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Documents Women and Work in the Third World: Indonesian Women's Oral Histories Walter L. Williams In Indonesia, as with many young Third World nations, local and foreign economists and government planners focus on creating jobs for men as the best means to promote development. Yet what the resulting policies often ignore is that women have always been integrally involved in the nondomestic economy. Though Indonesia is largely an Islamic country, with an ideology that sees men as providers for the family, the vast majority of Indonesian women have worked outside the home. This pattern of women's work has been a reality in both rural and urban contexts, during past eras as well as today. Until fairly recently, women's voices have often been ignored in scholarship on nonwestern cultures.1 This situation has partially been the result of a lack of attention to nontraditional sources, such as oral interviews with women themselves, a valuable means of understanding female perspectives.2 Because of many women's lack of access to formal education , particularly for those of the nonelite classes, they have seldom produced written documents. Third World feminists have often criticized Euroamerican feminism for its ethnocentrism, and, thus, it is important to learn about the lives and concerns of nonwestern women. In Indonesian Studies, in particular, the voices of women have ,been silent, with few opportunities to hear thefr perceptions of thefr own lives. Oral histories are particularly useful in overcoming this deficiency since the open-ended nature of life-history interviewing allows the interviewee to structure the text according to the topics that are most important in her mind. These life histories are part of a larger study of gender role variance in the island of Java, undertaken by the author in 1987-88. Life histories of both women and men were gathered, with a focus on lifestyle changes in the older generation. Interviews were conducted in an open-ended manner so as to allow the interviewee to emphasize the things about her life that she considered most important. The fact that the researcher is male might have influenced the female interviewees to talk about less intimate topics than they would have done with a female researcher. It is equally conceivable , however, that these women chose to emphasize their work role because they considered it to be such an important aspect of their lives. These interviewees range in age from their 50s to their 70s and live near the classical Sultans' court cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo) © 1990 Journal of Women-s History, Vol. ζ No. ι (Spring) 184 Journal of Women's History Spring in central Java. Yet unlike the members of Java's governmental and court elites, who highly prize a leisurely lifestyle, the lives of these Javanese women are far different from those of the status-conscious nonlaboring upper class. The individuals quoted here are "ordinary women" whose lives have been dominated by the need to earn a living through their own labor. Especially because Javanese women were seldom admitted to Dutch schools, peasant women from the villages had little opportunity to engage in other lifestyles than the agricultural market economy in which they matured. Born during the Dutch colonial era, these women remember their early lives as times of economic hardship. These memories, common to both women and men who grew up during that era, suggest the oppressiveness of the colonial system that the Dutch had established in the Netherlands East Indies three centuries before. Yet this generation lived to see the ancient regime overthrown. The past half-century has been a time of unprecedented change for Javanese people. In 1942, the Dutch abandoned the Indies as the advancing army of Japan proclaimed a new empire of the sun. For Java, however, hope turned to despair as the Asian imperialists turned out to be even more oppressive than the Europeans had been. When Japan was forced to surrender in 1945, Java still gained no relief. The Dutch returned, simply expecting to reestablish their colonial system as before. In the late 1940s, these women witnessed the bloody fighting for the independence of the new nation of Indonesia. They survived the political and economic chaos of the...


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