Servants of the State
Managing Diversity and Democracy in the Federal Workforce, 1933-1953

Margaret C. Rung

Race, gender, and opportunity in the civil service


"Exhaustively researched. Margaret Rung proves that the records of federal agencies are rich with fascinating stories of the people who worked in them. She does an excellent job of mixing the ideas and policies of managers with the voices of workers."
—Cindy S. Aron, University of Virginia

"An important and highly original study of an insufficiently known issue."
—Desmond King, St. John's College, Oxford University

"The book provides a good historical view of the development of the federal civil service merit system and the barriers to and advancement of African American workers in the government workforce."

"Prodigiously researched . . . By weaving together managerial philosophies and labor practices, union politics, and worker's actions, Rung has produced a well-crafted tapestry of federal employment."
American Historical Review

"[A] well-research study . . . A valuable contribution to the growing number of studies on how individuals negotiate with and within the federal government to create change in society."
Law and History Review

"An interesting study that traces the slow rise of pluralistic attitude in hiring and promotion procedures with the United States federal government . . . By focusing on the concept of individual merit versus group rights in the public-sector workplace, the author underlines an important movement in the United States public sector workplace."
International Review of Administrative Sciences

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Servants of the State traces the halting rise of a pluralistic attitude in hiring and promotion procedures within the federal government. Ranging from the Great Depression to World War II to the early days of both the civil rights movement and the Cold War, Margaret Rung reveals how circumstances in each of these eras shaped how federal managers conceptualized merit for female and African American workers. At the same time, Rung shows how labor relations, as practiced by the nation's most prominent employer, reflected and fostered broader social and cultural debates concerning American identity in a diverse and democratic society.

Rung draws on an impressive array of sources, including previously unexamined archival materials, oral histories, and personnel manuals, as she tells how federal administrators and employees destabilized earlier patterns of discrimination based on white male privilege—only to confront new challenges engendered by personnel trends grounded in sociology and psychology. In the end, a renewed commitment to democracy and social justice in the 1930s and 1940s did not entail a complete restructuring of government labor relations policy or the merit system. By midcentury, labor segmentation based on race and gender within the federal civil service still existed, as did the tension between managers' desire to support individual initiative and their desire to remedy categorical discrimination against blacks and women.

Questions of individual merit versus group rights remain central to our discussions about the relationship between equality and pluralism. Servants of the State highlights the fluid meaning of merit by focusing on this critical concept in the public-sector workplace. By covering an area frequently ignored by historians, it adds an important historical dimension to current affirmative action debates and other issues that touch on pluralism and individual opportunity.

Page count: 296 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $46.95

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Margaret Rung is an associate professor of history at Roosevelt University.