The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers: From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box

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The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers examines the lives of Latin American women who entered factory labor in increasing numbers in the early part of the twentieth century. Emphasizing the integration of traditional labor history topics with historical accounts of gender, female subjectivity, and community, this volume focuses on the experience of working women at mid-century, especially those laboring in the urban industrial sector. In its exploration of working women’s agency and consciousness, this collection offers rich detail regarding women’s lives as daughters, housewives, mothers, factory workers, trade union leaders, and political activists.
Widely seen as a hostile sexualized space, the modern factory was considered a threat, not only to the virtue of working women, but also to the survival of the family, and thus, the future of the nation. Yet working-class women continued to labor outside the home and remained highly visible in the expanding world of modern industry. In nine essays dealing with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Guatemala, the contributors make extensive use of oral histories to describe the contradictory experiences of women whose work defied gender prescriptions but was deemed necessary by working-class families in a world of need and scarcity. The volume includes discussion of previously neglected topics such as single motherhood, women’s struggle against domestic violence, and the role of women as both desiring and desired subjects.

Contributors. Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Mary Lynn Pedersen Cluff, John D. French, Daniel James, Thomas Miller Klubock, Deborah Levenson-Estrada, Mirta Zaida Lobato, Heidi Tinsman, Theresa R. Veccia, Barbara Weinstein

"Collection of well-researched articles effectively combines gender history and labor history and includes specialized studies of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Guatemala. Each article is thoroughly footnoted, revealing broadly-based sources including interviews, memoirs, and government publications, as well as authors' extensive reading in comparable published studies and theoretical literature. Editors also contribute introductory and concluding essays rich in historiographical and methodological insights"--Handbook of Latin American Studies, v. 58.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
This book represents a major contribution, even a milestone of sorts, for the new Latin American labor history that the editors have promoted and practiced, and it is certain to be widely read....The book's power resides in its ability to weave into a coherent whole the diverse experiences of women from a part of the world characterized by great social, political, racial, and ethnic diversity and to persuade us of the inextricable dynamic of gender and class....Few volumes so powerfully convey the complexities of working-class life and so convincingly expose the poverty of deterministic theories of working identity.
Journal of Latin American Studies
The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers is an illuminating collection, the diversity of which reflects the multiple gendered spaces inhabited by women factory workers and the multiple identities negotiated by them in their daily lives. It represents an important step towards the development of a fully gendered labour history which recognizes that the issues of class and gender are 'inside one another,' neither one more important or prior to the other.
Hispanic American Historical Review
These articles are representative of exciting, innovative, and suggestive new work.
[T]hese essays are a major step toward producing fully gendered accounts of working women and men, that is, of the whole working class itself....Traditional research methodologies and sources...are effectively complemented by wide-ranging use of oral history and testimonies that rescue the hidden voices of those doubly silenced by class and gender.
Luso-Brazilian Review
This fine collection of...fresh and innovative efforts of new scholars....should be required reading for anybody with an interest in the history of labor and gender relations in Latin America....[T]he essays in this collection are well crafted, provocative, and fun to read. This book will stimulate interest and debate among both specialists and students.
World Views
The articles in this collection strive to go beyond commonplace studies of 'women workers and women's work' in a far-reaching attempt 'to explore the articulation of gender and class in the lives of working-class subjects, both male and female.'
From the Publisher

"Now, at last, a collection that goes beyond simplistic notions of Marianism to show how factory work shaped Latin American women’s attitudes and how the women themselves negotiated for their dignity. Oral histories combined with more traditional sources give a fresh look at how gender operated in the workplace and in the home. No mere gap filler, this book represents a whole new line of inquiry."—Temma Kaplan, State University of New York, Stony Brook

"This work portrays the richly textured world of twentieth-century working women. They recall their memories of labor in male-dominated factories where they challenged pervading paternalistic attitudes. Their moving and intimate narratives are aptly contextualized by a group of historians deeply committed to creating a gendered view of a field previously dominated by men’s views and memories. A splendid collection."—Asunción Lavrin, Arizona State University

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Product Details

Meet the Author

John D. French is Associate Professor of History at Duke University.

Daniel James is Bernardo Mendel Professor of Latin American History at Indiana University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers

From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box

By John D. French, Daniel James

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9840-0


Squaring the Circle

Women's Factory Labor, Gender Ideology, and Necessity


The aims and ambitions of this volume can best be understood by looking back to an early attempt, twenty years ago, to define the scope and direction of labor history. At the Fifth Conference of Mexican and North American Historians in Pátzcuaro in October 1977, John Womack Jr. was given the task of reviewing presentations on workers and labor in Mexico in the national period. This was a formidable undertaking, given its inclusion in a massive 1979 volume, whose bulk and scope reflected the depth and richness of historical studies of labor in Mexico compared with labor studies elsewhere in Latin America, where the field was largely in its infancy. Womack's essay also came during a decade in which, in Latin America as a whole, workers and the urban labor movement had been proven central to contemporary politics and were increasingly attracting the attention of scholars both within and outside of the region.

Under these circumstances, Womack's 1979 essay offers a privileged point of departure as we examine the trajectory of the new labor history in Latin America over the intervening two decades. As befitted a historiographical essay, Womack noted how much was "missing from the papers ... [and] the frequent failure ... to ask certain kinds of questions about the facts that do appear." Having cited Harry Braverman's then new book Labor and Monopoly Capital as the inspiration for a new "critical intellectual tradition" on labor, Womack argued that the time had come to address "altogether new kinds of historical problems." A list of nine topics followed, beginning with productive structures and technology and ending widi studies of "working-class consciousness" and the "economic, social, political, and cultural histories of other classes," since "the history of the working class is not the history of workers only, but the history of their relations with other classes."

Looking back on Womack's ambitious agenda for future research, one is struck by the vehemence of his emphasis on production and work. Yet, in this regard, his prescriptions failed to capture the collective imagination of those who were creating the field of Latin American labor history in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike Womack, this emerging cohort was most attracted to the political issues that were marginalized in his work-centered program of research, especially those regarding populist and leftist politics.

Yet despite their divergences, most of the new Latin American labor historians shared certain underlying assumptions with Womack that are sharply revealed in his Pátzcuaro text. The most striking is the absence of any mention of women in Womack's historiographical review. This lacuna is all the more striking because of Womack's quite apt criticism of those contributors who "wrote as if one worker was practically the same as another" while ignoring occupational differences among the apparently all-male laboring classes.

Not only are women workers absent, but the presence of any women is touched on only once in Womack's list of research priorities, in an item that calls for "studies in the history of family structures among workers, to understand the psychology of their class." Womack's only other indirect reference to women comes in a comment about how roles in "a particular process of production ... determined the organization of their subjects' daily lives, geographic mobility, education, the phase in life for marriage, the schedule for having children, the readiness to truckle or to rebel, and so on" (emphasis added). The unilateral model of social causation and identity formation underlying Womack's comment is worthy of note: a single determining factor is given exclusive sway over the lesser realms of social reproduction and human subjectivity and consciousness.

Womack's gesture of subsuming women into the family and then accounting for the family via its male head was typical of a collective blindness among historians of Latin American labor. In spite of the breakthroughs in the study of women workers in the North Atlantic world at that time, it is clear that the emerging field of Latin American labor history was largely impervious to the new interest in women workers as such. In part, this reflected the conditions under which this new academic specialization was created, within and about a late-developing peripheral region with a weak academic infrastructure, where the political importance of wage-earning laborers, a twentieth-century phenomenon, was widely recognized if little studied.

Although labor is central to both political and academic discourse in Latin America (the distinction between the two is not as clearly drawn in the region as elsewhere), the actual study of labor is a very recent phenomenon undertaken largely by scholars in sociology, the region's premier integrative intellectual enterprise. Looked at from the point of view of labor history, much of this literature has been politically driven in the narrow sense and marked by a type of sociological reductionism with a bias toward structural determinism.

This intellectual context helps to explain, in large part, why so many young labor historians of Latin America were drawn to the politically charged question of workers and populism, the focus of the first Latin American Labor History Conference held at Yale University in 1984. Revisionist in thrust, the founders of the conference rejected deterministic approaches, insisted on a rigorous empiricism in research, and abhorred a priori deductive approaches to working-class consciousness. Aware of the by then burgeoning field of women's labor history, the conference eventually chose women and labor as the subject of its fourth meeting in 1987.

The new generation of historians of labor came to the subject of women workers in Latin America after a group of pioneering sociologists and anthropologists had already undertaken much pathbreaking research. Writing with passionate partisanship on behalf of women and workers, scholars such as June Nash, Helen Safa, and María Patricia Fernández-Kelly combined feminist and Marxist analysis to produce an exciting body of empirical research that explores the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy. Indeed, June Nash's broad-ranging 1979 ethnography We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us pays close attention to male-female relations and anticipates, in its scope and ambition, the objectives set forth in this volume by today's cohort of gender-conscious Latin American labor historians. In joining this ongoing women's-labor-studies dialogue, our collection seeks to demonstrate that historical research makes its own special contribution, especially since the "snapshot" nature of most anthropological and sociological fieldwork sometimes obscures patterns of development over time.

Overall, much of this pioneering work could be characterized, in Joan Scott's terms, as "herstory," an attempt to overcome the neglect of women workers by reaffirming the existence of women within the traditional categories. As with the North Adantic "herstory," but somewhat delayed, this effort in Latin America sought to document the importance of women workers while establishing women's roles as active and autonomous agents in labor's history. This was combined with the exposure and denunciation of sexism, discrimination in employment, male violence and domination in the household, and the neglect or suppression of working women's interests by male labor leaders.

This important bridging maneuver, although somewhat defensive in nature, was typical of the study of women and labor in many world regions, as studies of women's "lost" or "hidden" histories proliferated throughout the 1980s. Although women emerged from this literature as active agents, the approach was premised on placing women into the traditional narratives of a male-defined labor history (women as workers, as union members, and as political and union activists). It did not, however, challenge the conceptual framework and categories that have traditionally constituted labor history as a field. The result was that the study of women workers, in the words of U.S. historian Ava Baron, remained "ghettoi2ed and segregated from men's labor history."

The key conceptual breakthrough, reflected in this volume, could only be found through engagement with the theoretical category of gender. In the words of Baron, a gendered analysis of labor requires "going beyond the study of women workers and women's work." The challenge facing labor historians is to explore the articulation of gender and class in the lives of working-class subjects, both male and female. In this nonessentialist approach, gender is understood as a relationship rather than a thing; it is viewed as a verb rather than a noun. It must be seen as a social process of construction in which meaning is ascribed to sexual difference, which is reproduced by and within institutions (such as the family, factory, or polity) that generate and sustain gender hierarchies and patriarchal ideologies. The formation of male and female identities and subjectivities should not, however, be taken as transhistorical processes. Far from being givens, they are socially and discursively constructed and simultaneously contested in specific historical contexts.

The title of this book reflects these ambitions. We speak not of the "World of Latin American Women Workers" but radier of their worlds because we reject the dualistic implication of such dichotomous categories as male/female, public/private, or capitalism/patriarchy. In the words of two Latin American sociologists, Lourdes Benería and Martha Roldán, "The specificity of real life does not present itself in a dualistic manner but as an integrated whole, where multiple relations of domination/subordination—based on race, age, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference—interact dialectically with class and gender relations."

We speak of gendered worlds because women's identities are not constituted apart from those of men. Rather, gender is constituted by and implicated in a whole array of sites in which historical agency and individual and collective consciousness are formed. Nor can the identity of individuals or groups be derived, in a deterministic fashion, from any single dimension of their lives. As June Nash suggests, questions of identity are fundamentally empirical and not deductive in nature.

The worlds of our title refer not only to men's and women's different experiences but also to the different spheres that make up the lives of working-class women, be they within the home, the community, or the workplace. Thus these essays deal with many different levels of analysis: the individual, the family, the experience of work, community and electoral life, and the discourse about women workers produced by employers and other elites. The challenge is to discover innovative ways to combine the analysis of structural conditioning features with the study of gendered agents. The objective is to achieve a fullness of representation and understanding that is adequate to the multidimensional, integrated nature of how people actually experience their lives.

Let us examine, for example, the case of a hypothetical woman worker and her life as drawn from the chapters in this volume. She enters a factory as an individual and, once at work, becomes part of a process of material production subject to the domination of employers, appearing as part of a statistical aggregate in employment or census records. This woman has feelings about the social position she now occupies, both at an individual level in terms of the work she now performs (given her skill level or the male/female balance within her department) and in terms of her past history, whether as a domestic servant or as the daughter of a factory worker. At work, she has entered a power matrix of sexual and gender relations between male and female, both workers and nonworkers—relations of affect as well as effect, attraction and repulsion, anxiety and self-confidence.

She also experiences her new role in terms of how, as a woman worker, she is now viewed by those outside the factory, be they members of her family, the community, or the non-working-class elite worried about "losing" women to the sexualized ambience of the factory. Her understanding of life is also shaped by the nature of her spiritual beliefs and the depth of her religious convictions.

This composite woman worker is also, however, living at a particular moment in her own and her family's life cycle, since her entry into paid labor occurs with certain regularities. In this process, she is by no means always a victim, forced to work against her own will, since work may in fact function as an integral part of Marriage, childbearing, and consumption strategies. In this regard, she has been raised with certain expectations about respectability and about appropriate roles for women workers as well as for wives and mothers (both gender ideals and compromises imposed by material restraints). It is within this context that predatory male sexuality and violence are understood and contested, both within and outside the family.

Trained in the "domestic arts" by her mother, she enters into marriage or consensual unions with a man (whom she may have met in the factory), who is himself shaped by another web of both shared and gender-specific understandings of the male role. Together, the new family unit is part of a community with its own mores, contested identities, and community narratives. Yet this family is also influenced by the discourses about class, gender, and citizenship available to them within their respective nations and the regions within those nations.

The lives of this woman, her husband, her children, and her neighbors are also decisively shaped, in even their most private spheres, by initiatives from the public spheres of nation, state, and citizenship. Class identity in Latin America, after all, is constituted as much in the plaza as in the factory and is also shaped by structural economic trends (surpluses or scarcity in the labor market, shifts in wage levels, or the intensity of inflation). Within this world, there also occur various forms of what would be more narrowly considered the only politically relevant practices of workers, such as trade unionism and electoral participation. Such participation in the "public sphere" was the exclusive focus of an earlier labor history, which tended to neglect nonclass forms of identity and mobilization found among workers (be they based on gender, race or ethnicity, religion, or community).

The interconnected and multidimensional nature of working-class women's lives, as suggested by this composite, challenges the many falsely dichotomized categories with which we have traditionally understood working-class life (home/work, public/private, family/community, labor/leisure, workers/nonworkers). Working-class women and men do not simply reproduce within their class the dominant gender ideologies of the society. Nor do they create their own distinct gender identities as a class. Rather there is a dynamic interaction between the two. Just as there are male and female ways of being a worker, there is a working-class way of being a man or woman.

Yet the greatest challenge still lies ahead of us: to produce fully gendered accounts of class formation and working-class subjectivity. The goal must be to rethink the categories within which male labor history is written so as to broaden our understanding of working-class identities for both men and women. This book is a step on the road toward this objective, a work in progress, a call for a future volume to deal with "the gendered worlds of Latin American workers" male and female.

The potential for a truly gendered labor history can be glimpsed in recent research on work and the production process itself, subjects that might appear at first to be less-than-promising terrain for the application of a gendered analysis. Yet "gender is created not simply outside production but within it," as Ava Baron observes. "It is not a set of ideas developed separately from the economic structure but a part of it, built into the organization and social relations of work." Sociologist John Humphrey's rich study of the labor process in contemporary Brazil convincingly demonstrates that gender permeates "all aspects of factory life, going much deeper than merely the allocation of workers to certain types of jobs.... [A] gender perspective," he concludes, is essential "for the analysis of male workers as well as female."

This promising line of inquiry is represented in this volume by Thomas Klubock's chapter, which establishes the centrality of gender to the process of class formation, even in the case of an all-male mining workforce. After the strikes of the post-World War I era, the Kennecott Copper Company came to associate single men with high turnover, disorder, and labor militancy. They adopted a new policy designed to reshape the workforce and community life by giving preference to married men in "stable" family units. Klubock shows that gender was central to company policy and that this reconfiguration of family arrangements changed the terrain on which class conflict occurred in subsequent decades.


Excerpted from The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers by John D. French, Daniel James. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Squaring the Circle: Women's Factory Labor, Gender Ideology, and Necessity 1
"Tales Told Out on the Borderlands": Dona Maria's Story, Oral History, and Issues of Gender 31
Women Workers in the "Cathedrals of Corned Beef": Structure and Subjectivity in the Argentine Meatpacking Industry 53
Unskilled Worker, Skilled Housewife: Constructing the Working-Class Woman in Sao Paulo, Brazil 72
"My Duty as a Woman": Gender Ideology, Work, and Working-Class Women's Lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1900-1950 100
Talking, Fighting, Flirting: Workers' Sociability in Medellin Textile Mills, 1935-1950 147
Women and Working-Class Mobilization in Postwar Sao Paulo, 1945-1948 176
The Loneliness of Working-Class Feminism: Women in the "Male World" of Labor Unions, Guatemala City, 1970s 208
Morality and Good Habits: The Construction of Gender and Class in the Chilean Copper Mines, 1904-1951 232
Household Patrones: Wife-Beating and Sexual Control in Rural Chile, 1964-1988 264
Oral History, Identity Formation, and Working-Class Mobilization 297
Contributors 315
Index 317
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