network” of distinguished women sociologists. See Mary Jo Deegan, Women in Sociology: 1890–1930, 1 Journal of the History of Sociology 11–34 (Fall 1978). At Chicago, she studied under the famous American philosopher John Dewey.

She returned to Stanford as a professor, where she became embroiled in Stanford’s “first academic freedom controversy” in 1901. One of her professors as an undergraduate, and colleague as a professor, was Edward A. Ross. Ross expressed the same mix of “progressive” and racist views as Eaves on Chinese immigration and organized labor. He was an early proponent of the “race suicide” doctrine, and in the speech which started the controversy said:

And should the worst come to the worst it would be better for us if we were to turn our guns upon every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores rather than to permit them to land.

In response, Jane Stanford (Leland Stanford’s widow) called for his resignation. Since the Stanford family fortune was based on the exploitation of Chinese labor, Ms. Stanford’s response was not necessarily standing up for the Chinese. Eaves was one of ten (and the only woman) who resigned or was forced out along with Ross over this incident. See Mohr, James C., Academic Turmoil and Public Opinion: The Ross Case at Stanford, 39 Pacific Historical Review №1, pp. 39–61 (1970).

From Stanford, Eaves went to San Francisco, and became head of the South Park Social Settlement House. While there, she became involved with the California labor movement, writing for the Labor Clarion and advocating for legislative changes. She was largely responsible for passage of one of the early laws regulating child labor in California. [Cal. Stats 1905, ch. 18].

Eaves registered as a graduate student at Columbia. But her studies were interrupted by the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, which brought her back to assist in relief work. For a year she directed the Industrial Department of the San Francisco Relief Corporation, rekindling ties with in the Labor Movement.

Eaves researched and wrote her doctoral dissertation, which became her first book, from 1905–1909, with the help of a Flood Fellowship in Economics from the University of California, and a subsidy from the Carnegie Foundation. “The labor organizations recognized me as an old friend and gave me access to valuable source material” she wrote in her autobiographical sketch. By the time her History of California Labor Legislation was published by the University of California in 1910, she was appointed to a professorship at the University of Nebraska.

The book was published in 1910, and was a significant influence on the wave of labor legislation which followed the Progressive electoral victory the following year. But the book also brought her into another controversy, this time with a jealous male colleague. Ira B. Cross was asked by Davis Rich Dewey (brother of John Dewey) to write the review of Eaves’ book for the American Economic Association’s publication, the American Economic Review, since Cross had been researching California labor history as well. While admitting “the work of the author has been admirably done” Cross claimed Eaves “permitted a number of errors to creep into the manuscript which a more careful study of sources would have enabled her to detect” which he proceeded to enumerate. This started a back and forth of replies and accusations between them. The dispute continued for decades: Ira Cross published his own book, A History of the Labor Movement in California in 1935, both referencing and picking at Eaves’ earlier work. While both were relatively new and unknown academics, the difference in their gender resulted in “more concern for the career and reputation of Ira Cross than of Lucile Eaves.” Ann Mari May and Robert W. Dimand, Retrospectives: Trouble in the Inaugural Issue of the American Economic Review: The Cross/Eaves Controversy, 23 Journal of Economic Perspectives №3 (2009)

In 1915 Eaves left the University of Nebraska to teach at Simmons College in Boston. There, she became the Director of the Research Department of the Women’s Education and Industrial Union. This gave her the opportunity to not only continue her own research, but allowed her to mentor the research of a new generation of women social scientists. Her work at the Women’s Union was decades ahead of its time. In 1930, The Women’s Union founded the Bureau of the Handicapped to provide training and employment for the physically handicapped. Eaves pioneered the use of “calculating machines” and statistics in research, long before the technology caught up with her exacting methods. In 1937, Eaves published a study of Discrimination in the Employment of Older Workers in Massachusetts, in the Monthly Labor Review, thirty years before the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621–634.

Eaves continued her work until her death in 1953, while in Emeritus status at Simmons. Her obituary in the Atchinson Daily Globe noted only a surviving sister as family. Atchinson Daily Globe, January 21, 1953.

I discovered Eaves’ work in my own crusade to restore the remedies of mechanic liens, stop notices and bonds. These are powerful tools to collect wages and benefit contributions owed to workers by foreclosing on property built by unpaid labor, or in the case of public works, tying up funds and enforcing mandatory bonds. See California Constitution Art. XIV § 3 and Civil Code §§ 8000–9566. But those laws were effectively nullified after some clever employer attorneys successfully argued that these laws were “preempted” by federal law designed to safeguard employee benefits. See 29 U.S.C. § 1144. In order to restore these laws, I needed to show that they were traditional areas of state concern. I found the ammunition I needed in Eaves’ book.

Armed with Eaves research on the history of these laws, we were able to amend the current law to restore these remedies, and overturn the decisions which had found them preempted. See J. David Sackman, Lien On: The Story of the Elimination and Return of Mechanic Lien, Stop Notice and Bond Remedies for Collection of Contributions to Employee Benefit Funds, 20 Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 254–285 (Summer 1999); Betancourt v. Storke Housing Investors, 31 Cal.4th 1157 (Cal. 2003).

But I also found in Eaves’ book unabashed and explicit racism. A third of the book was devoted to efforts to exclude the Chinese, resulting in (but not stopping at) America’s first immigration law: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. She pulled no punches in her approval of these views:

“We repeatedly meet with dignified discussions of the social evils due to the presence of elements in the population incapable of assimilation. Complex race antagonisms and resentment at the thought of enforced association with what were looked upon as inferior races gave increased determination and bitterness of feeling to the efforts to exclude these competitors.”

Eaves’ views reflected the attitude of organized labor in California at the time, with whom she identified. As Cross noted in his own book, the California labor movement even missed the first May Day, which “received virtually no support from the organized workers in California.” As Eaves herself made clear, “Legislation prohibiting the further immigration of Oriental laborers has been the chief object of the organized activities of the working people of California for over fifty years.”

This paradox bothered me. I resolved to re-publish Eaves book, updating it, and adding my own “Interlude” where I explored this paradox in a new chapter which I called — LABOR, RACE AND IMMIGRATION: CALIFORNIA’S UN-HOLY TRINITY. As I explained at the beginning of that chapter:

The apparent paradox of Eaves’ views on labor, race and immigration reflects the paradox of the state of California, which in turn is but a distilled concentrate of the United States of America. How is it that a state which was formed in such pro-labor sentiment could simultaneously express such racism? How could a state dominated by new immigrants be so anti-immigrant? These issues have been in the forefront of the political, legal and social landscape of California since its statehood. The issues of Labor, Race and Immigration are clearly intertwined, in what I call an “Un-Holy Trinity.” This Un-Holy Trinity has ruled California for sixteen decades, driving its politics and thereby its laws. Can we untie this knot and change our fate? Or are the attempts at multi-racial and multi-national unity nothing more than noble, but futile, struggles against the tide of history?

Nearly a decade later, I cannot say that I have untied this knot. But I am still questioning, and still working to end the racism embedded in our system.

One thing I noticed in revisiting Eaves’ story, is that she spent some of her formative years associated with a “School” designed to assimilate the Nez Perces. The underlying assumption of that “School” — which Eaves never questioned (as far as I can tell) — was the inherent “superiority” of European culture, and thus the inferiority of other cultures. This explains her desire to apply her skills to assimilate these “inferiors.” But as to a “population incapable of assimilation,” which she viewed the Chinese as being, the only answer she could think of was forced separation, for the “good” of all.

This inability — or in Eaves’ case, unwillingness — to question the assumptions with which she was raised, may be at the heart of problem of racism. As my wife often reminds me, addressing racism requires that we engage in conversations. Conversations are two (or more) way exchanges — they require listening as well as lecturing. This goes for both ends of the conversation — there can be no progress if we are unwilling to listen, as well as lecture, to those we label as “racist.”

Should I not have used Eaves’ book to support my effort to restore remedies for collecting wages owed workers, because of its racist content? Should I not have re-published her book, racist statements and all, along with my own commentary? Should I have instead “cancelled” her and all her work, good and bad, as was done to my law school — which removed the name of another rabid opponent of the Chinese, John Boalt?

The paradox of Lucile Eaves is the paradox of this Nation. We need to have a conversation, both listening and speaking, about racism, if we are ever to resolve this paradox.


Student Paper from Webster University, Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society: Lucile Eaves

Lucile Eaves, My Sociological Life History — 1928 in Michael Hill, ed., 2 Sociological Origins pp. 65–70

Ann Mari May and Robert W. Dimand, Retrospectives: Trouble in the Inaugural Issue of the American Economic Review: The Cross/Eaves Controversy, 23 Journal of Economic Perspectives №3 (2009)

Queen Calafia Publishing — A History of California Labor Legislation — About the Authors

Women’s Educational and Industrial Union Records at:

Obituary, Atchinson Daily Globe Wednesday, January 21, 1953

Articles/Books by Eaves

Lucile Eaves, A History of California Labor Legislation (original publication by University of California 1910)

Lucile Eaves, Discrimination in the Employment of Older Workers in Massachusetts, 44 Monthly Labor Review (1937)

Lucile Eaves and J. David Sackman, A History of California Labor Legislation: Revised and Updated Centennial Edition (Queen Calafia Publishing 2012)

Bibliography on Eaves

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David Sackman

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Representing the Working Class as a lawyer since 1982. Questioning everything, especially myself.

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David Sackman

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Representing the Working Class as a lawyer since 1982. Questioning everything, especially myself.

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We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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