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Gender and Working-Class History: South Africa in Comparative Perspective Iris Berger The continuing struggle against racial domination in South Africa has created an environment in which the actions and attitudes of contemporary popular movements often resonate with historical significance. In this highly politidzed atmosphere, interpretations of the past have the power to provoke intense interest and, at times, passionate controversy. Nowhere has this interplay between past and present been more significant than in the trade union movement. As waves of strikes swept the country in 1973-74 and black workers again felt their potential power, labor organizers realized the critical need to understand the successes and failures of earlier working-class organizations. Acutely aware that ruthless government repression had crushed progressive unions during the 1950s and 1960s, new leaders sought to build a movement whose democratic strength would inhibit its destruction. Yet, because so many union officials had suffered arrest, banning, and exile, important links between generations were weakened or severed; thus, many contemporary activists were unaware of the complex connections over time embodied in their work and their ideas. The silences and distortions of official versions of South African history further reinforced the rift between past and present. When Tembi Nabe shocked some members of the audience at a 1983 labor education workshop by speaking frankly of women's subordination within the household, she never suspected her kinship with Mary Fitzgerald, a flamboyant leader who raised similar issues in the early 1900s. But Nabe's graphic descriptions of women workers providing idle husbands with an endless round of domestic and sexual services closely matched Fitzgerald's critique of domestic inequality.1 Likewise , in 1983, when the shop stewards at a Dunlop chemical factory successfuUy laid a trap for a training officer who was requiring sexual favors as a condition of employment, they had no idea of their historical bond with garment strikers who complained in 1931 of "rude and vulgar" treatment and pressure to go out with the foreman or the boss in order to keep their jobs. In seeking to reknit the continuity among generations of working women and to restore some of the hidden connections between past and present labor struggles, historical studies of working women in other parts ©1989 Journal of Women-s History. Vol. ι No. 2 (Fall)____________________ I am grateful to Ron Berger, Peg Strobel, and Gerry Zahavi for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. The essay is based on the introduction to my book. Communities of Struggle: Women in South African Industry, 1900-1980 (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, forthcoming). 118 JOURNAL OF WOMEN'S HISTORY FALL of the world and other time periods provide a useful guide to formulating relevant questions and theoretical issues. This material is revealing both for its insights and its shortcomings with respect to South Africa. As the only country on the continent with a relatively long history of industrialization, some aspects of its history conform closely to the experience of Europe and the United States. Yet other features of women's labor and their patterns of proletarianization and family life remain strikingly similar to other African countries where little industrialization has occurred. Nonetheless, historiographical trends in the study of working-class women elsewhere help to frame a context for revealing the complex interplay between gender, class, and race. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the late 19th century forced South Africa abruptly into the limelight of international capitalism. As extractive industries relying exclusively on male workers took center stage in the economy, most women, black and white, were left outside the networks of wage employment. Only the development of factories producing consumer goods that began during World War I and expanded in the late 1920s drew a significant number of female workers into jobs manufacturing clothing, food, and textiles. In the Cape, most of these women were "colored," a South African designation for people of raciaUy mixed origins; in other areas, they came primarily from impoverished Afrikaans-speaking white families. Following gradual shifts in the industrial labor force in the 1940s and '50s, black women have come, during recent years, to occupy most female industrial positions outside of the Cape. By state...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 117-133
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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