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  • Working Women in Mexico City: Public Discourses and Material Conditions, 1879-1931
  • John Lear
Working Women in Mexico City: Public Discourses and Material Conditions, 1879-1931. By Susie S. Porter. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003. Pp. xxv, 250. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $50.00 cloth.

Gendered histories of Latin America have often looked beyond the workplace, particularly to issues of consumption and community organization, in order to incorporate women more fully into the history of working people. By contrast, Susie S. Porter's welcome study of the working women of Mexico City at the turn of the nineteenth century is constructed solidly around their roles as workers. Rather than reject the concept of "feminine consciousness" used by many historians of community organization, she seems to redirect many of the insights of that framework, fortified by Habermas, to gendered understandings about and within the workplace.

This study begins by carefully documenting the way the Porifiran industrialization of Mexico City reduced the number of women working in a few, traditionally segregated occupations like cigarette making, while increasing their numbers in mixed-sex factories, sweatshops and home production organized around gendered occupations and wage differentials. In 1910, women made up roughly 35 percent of the city's paid labor force. Public discourse, which traditionally emphasized the moral and physical weaknesses of women, identified the factory as a public and "masculine" space where the "mixing of the sexes" threatened female sexuality and honor. Porter shows how employers, intellectuals, political elites and middle class reformers often saw women workers as sexually compromised and a threat to class and gender hierarchies. Elite discourses around female weakness shaped how employers controlled and exploited women workers, how officials proffered charity and protection, and how reformers and eventually union leaders reached out to women workers while often marginalizing them as workers.

The close relation Porter traces between the material parameters of women's work and the discursive representations of working women resembles what Elizabeth [End Page 754] Hutchison does in Labors Appropriate to Their Sex: Gender, Labor, and Politics in Urban Chile, 1900-1930 (2001). While Hutchison more fully develops the varieties of elite discourse, what makes Porter's contribution exceptional and innovative is the attention she pays to the way women workers acted within that discourse of female honor to legitimate a place for themselves within the public sphere. Through careful analysis of protests, petitions, and letters, Porter shows that women workers both relied on and resisted the rhetoric of female vulnerability and sexual morality to voice their demands. Given public concerns, women often insisted on their own sexual morality and need to work and earn decent wages to maintain an honorable life and support their families, while others attempted to distance "private morality from their public personas" (p. 120). Porter insists that the demands of women workers did not differ significantly from those of male workers, though their organizational methods often did. An excellent chapter on female street vendors and their conflicts with city authorities extends the book's framework to this most "public" of working women. Inclusion of non-waged women working outside of manufacturing also helps compensate for what Porter acknowledges as a major "absence" in her book, the domestic servants who constituted the largest single occupation for women, yet rarely appear in the public documents.

Porter's research and conclusions are most definitive for the period before 1910, when key urban industries and gendered understandings of women workers were first formed. But she also traces organizational and discursive changes during the decade of the revolution and through the creation of a Federal Labor Code in 1931. Porter argues that the revolution "heralded the formal abandonment of notions of working women as immoral" (p. 192)and opened political discursive spaces within which women could formulate their demands in new terms. But like other recent scholars, she emphasizes continuities with the Porfirian period, as conceptions of the honor and morality of female workers lingered and ultimately shaped protective legislation and maternity benefits. New labor laws, male-dominated labor unions, and changing census categories, among other factors, ultimately contributed to the declining percentage of women in the Mexico City workforce by 1930, though...


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