- Working Women into the Borderlands by Sonia Hernández
In Working Women into the Borderlands, Sonia Hernández explores the position and function of women in the development of industrial capitalism and commercial agriculture in the northeastern U.S.-Mexico borderlands between 1880 and the 1930s. By revealing the crucial role that female workers played in the transformation of the region, she tells a far “more complex and inclusive story of how borderlands are made” (5). Her focus on women highlights the importance of the light industries in which they worked, such as ixtle, tobacco, and piloncillo production, whereas many of the older studies emphasize mining, railroads, and oil. Hernández’s analysis of the kinds of labor these women performed, how they negotiated higher wages and better working conditions, and the kinds of mutual organizations they created to influence employers as well as the state challenges the traditional “male-centered norteño history” and complicates the story of a relatively [End Page 334] egalitarian north (5). Her study exposes, among other things, the unequal status of laboring women as compared to men and the extent of physical abuse and low wages on the haciendas, but it also shows how women contested their subordinate position.
Hernández centers her study on the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Léon but places her research in a transnational context, exploring the connections with South Texas in particular. Organized both thematically and chronologically, the book begins with a discussion of the capitalistic development of the region in the late nineteenth century and the Mexican and American businesspeople who invested capital in land and businesses on both sides of the Rio Grande. Subsequent chapters concentrate primarily on women as laborers and labor activists but include some interesting analyses of the intersection of class and gender, such as women who owned small businesses or factories and their interactions with their female workers. Statistics reveal disproportionate numbers of peasant women in light industries that paid lower wages than the male-dominated heavy industries like mining and smelting. These women participated in the burgeoning Mexican labor movement; forced into subordinate traditional gender roles in male unions, they formed women’s mutual-aid societies, like Sociedad Hermana Obreras de Linares, which were often radical and paved the way for women to voice their concerns in the political realm. During the later Mexican Revolution, women sought to advance gender equity in society and the workplace, and their importance to the nation and to the workplace was acknowledged in its aftermath. Their roles became modernized but remained highly gendered both north and south of the U.S.–Mexico border as they evolved from siervas into compañeras, but still expected to support their families and the nation primarily as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters.
Working Women into the Borderlands draws extensively on archives in both the United States and Mexico. Beautifully written and well researched, it constitutes a significant contribution to the recent and growing body of literature examining gender in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands.