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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 111-148
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“And That It Is Custom Makes It Law”:
Class Conflict and Gender Ideology in the Public Sphere, Mexico City, 1880–1910
Susie S. Porter
In 1908 Señora Teodora Muñoz Viuda de Trejo, with the assistance of a public scribe, wrote to the city government regarding her business selling cakes on the streets of Mexico City. An inspector for the Department of Slaughterhouses and Markets had recently told her that as a vendor of prepared food she could no longer conduct business on the streets. This directive, if carried out, would have dire consequences for Señora Muñoz Viuda de Trejo. In her fourth letter to municipal authorities she wrote, [End Page 111]
I have mailed three letters and all without a favorable outcome. Today that circumstances compel me, I have made myself vulnerable once again to scorn, but a secret voice tells me to have faith. . . . Señor Governor, I have been a vendor of cakes since Señor Benito Juárez governed, then Señor Lerdo de Tejada came to power; and I continued making a living without interruption after our current president rose to power. I didn’t meet with any set-backs until three years ago when they took from me three licenses with which I supported myself. . . . I suffer an ailment of my arms; eight months ago I lost my only daughter who supported me, and she left me with three orphaned children—you see, she was widowed. And so, finding myself in this situation I am obliged to plead to the father of us the poor, that he concede what would be for me a fortune, that I be allowed to sell my cakes, and God will compensate you for this act of nobility. Your humble servant, Teodora Muñoz Viuda de Trejo. (AHCM 1910. 1735: 777)
Teodora Muñoz Viuda de Trejo shared a common predicament with many vendedoras (female vendors). Government efforts to reduce the number of prepared-food vendors on the street would mean that she could no longer make a living. Her only recourse was a written plea for mercy on the part of the Mexico City municipal government. How had these women come to find themselves in such a predicament? The reorganization of municipal government in 1879, the establishment of the Department of Slaughterhouses and Markets in 1903, and a series of municipal reforms aimed at markets and street vending led to a transformation of marketing. Many vendors working on the streets and in the markets of Mexico City were moved, removed, and otherwise marginalized from a legal means of making a living as a result of this reform. In their written pleas, Muñoz Viuda de Trejo and women like her articulated the conflict over public space that these reforms provoked. Vendedoras pointed to history—including political history—and their traditional practice of street vending to justify their livelihoods. It was as single heads of households and as working women with few other sources of income in a restricted labor market that they asserted the legitimacy of their rights.
The struggle over defining the place of working women in public lies at the heart of historiographical developments regarding the public and private spheres. A “gendered space” approach argues that specific spaces have [End Page 112] become associated with either masculine or feminine attributes, shaping but not determining men and women’s actual behavior. The organizing force of male/public and female/private was early identified with the literate middle class (Welter 1966: 151–74). For historians of the nineteenth-century United States this meant examining “women’s sphere,” conceptions of domesticity, and the “cult of true womanhood” (Welter 1966: 151–74; Hewitt 1985: 299–321). Latin American historians have devoted efforts to understanding the construction of difference between masculine and feminine by examining the honor/shame complex and its implications for female seclusion (Stern 1995: 14–15).1 Scholars looking for the blurring of such...