- The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers: From Household and Factory to the Union Hall and Ballot Box
John French and Daniel James state quite nicely in the opening chapter their purposes for producing this volume. In the first place, they sought to correct the previous historical record that little emphasized, or ignored entirely, women industrial workers in Latin America. Their point is well taken, although using John Womack’s 20 year-old essay “Historiography of Mexican Labor” as an example of this oversight might be stretching a bit for evidence. The same year Womack wrote his essay anthropologist June Nash published We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines (New York, 1979) [End Page 240] which went on to become a benchmark for future studies of the lives of Latin American working women, as well as men, and their communities.
Other reasons for publishing these essays include the editors’ desire to show an integration of workplace, home and community in the experience of working women, as well as men. To understand the working world, they argue, one must include all of its aspects, especially the interplay between men and women, and between gendered ideologies. An important feature of this volume is that nearly all of the essays use as their sources the words of the factory women themselves. These oral histories push labor history into “a new research terrain,” the editors’ argue, and show the way women both construct and are ideologically molded by their gendered worlds.
The nine essays included are strong contributions to this project. Daniel James’s oral history of Doña Marí Roldán, an Argentine meatpacker, labor activist and Peronist, is in many ways the high point of the book. Obviously James is aided immensely by a fascinating informant in Doña Marí; but he weaves a sophisticated discussion of oral history methods and working-class history around the personal anecdotes that make up Roldán’s testimony. I found myself anxious to read James’s book on Roldán because I want to know what happened to her next! The essay by Mirta Zaida Lobato which follows the James piece also draws on oral histories of Argentine meatpackers; however, from a more detached perspective. After Doña Marí, it was rather a letdown, leaving the reader longing for the words of the women themselves instead of Zaida Lobato’s interpretation of what they said.
The next two pieces on São Paulo, Brazil dovetail nicely. On the one hand, Barbara Weinstein shows the way two government-sponsored private industrialist organizations sought to discipline and educate working-class women into models of worker efficiency at home, in the community, on the playing field, and in the factory. Theresa Veccia’s essay, inadvertently we may assume, then concretizes some of Weinstein’s evidence by relating examples of gendered interpretations of these new social forces. Subsequent essays show the rocky road that ensued once women entered the workforce. Colombian textile workers, according to Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, resisted labor discipline by “playing around, talking, and bickering,” activities that occasionally lost some women their jobs. Deborah Levenson-Estrada details the story of a Guatemalan labor organizer, Sonia Oliva, a worker in a Guatemala City thread factory. On the surface, as Levenson-Estrada points out, Oliva’s story seemed to be that of a labor activist, unusual for her militancy but not unheard of in terms of labor activism. However, Levenson-Estrada explores the “loneliness” of Oliva’s struggle as a single mother who fought almost alone for a daycare center in her factory and won. Since her fellow workers seldom used the center because they had family or mothers at home to take care of their children, Oliva’s struggle was that of a woman ahead of her time.
The final essays by Thomas Miller Klublock and Heidi Tinsman focus on Chile. Klublock explores the world of gendered...