Working Women in the Mexican Revolution
Summary and Keywords
From la Adelita to the suffragette, from la chica moderna to the factory girl dressed in red shirt and black skirt—the colors of the anarchist—women’s mobilization in the midst of Mexican Revolution was, to a large degree, rooted in their workforce participation. The evolution of gendered occupational segregation of the workforce, sex-typing of occupations, and gendered wage differentials marked women’s experiences and the way they organized to take control of their lives and to shape working conditions and politics. While women’s employment nationwide contracted during the period 1890–1930, it was nevertheless a moment of significant cultural change in the recognition of women’s work outside of the home. Women shifted public debates over their right to work and mobilized around the issues of maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, and respect for seniority. Across the workforce, women fought for the application of the rights afforded by the Mexican Constitution (1917) and then, in the 1930s, by federal labor law. By the fact of their work and because of their activism, women shifted the conversation on the rights of women—single or married, mothers or not, and regardless of personal beliefs or sexual morality—to dignity at work and the right to combine a life of work with other activities that informed their lives and fulfilled their passions.
The Adelita icon has so dominated narratives of the Mexican Revolution that the great diversity of women’s experiences has long remained hidden.1 Recent scholarship serves as a rich corrective to narrow depictions of women’s activism. Women’s mobilization in the midst of revolution was, to a large degree, rooted in their workforce participation (1879–1940). The first half of this article charts the evolution of gendered occupational segregation of the workforce, sex-typing of occupations, and gendered wage differentials. The second half of the article shows the ways work informed women’s labor mobilization and their role in the broader women’s movement. The Mexican Revolution can be thought of and defined in many different ways and, in this article, is broadly conceived of in at least two ways. From one perspective, the Revolution was a civil war, a political battle, and a violent adjustment in the way different sectors of society negotiated conflict and access to resources. From another perspective, revolutionary Mexico was an era of socioeconomic, political, and cultural change associated with larger historical processes of industrialization, migration, urbanization, expansion of the educational system, and shifts in commercial culture. It was a time of changing ideas about the body and fashion; new uses of technology, from the telephone to the typewriter; and of legal frameworks, especially the Mexican Constitution (1917) and the Ley Federal del Trabajo (1931). Women generated and were affected by all of these long-term processes in ways informed by shifting gender norms regarding women’s place at work and in the public sphere.
Women and Occupational Segregation of the Workforce, late 19th century
The late-19th-century workforce was marked by occupational segregation and gendered wage differentials. Nationwide as many as a third of working women labored in domestic service. Manufacturing was also marked by occupational segregation. A study of Mexico City industry conducted by Emiliano Busto (1879), for example, found that women constituted 37 percent of that workforce. Women were concentrated in twelve of the thirty-eight occupations included in the census, with 70 percent of all women working in the female-dominated industries of tobacco products (85 percent female) and ready-made clothing (100 percent female). Women also worked in mixed-sex settings and constituted 31 percent of the Mexico City cotton textile industry (compared with 22 percent of the adult cotton and wool textile workforce nationwide). Women also worked in the production of consumer goods such as matches and paper (50 percent of the workforce), chocolate (24 percent), shoes (23 percent), and hats (16 percent).2
Scholars have explained occupational segregation of the workforce in several different ways. Silvia Arrom, in her study of Mexico City, finds that despite the 1799 decree abolishing barriers to women’s participation in trades regulated by guilds, their workforce participation shifted only slightly.3 John Lear emphasizes the influence of women’s position within the organization of domestic labor in shaping their skills and inclinations for employment.4 Jeffrey Bortz claims that cultural values that emphasized women’s domestic responsibilities inhibited the entrance of women into factory work and that therefore, unlike the situation in the United States, women did not participate in early industrialization—a claim that is thrown into doubt by women’s early domination of the tobacco industry workforce.5 Carmen Ramos Escandón argues that in the transition away from artisanal production of textiles—dominated by indigenous women—women were displaced by male artisans employed in modern factories, in part owing to conceptions regarding the limited physical capacities of women. Nevertheless, she shows that industrialist Estéban Antuñano considered factory work an important remedy to female poverty. Whereas Mario Camarena Ocampo finds that men and women took distinct jobs within textile production, Ramos Escandón, in her study of La Hormiga factory in 1869, warns that it was not until the late 19th century that women were restricted to lower-paid positions.6
Women at Work in the Countryside, 1850–1910
Despite the importance of rural work, research on women’s role in this history remains modest. For the period 1850–1910 robust international demand for agricultural goods led investors to favor agricultural enterprises, especially henequen, rubber, and coffee. President Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) facilitated the political stability that allowed for the continued expansion of large-scale agricultural production. According to Teresa Rendón Gan, women were 0.4 percent of agricultural workers nationwide in 1895 and 2 percent of agricultural workers in 1910. Put a different way, Rendón Gan contends that a mere 1.3 percent of economically active women (compared to 72 percent of men) worked in agricultural production in 1895 and 8 percent of economically active women (and 73 percent of men) in 1910.7 Francie Chassen López questions the reliability of national statistics. Her study of Oaxaca found women—“cheaper than machines”—were 15 percent of agricultural jornaleros (day laborers) in 1907. Women of different social classes participated in agricultural production as landowners, wage laborers, sharecroppers, and communal landholders.8 The expansion of commercial agriculture displaced women in some regions and created opportunities in others, especially in processing agricultural products—coffee in Veracruz or Chiapas, for example. Sonia Hernández examines the important role women played in agricultural production, especially in processing raw materials in the Mexican northeast—an economic powerhouse that had its origins in 1860s Monterrey and the rise of a merchant class involved in the cotton trade during the U.S. Civil War. Despite a vibrant economy, by the late 19th century laborers were migrating to higher-paying Texas farms, draining the labor market in northern Mexico. Women’s labor, generally paid less than that of men, filled that gap, allowing for the expansion of ixtle- and piloncillo-producing haciendas and of other commercial agricultural enterprises.9
The Impact of Revolution on Women’s Employment
The soldadera would become the dominant icon of female participation in the Mexican Revolution, varyingly celebrated for her valor and as an object of affection or scorn. While reliance on female camp followers had been abandoned in France in 1840 and Britain in 1890, it was still the practice in Mexico in the 1910s. As fighting spread across the country and in the absence of a formal military commissary, women took to the work of providing a range of services that included foraging, food preparation, arms smuggling, nursing, sex, and companionship. The word soldada, or daily wages, suggests the low-wage status of the work, which was nonetheless so crucial to the war effort that almost all military factions hired and sometimes forcefully conscripted women into the work.10 Indeed, some have argued that the Zapatistas were unable to secure territory outside of Morelos for any significant amount of time due to their lack of female camp followers. On the battlefield women faced dangers similar to those faced by men—violence, displacement, and hunger—but women, owing to economic and sexual vulnerability, also suffered sexual exploitation. John Reed, in Insurgent Mexico, narrates the disrespect and abuse suffered by women camp followers in northern Mexico.
Women also took up the work of soldiering, as rank-and-file troops and as commanders. Some women chose soldiering while maintaining their female identity, while for others the Revolution opened up space for masculine self-expression. Amelio Robles (née Amelia) found more full and authentic personal expression living as a man. Robles dressed as a man, rode a horse, and fought in battle. Gabriela Cano shows how Robles, dressed handsomely and with gun in hand, also used the modern technology of photography and media spectacle to express his masculinity. While some women returned to life as women at the culmination of war, Mexican law allowed Robles to change his birth certificate to reflect his masculine identity.11
By mid-1915 there was a sharp decline in the number of women working on the battlefield. Francisco Villa discouraged female camp followers as his food supplies became too thin to sustain troops and followers. He then resorted to guerrilla warfare—without the women. Venustiano Carranza’s decision to professionalize the army led to hundreds of women losing their jobs. Marta Eva Rocha shows that despite the importance of the work they had performed, women faced difficulty in obtaining veteran status or pensions.12 After the war, some women returned home, while many took up new residence in Mexico City, provincial capitals, and across the border in the United States. While some may have continued their work in food preparation and sales, others, like Jesusa Palancares, interviewed by Elena Poniatowska for the book Hasta no verte Jesús mío, shifted to sewing, nursing, and work as a cabaret dancer. Mary Kay Vaughan considers the soldadera as a mobile, modern woman and forerunner of the chica moderna, who made her appearance in 1920s silent films and then in streets, dance halls, and schoolrooms across the country.
The Revolution also had an impact on industrial production and therefore on women’s work in factories. Stephen Haber argues that the Revolution affected industry with interruptions to supply routes, production, and sales affected working conditions (factory closures, wage reductions, and poor quality materials with which to work).13 Nevertheless, long-term trends in industrialization had a more significant impact on women’s lives than the temporary interruptions posed by the Mexican Revolution.
Women in the National and Regional Workforce, 1895–1940
Women’s workforce participation did not follow a linear process toward growth. According to Teresa Rendón Gan, the fragmentation of hacienda production and the modernization of traditional industries led to a 60 percent decline in women’s national workforce participation between 1895 and 1930.14 Rendón Gan argues that the most significant decline occurred in the countryside, where women’s work became restricted to ancillary participation in family-based agricultural production. Nevertheless, women did work in processing agricultural goods in, for example, the coffee and fruit industries. Women went from over half of the national industrial workforce (1910) to 13 percent (1940). The modernization of the textile, clothing, and tobacco industries contributed to the contraction of women’s employment, both as mechanization reduced labor demand and women, who historically had dominated the latter two industries, were replaced with men. Rendón Gan also found a slight decline in the number of women working in domestic service and in business. In 1930, 60 percent of women worked in the service sector, primarily domestic service. While Rendón Gan characterizes the contraction of women’s employment as a “return to the home,” the period 1900–1930 marks a major transformation in the acceptance of women’s work outside of the home. Beginning in 1930, as Mexico pursued a model of industrial production oriented toward the domestic market, women’s declining employment in the industrial sector was compensated by growth in the service sector, office work, and commerce.
Women’s employment in the industrial sector was higher in Mexico City than in most of the country, but women’s workforce participation declined there as well. With the exception of clothing and knitwear production, the 1920s marked the decline of female-dominated industries in Mexico City. Between 1879 and 1921 women as a percentage of Mexico City tobacco workers declined from 85 percent to 68 percent of adult workers, and by 1929 women accounted for only 52 percent of workers in this industry, a shift explained later in this essay as in part the result of a campaign on the part of the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana to secure jobs for men. Women’s role in what Department of Labor census takers considered the industrial labor force increased between 1921 and 1929, from 25 percent to 35 percent. (This census information should be taken as suggestive and not definitive, as the occupations included in the two censuses are not directly comparable.) Occupational segregation was accompanied by gendered wage differentials. In 1929, throughout Mexico City industry, women earned 55 percent of men’s earnings. In industries historically dominated by women (tobacco, clothing), women’s wages were approximately 67 percent of those paid to men.15
Important occupations, such as telephone operator, street vendor, and domestic worker, fall outside of industrial census material. The first telephone conversation in Mexico occurred in 1878, and as telephone wires crisscrossed the nation in the first decades of the 20th century, women staffed exchanges and connected callers making business deals, fretting over labor disputes, or checking in on family. As the telephone operator made her way home at the end of the day, she would surely have passed women on the street and in markets selling goods and services. Market vendors sustained industrialization, providing a warm atole or a tamal to people on the way to work and selling manufactured and industrially produced goods via street networks. Mario Barbosa Cruz documents the work of women and men who sold fruits, vegetables, crockery, and kitchen utensils in a network of indoor markets and street stands.16 At the Mercado Sonora, for example, women sold herbs for ailments and dead hummingbirds to place under one’s pillow for an unrequited love. Women sold products placed on a petate on the sidewalk and so combined family subsistence agricultural production with small-scale commerce. To date, few historians have turned their attention to the sectors of the workforce where, in fact, most women have been employed—domestic work. Mary Goldsmith Connelly finds that during the 1930s about one in three women participating in the labor market did so as a domestic worker. According to the census of 1930 there were 186,359 domestic workers across the country, and of these 70 percent (131,970) were women; ten years later there were 181,030 domestic workers, of which 84 percent (151,912) were women. Employed primarily in private homes, domestic workers also made hotel beds, cooked in restaurants, and cared for children in public institutions.17
Women’s employment in the sex industry is not easily documented, but we do know how working conditions have changed over time. Mexican regulation of prostitution originated in French public policy that allowed for government-regulated tolerance zones (Reglamento para el ejercicio de la prostitución, 1865, 1872, 1898, 1926).18 Primarily concerned with controlling sexual activity and the prevention of contagious diseases, the Mexican government attempted regular inspections and medical treatment, with little impact. Government officials categorized prostitution in ways that may or may not have corresponded to how women themselves thought of the work but that nevertheless are suggestive of the circumstances of that work: en comunidad (working in a brothel) or aislada (independent). The impact of the violence of revolution was, as with other sectors of the economy, an interlude in more long-term processes. Katharine Bliss shows the ways sex work became more dangerous during the violent phase of revolution.19 With the termination of regulated prostitution in 1940 and its criminalization, women moved out of brothels and onto the streets to find business. Government focus on control of the urban geography of the city more than on the people engaged in prostitution resulted, Pamela Fuentes shows, in a lack of protections for sex workers—who increasingly faced extortion, corruption, and violence as men gained control of street prostitution.20
Women’s unpaid domestic labor contributed to maintaining households, subsidized production, bolstered class distinction, and was intimately linked to the conditions of some women’s paid labor outside of the home. Ann Blum, for example, argues that conceptions of labor (who works and who does not) shaped family formation, the circulation of children, and the labor market. “Sentimentalized childhood,” or the middle- and upper-class ideology that children should be protected from working, she maintains, was fundamental to class formation, not only because it served to distinguish those who could protect their children from laboring and those who could not but also because such conceptions informed the work of women who themselves could not afford to stay home to nurse and care for their own children. Interlocking domestic economies channeled the flow of value out of poor families into privileged ones. As women moved from villages to Mexico City to work as wet nurses, for example, they also transferred wealth from rural to urban economies, with one result being the reinforcement of ethnic stratification of the labor force.
Women who identified as middle class began to enter the workforce during the Porfiriato (1876–1911). The teaching profession offered women intellectual, social, and economic opportunities. Gabriela Cano and Luz Elena Galván and Oresta López, in separate works, have documented the ways the teaching profession was construed as an extension of women’s domestic roles and therefore appropriate work for women.21 Within such restrictions women nevertheless found opportunities for intellectual growth and perhaps social mobility, as Mílada Bazant delightfully narrates in her intimate biography of Laura Méndez de Cuenca.22 Women first worked as doctors, dentists, and lawyers during the Porfiriato as well. Growing numbers of women sought out commercial education and took office jobs, both in the private and public sectors. Women began working in government offices as early as the 1890s, and in order to carry out the mandates of revolution—land reform, education, and health care—the federal bureaucracy boomed during the 1920s. Women as a percentage of Mexico City public employees increased dramatically over the years, from 7 percent in 1900 to 13 percent in 1920 and from 22 percent in 1930 to 33 percent in 1938.23 These numbers are all the more dramatic when we consider that data for 1930 includes both teachers and other public employees, while the 1938 data does not include teachers.24 Between 1932 and 1938 an important shift occurred in women’s role in federal offices: the number of female public employees (12,838) surpassed the number of female teachers (12,126).25 A growing number of women trained in professions such as nursing and social work and played a crucial role in defining and carrying out revolutionary programs. Professional women, Nichole Sanders shows, contributed to the legitimacy of the ruling political party.26
Women Mobilize and Become the Revolution, 1890–1916
Women’s workforce participation informed their activism. Women, like other workers, formed mutual aid societies that flourished during the late 19th century. They came together as wives of workers, as with the Mutua de Señoras “Unión y Amistad María de Jesús Huerta,” and as workers themselves, as with the Fraternal de Costureras. Their societies were religious and secular. Mutual aid societies offered support to members in times of need with, for example, cooperative savings banks, funding for burial, and social gatherings. Women’s mutual aid societies often sought out the patronage of society women and held fundraising events at prominent downtown theaters. By the 1890s, working women in Mexico City built upon their associational life to confront employers. In 1894 cigarreras protested increased production quotas. Teachers supported the cigarreras, their strike, and eventual efforts to establish a cooperative tobacco manufactory. In 1897 seamstresses disputed the terms of their contract to produce military clothing and appealed to government, distinguished members of society, and the press to aid them in their cause. Women had shifted their methods of mobilization from a reliance on patronage and pleas to negotiation and direct confrontation with employers.
On the eve of revolution workers debated the relative value of different forms of organizing, and many questioned the effectiveness of the mutual aid societies in which women played a visible role. Despite negative portrayals that construed women as engaged in frivolous gatherings and as ineffective in representing working-class grievances, it was precisely women’s rich organizational culture that prepared them for an active role in the labor movement associated with the Revolution. Indeed, by the time Francisco I. Madero declared his Plan de San Luis Potosí (1910), workers had long been calling not only for better working conditions but also for the ouster of President Porfirio Díaz. In 1907 textile workers Maria del Carmen and Catalina Frías, along with teachers and other women, formed Las Hijas de Anáhuac in Mexico City to make labor demands and to protest against the Porfirian government. Women in the mutual aid societies founded by Governor Guillermo de Landa y Escandón (meant to counter labor agitation) mobilized as their patron fled the country and were among the several women’s societies involved in founding the Casa del Obrero Mundial (COM) in 1912.27
During the early years of the Revolution, 1911–1916, working women frequently mobilized to demand wage increases and against factory closures. They protested abusive treatment by employers and affronts to their honor as women and as workers. In the years 1911–1912, strikes broke out across the region of Mexico City. In 1911 women went on strike at La Sinaloense clothing factory and San Antonio Abad textile factory, and by 1912 up to thirty thousand people—when women, men, and their families were included in the count—filled the streets in a protest that came to include more than a dozen textile factories. Seamstresses staged major strikes in 1913 and 1914 and were supported by the Casa del Obrero Mundial (COM). By 1914 COM membership was flourishing, in part owing to the increasing numbers of women who joined, including the cigarreras of La Companía Mexicana. In 1915 women, most of them seamstresses, enlisted in Ácrata, the COM nursing brigade. This same year Ericsson operators, also COM members, went on strike. In 1916 women were integral to both the organization of the Federación de Sindicatos Obreros del Distrito Federal and the Mexico City General Strike. Ester Torres and Ángela Inclán, both seamstresses, served on the strike leadership committee. When arrested, President Carranza did not punish them with jail time and claimed they had been duped by male labor agitators. “You’ve sold yourself like prostitutes,” Carranza is reported to have said.28 President Carranza’s insult of women’s public activities may have been in part a reaction to the increasingly public role of women in Mexican society more generally.
Throughout the 1910s, many women built on their workplace activism to take up political causes, which served as a springboard for political and professional advancement. In Jalisco, for example, Atala Apodaca Anaya (1884–1977) was attracted to the Francisco I. Madero anti-reelection campaign and his run for the presidency. Trained as a teacher and raised within a Liberal tradition, Apodaca was attracted to Madero’s freethinking spiritism and support for education. The Huerta coup in 1913 sparked a wave of protest by women, including Apodaca. While in Mexico City women staged daily protests at Madero’s grave, Apodaca appeared in the neighborhoods and theaters of Guadalajara, giving talks to mixed audiences of men and women, workers and intellectuals. Apodaca’s anticlericalism crystalized in the formation of the Centro Radical Feminino, composed primarily of teachers and workers, in 1918.29
Constitution of 1917
In the midst of labor unrest, the Constitutional Convention convened in late 1916. Convention delegates drew on both the Constitution of 1857 and international currents of thought regarding labor. They were also aware of and concerned about dealing with the status of working women. For example, in 1912 a proposal had circulated in Congress that would have required employers of more than twenty-five female workers to provide day care. With the Constitution of 1917, the protection of working mothers and their children became law. Section V of article 123 stipulated, among other things, that a pregnant woman not be allowed to perform heavy work three months prior to giving birth. She had the right to a month’s rest after childbirth, during which time she should receive her full salary and benefits, without threat of losing her job. Upon returning to work and during lactation, employers were to provide women with two extra half-hour breaks per day and a designated space for nursing.
During the 1920s, employers largely disregarded maternity legislation. Department of Labor records reveal only scattered evidence of such privileges actually being granted. El Buen Tono cigarette factory, with just under four hundred employees who among them had 123 children, did not provide maternity benefits. The owner of several tortillerías, a Señor Atherton, made no special provisions for pregnant women or new mothers, which he justified by stating that his workers had never requested any such special treatment. When further pressed by Department of Labor inspector Juan de Beraza as to why he did not provide any of the legally mandated services for women, Atherton replied by questioning the women’s sexual morality: “How is it possible that the factory must give assistance to women who are not legally married? Such assistance would be immoral given that many of the women lead irregular lives or live catch as catch can in this sense.”30
The Constitution of 1917 also guaranteed a minimum wage, but it was defined in a way that excluded women. Article 123, section VI, established that “the minimum wage . . . will be based on regional differences in the cost of living, and meet the normal subsistence needs of a working man, his education, and honest forms of leisure, considering him as head of household.”31 In 1923 the government did pass the By-Laws on Women’s Work in Commercial Establishments, which established the vague criterion that “the minimum wage which the female employee should receive will be that considered sufficient for her indispensable needs.”32 The by-laws defined women’s wages as for individual use, not the support of a household, despite the fact that significant numbers of women were heads of household. Congress also passed protective labor legislation that restricted women’s work at night and in “dangerous” occupations. The Constitution did guarantee equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.
The same year as the promulgation of the Constitution, President Venustiano Carranza oversaw the enactment of the Ley de Relaciones Familiares, which also touched on women’s right to work. Building on the 1884 Civil Code, the law allowed for the increased agency of women within marital relations, it also reiterated that a woman needed her husband’s formal permission to take a job. The law also reinforced women’s obligation to attend to all domestic matters, especially child care and maintaining the home.
Impact of Occupational Segregation on Women’s Labor Mobilization
While some authors argue that occupational segregation of the workforce weakened women’s collective bargaining power, for others it has been a source of organizational strength. Heather Fowler-Salamini maintains that the concentration of women in the coffee industry in Veracruz informed their social lives, sense of community, and labor activism.33 Her research broadens our understanding of the factors that shape the successes and failures of organized labor. Charles Berquist has contended that workers were most likely to succeed when they were employed in industries strategic to the state and national development, especially when tied to exports. Those industries tended to be male dominated: oil, ports, and steel, for example. Fowler-Salamini reasons that while coffee production may have been a second-tier industry, the strategic importance of seasonal workers gave coffee sorters (escogedoras) leverage in collective bargaining. Furthermore, the concentration of women in the coffee-sorting industry and the community life that evolved around that work informed their labor activism. While some historians emphasize workers’ consciousness and cohesion as based in community (John Lear), labor regimes (John Womack, Jeffrey Bortz), or the long history of class formation that dates back to the rich culture of artisans (Carlos Illades), Fowler-Salamini focuses on the overlapping spaces of work, community, and home, noting how this overlap allowed union activists to cultivate a cohesive cadre.34 To be sure, coffee sorters were a heterogeneous group in terms of education, civil status, housing, residential patterns, and political and religious allegiances. At the same time, the sorter community was an extended family, with all the ups and downs that family implies. Community dances, theater performances, and an all-female brass band brought women together as friends and as fictive kin (madrinas). Occupational segregation and an array of social activities grounded union solidarity and served as an important basis of power for women labor leaders.
By contrast, Susan Gauss argues that in Puebla, occupational segregation of the workforce left knitwear workers (boneteras) in a weak bargaining position, and as a result they were unable to push for the enforcement of their constitutional right to maternity leave. Gauss finds that in 1930s and 1940s Puebla, the prevalence of the ideology of domesticity among the working class informed how workers unionized and the demands they made. The Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (established in 1918) especially emphasized the importance of reproduction and motherhood and supported protective legislation that reinforced the relegation of women to unskilled, lower-paid jobs. By the 1940s, women made up less than 5 percent of the textile workforce in Puebla, though they dominated the lower-wage knitwear industry—80 percent of the workforce between 1935 and 1950.35
Of Socialists and Señoritas: Labor Organizing during the Decade of the 1920s
The government by no means had full control of the country during the decade of the 1920s. Not only were there regional rebellions, the church-state conflict went from simmering conflict to explosive confrontation. And according to Jaime Tamayo, the largest number of labor strikes in Mexican history occurred between 1920 and 1924.36 For weeks on end, the red-and-black anarchist flag hung from the doorways of bakeries and theater marquees as bakers, cinema workers, operators, and other workers joined in solidarity. Between work shifts and getting their hair bobbed; donning streamlined, loose flapper dresses; and attending school, working women participated as integral members of the unionization movement. The Confederación Regional de Obreros Mexicanos (CROM) had formed in 1918, the Partido Comunista Mexicano in 1919, and the Central General de Trabajadores (CGT) in 1923. The latter of these three was the most welcoming of women’s leadership and committed to solidarity with women’s specific labor demands.
Heather Fowler-Salamini deepens our understanding of how different sectors of organized labor related to working women, while enriching the emerging picture of regional variation. From its inception, the CROM claimed to support the rights of working women in article 9 of its founding document. And when the CROM organized workers in the Veracruz coffee industry in 1925, it did so with the slogan “For the Rights of Women.” Despite such proclamations, coffee sorters fought to keep men from taking control of their organization and resources. By the late 1920s the male-dominated CROM increasingly stifled coffee sorters’ feminist stance and sought to marginalize women from jobs and leadership positions. In 1932 a splinter group left the CROM-allied Sindicato de Obreras Escogedoras de la Ciudad de Córdoba.
The CROM also engaged in at least two labor campaigns in Mexico City detrimental to women workers—at El Buen Tono cigarette factory (1920) and with waitresses (1925).37 In January 1920 a group of mechanics at El Buen Tono cigarette factory initiated a conflict with management that led to the formation of a union that would eventually affiliate with the CROM. Women members of the Communist Party and a rival Catholic union alike were either dismissed or marginalized within the union movement. CROM gains were further consolidated during mechanization of cigarette production and when the union redefined certain occupations as “unhealthy,” thus disqualifying women from those positions. Moreover, the CROM supported protective labor legislation that prohibited women from night shifts. Waitresses also protested against the CROM’s exclusionary practices. Restaurant owners required that they obtain a CROM union card in order to gain or retain employment, but when the women requested membership, they were told by the CROM that only those who worked in “first-class” restaurants could join. As a result, men worked in first-class restaurants, “where respectable families dine,” and women in second-class restaurants. In a distinct lack of class solidarity, the Waiters’ Union accused the waitresses of strikebreaking and resorted to racist excuses that blamed “nefarious” Chinese for the exploitation of “poor Mexican women.” While the CROM supported waiters, waitresses took to the streets, and in the 1925 May Day parade they dressed in black and red and held up signs that read: “Bourgeois: Do not prostitute woman; love her, raise her up morally” and “Bourgeois: We proletariat are people too.”38
Women found more sustained support for their demands within the CGT, where they were integral to the union’s establishment and leadership. María del Carmen Frías served on an early executive committee. The CGT embraced female-dominated unions. Even in the male-dominated textile industry in Mexico City, CGT strikes (1922, 1923) included women’s demands for an end to piece-work pay and to the poor treatment of women at La Abeja textile and knitwear factory. Protesters included women from La Carolina and La Fama Montañesa textile factories, cigarreras from El Buen Tono, and women from the embroiderers’ union. Operators at the Ericsson telephone company also played an active role in the CGT throughout the decade of the 1920s, when they repeatedly went on strike for better wages and working conditions and in protest of the dismissal of women who became pregnant. The CGT leadership, which included Gudelia Gómez, also fought tooth and nail for maternity leave, as stipulated in the Constitution. Management tried to argue that the operators were “señoritas” and not “obreras” and therefore were not deserving of the workers’ rights provided by the Constitution. The moral and class distinctions that came into play at Ericsson were not an isolated incident, but rather were integral to Catholic organizing in the workplace.39
The encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leon XIII in 1891, had raised the legitimacy of addressing “the worker question,” and by the 1920s Catholic organizations and industrialists alike focused on nonwage benefits for workers. In separate works, Patience Schell and Kristina Boylan show that the Asociación de Damas Católicas (established in 1912) organized working women—seamstresses, secretaries, cigarette workers, and others—in Monterrey, San Miguel de Allende, and Mexico City and would come to claim more than double the membership of the feminist Frente Único Pro Derechos de la Mujer (established in 1935).40 The Confederación Nacional Católica del Trabajo included 219 organizations with a total of 21,500 workers in 1924, and the Secretaría de las Obras Femeninas oversaw activities that drew in working women.41 The organization supported the family wage—not equal pay for equal work—and held meetings that provided education, spiritual enrichment, and conviviality. Members like Señorita Sofía del Valle established connections with employers who welcomed Catholic organizers into the workplace. Del Valle helped shape management practices such as hiring, firing, and organizing at El Nuevo Mundo and La Britania clothing factories, the perfume producer Casa Bourgeois, and El Buen Tono cigarette factory. Señorita del Valle was herself employed as an executive secretary at the Ericsson telephone company, where she had a profound impact on the workplace.42 Del Valle was a member of the Unión de Damas Católicas and a founder of Juventud Católica Feminina Mexicana. The paternalism of Monterrey industrialists, Michael Snodgrass shows, led employers to create associations that tapped into worker culture, and offered nonwage benefits such as education, cultural events, and kind words from overseers and owners at Cuauhtémoc Brewery.
Women Collaborate Across the Workforce
Women often collaborated across occupations. María Teresa Fernández Aceves focuses on women’s networks formed within and beyond the context of a specific workplace or a given industry. In late 1920s Jalisco, she writes, the number of working women in the textile sector declined as the result of mechanization, economic crisis, and a labor movement that tried to protect male employment. Meanwhile, the number of women professionals grew—teachers and public employees especially, and their political organizations became more robust. In 1927 teachers and textile workers allied to support women in the tortilla industry and formed the Centro Feminista Occidente (CFO). The CFO worked to establish schools for workers and to support the needs of single working mothers. Their agenda was, however, overshadowed by the family wage movement that privileged male heads of household. Despite this, the CFO made important gains for its members and served as political intermediary between the rank and file and city, state, and federal politicians. By 1940 Guadalajara had 511,215 women workers, most in domestic work but also in industry (7,514) and in commerce (7,988). By the early 1940s, there were forty-three women’s organizations in Guadalajara: Catholic (two), labor (twenty-five), professional (seven), and political (nine). Women organized in tortilla production (thirteen) and the garment industry (nine) as well as within the ranks of office clerks, tobacco workers, and those employed in food preparation.
How and Why Working Women Mobilize
Scholarship on the mobilization of working women during the first half of the 20th century has delineated several debates regarding women’s motivations for protest and their construction of social and political identities. María Teresa Fernández Aceves, for example, rejects narrow depictions of women as housewives and consumers and the concomitant elision of their identity as workers. The women of the Centro Feminista Occidente may have fought for schools and the rights of single mothers, but they also formulated demands for the minimum wage and the right to work and to form their own organizations—demands also made by working men. Scholars like John Lear and Heather Fowler-Salamini, inspired by the work of Temma Kaplan, have argued that women’s protest has, historically, been based on their role within the home and informed a female consciousness. John Lear for Mexico City and Andrew Wood in his study of the tenant movement of Veracruz have shown the ways collective actions sometimes have revolutionary consequences when the networks of everyday life become politicized. Jocelyn Olcott contends that women activists in the 1930s were limited in their success, in having defined their demands for financial, political, and sociocultural resources based on the identity of “mother.” By construing their demands around motherhood, Olcott argues, the interests of women remained indistinguishable from those of their families and communities.
Historians have begun to distinguish between how women and men have used conceptions of gender in different contexts. While previous generations of scholarship on caciquismo identified men as power brokers, María Teresa Fernández Aceves and Heather Fowler-Salamini explore women’s role in cacique politics and, in so doing, deepen our understanding of political culture—and, indeed, redefine what constitutes political culture. Fowler-Salamini, in her study of coffee sorters in Veracruz, maintains that in many ways women’s exercise of cacical power did not differ from that of men. She states that in times of intense mobilization, women’s activism tends to reflect that of men in order to legitimate their claims. However, if the power of a cacique could be authoritarian and paternalist, women were less likely to use violence and more likely to use the threat of violence as well as manipulation. Female labor leaders manipulated political power within a field of norms defined by coffee sorters’ religious practices, gender norms, and social ties rooted in women’s work culture. Nevertheless, cacicas exercised power in differently gendered ways. While one female labor leader wore men’s pants and shoes, spoke coarsely, and carried a gun, another relied on a style of persuasion more in accordance with norms of femininity. Women in male-dominated labor organizations in Guadalajara also appropriated and refashioned official gendered discourses of church and state in ways that empowered them, even in the absence of women’s full right to vote (granted in 1953). Women drew on different traditions to open opportunities and to empower themselves: 19th-century anticlerical liberalism and new opportunities for women’s professional training, Catholic traditions, the rise of the labor movement, and the incipient feminist movement. Fernández Aceves found that women did not enter into positions of political authority under the same circumstances as men because, according to the author, the public world of politics was considered a man’s world. She argues that women combined patronage in the so-called masculine style with customs of women’s culture and patronage. In Jalisco, Veracruz, and Mexico City, female leaders often married men active in labor organizing and politics.
Ley Federal del Trabajo, 1931
The Constitution of 1917 had established an impressive array of rights for workers, but legislation and enforcement were left to state and municipal authorities, with the exception of the Federal District, which remained under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Labor. President Emilio Portes Gil (1928–1930) pushed for the passage of the Federal Labor Code that went into effect in 1931 under the presidency of Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930–1932). The law guaranteed the eight-hour workday, vacation, and the right to collective bargaining and contract, among other rights. It also represented increasing recognition of women’s rights as workers, though it also limited their work options by building upon the corpus of protective labor legislation that had developed over the previous decades. Article 21 stipulated that a married woman did not need her husband’s permission to enter into a labor contract or join a union. At the same time, article 77 prohibited women from working at night, and article 107 prohibited women from work in places that dispensed alcoholic beverages for immediate consumption and from dangerous or unhealthy work, except in cases where protective measures, as deemed by a judge, were installed. The By-Laws on Unhealthy and Dangerous Work (1934) prohibited women from cleaning or repairing machinery and any moving parts or working with saws. Women could not work underground, in submarines, in explosives factories, or in workplaces emitting dangerous gases, dust, continuous humidity, or other noxious emissions.
The Ley Federal del Trabajo did establish important guidelines for the regulation of outwork, of particular importance to women employed in the clothing industry, and domestic work. Chapter 18 of article 213 sought to abolish the distinctions in working conditions and wages between those employed inside and outside of the factory, which pitted workers against each other. Despite such laws, in 1936 the Office for the Investigation of Working Women found that only 10 percent of seamstresses claimed union membership. Two of every fifteen clothing shops were organized. The seamstresses who claimed union affiliation belonged to the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana or the Frente Regional de Obreros y Campesinos, affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Mexicano. Only 20 percent of seamstresses worked under a collective contract, and 77 percent held individual contracts, which were more likely to benefit employers. In her study on domestic workers, Mary Goldsmith Connelly reasons that the passage of the Ley Federal del Trabajo spurred the unionization of domestic workers. The Constitution of 1917 did not specifically mention domestic workers, while codes at the state level defined domestic workers in feudalistic terms of honesty, loyalty, decency, and discretion. Within the context of the growing nationalist and populist spirit that culminated with the Lázaro Cárdenas regime and the vibrant activism of women on the national political scene, domestic workers claimed their right to unionize.
The Ley Federal del Trabajo was also important for the way it framed and perhaps accelerated public employee demands for the rights afforded to workers. Public employees, as government workers, were not covered by the 1931 law; nevertheless they used its passage as political leverage. The Estatuto Jurídico (1938) allowed public employees limited rights to organize and a range of rights for which women had mobilized for nearly two decades—maternity leave, recognition of seniority, and equal pay for equal work. The formation of the Tribunal Federal de Conciliación y Arbitraje gave public employee a space to file grievances, akin to the Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje for workers.
Sonia Hernández shows that to gain a full understanding of women’s labor mobilization we must look to the state-level Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje. In her work on Monterrey, a city characterized by a male-dominated labor movement, Hernández finds women made good use of institutions like the juntas. Dotted with the faded purple ink of fingerprints and crisscrossed with signatures, an archived document from the Linares labor board tells of one woman who in 1936 brought a complaint against her employer, who had drastically cut her workload, paid by the piece, with the effect of reducing her take-home pay to such an extent that she could not make a living. After six months of negotiation, her coworkers had joined in, and by the time the case was resolved, the cigarreras had formed the first female cigar workers union in Nuevo León. Hernández pays equal attention to women not affiliated with unions who appealed to the Junta de Conciliación y Arbitraje, thus reminding us that the lack of a visible union movement in a given sector of the workforce or among a particular group of workers does not mean that those workers were necessarily quiescent to the demands of their employers.
Shifts in Conceptions of Women and Work
The early 20th century saw important changes in conceptions of women and work. Whereas at the beginning of the century many people expressed concern over “mixing of the sexes”—men and women working in the same place—by the 1920s and 1930s the women’s movement shifted debates over women’s right to work. Women with access to the press and to the world of publishing wrote in defense of the right of women, including mothers, to work. For example, Leonor Llach and María Ríos Cárdenas often wrote of the changing balance of work, love, and domesticity for women. For both women, writing and intervening in public conversations was integral to their activism. Ríos Cárdenas wrote in the 1920s on the compatibility of motherhood and work. “If she does not need to work, she should stay home and care for kids, husband. If she needs to work, she should, and her children will thank her for it.”43 Leonor Llach was more likely to center the importance of work for women. “For a cultivated woman, love is a secondary concern, the home a refuge, at times very agreeable, but not so much so as to isolate her from the world; and maternity is a masterly work of art, to which she can dedicate all of her inspiration, but not an absolute and definitive objective in life, a sentence without appeal, that separates her from all material or intellectual work.”44 In another piece, Llach decried the power of the trope of maternity to limit women’s freedom of movement. “It is comical, the argument that men make when they want to argue that women are wrong, and when they have no logical argument to put forth: maternity, the home. In other words, fantasy.”45
In many instances women were able to use their labor activism as a stepping-stone to professional advancement, which empowered them to speak out for women’s rights. Textile worker María Arcelia Díaz (1896–1939) a founder of the workers union at La Experiencia textile factory in Jalisco, built on her labor activism in a way that eventually benefited her career. After serving on the executive committee, Díaz went on to collaborate in the foundation of the Centro Feminista Occidente. In 1925 Díaz served as the worker representative to the Junta Municipal de Conciliación y Arbitraje and was later named to the Consejo Superior de Salubridad. Eventually, as María Teresa Fernández Aceves writes, Díaz was named the worker representative to the Partido Nacional Revolucionario. In this latter position, Díaz continued her work on behalf of working women for education, medicine, and the right to vote, among many other things.
“Effective suffrage, no reelection,” served as a rallying cry during the Mexican Revolution, and yet women did not receive full suffrage until 1953. The fight for women’s right to vote was particularly vigorous during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1920s some states allowed women’s participation in local elections (Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatán in 1925), and women could vote in political party elections in 1935.46 During the 1920s the Consejo Feminista Mexicano brought together teachers, office workers, and other women who advocated for the vote. Ana Lau Jaiven argues that women’s activism allowed them to act as citizens despite their lack of the formal right to vote.47 Drawing on evidence from Yucatán, Mexico City, Michoacán, the Comarca Lagunera, and Guerrero, Jocelyn Olcott argues that, in the absence of formal citizenship, women nonetheless engaged in the performance of revolutionary citizenship in the 1930s. That performance derived from three traditionally masculine activities: military service, civic engagement, and labor. With regard to labor, Olcott asserts that female wage earners “passed” in male territory rather than subvert the distinction between gendered spheres of productive and reproductive labor. Labor traditionally marked as feminine remained either invisible or an impediment to political consciousness. Women’s commitments to popular mobilization and success in engaging traditional political patronage, however, allowed them to make gains in access to resources.
The Frente Único Pro Derechos de la Mujer drew on women’s activism around suffrage and a wide range of social and labor issues that coalesced in a series of congresses in the 1930s. The Congreso Nacional de Obreras y Campesinas (1931, 1933, 1935) included a large number of women who worked as public employees, professional women, obreras, campesinas, and women organized in neighborhood associations. The 1931 congress called for the formation of cooperatives for empleadas, obreras, and campesinas; a minimum wage for obreras and empleadas; an eight-hour maximum workday for empleadas, obreras, and domestic workers; and maternity benefits for public employees, who had been excluded from such benefits in the Constitution.48
While the period 1890–1930 saw a contraction of women’s employment, it was also a period of significant cultural shifts in the recognition of women’s work outside of the home. During the 1890s working women shifted from making pleas and polite petitions to protest. Mutual aid societies served as a rich cultural and associational space within which women supported one another not only through fund-raisers and personal support networks but increasingly also in negotiating with employers. Women also engaged in political protest, calling for the ouster of President Porfirio Díaz. So when the Revolution formally broke out in 1910, women were already politically engaged in and integral to the labor movement. Occupational segregation of the workforce, with roots in 19th-century organization of production, shaped women’s work experiences and forms of organizing. Union culture and the politics of the labor movement also shaped women’s work and organizing. Women interested in engaging in union politics ran into significant barriers within the Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana and found opportunities within the Central General de Trabajadores. They played an important role within the Partido Comunista Mexicano, though they found their concerns marginalized within discussions and the formulation of an agenda. Catholic organizations offered women spiritual, educational, and social benefits that many employers were eager to welcome into the workplace.
Women’s activism at work and in the streets, as well as their writing and public engagement, shifted conceptions of women and work. During the early phases of industrialization, employers’ concerns as to the physical abilities of women and any resistance to women working outside of the home were tempered by concerns regarding female poverty. At the same time, public commentary questioned the morality of women who worked outside of the home. In the wake of the outbreak of revolution, the rhetoric of change filled the air, and women leveraged promises of new rights and social relations to their advantage, questioning conceptions of gender norms. Activists with a facility for writing or public speaking and access to the press and public venues shifted public debates regarding the rights of women at work—maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, respect for seniority, and the vote. They also shifted the conversation on the rights of mothers to work at all. Across the workforce, women fought for the application of the rights afforded by the Constitution and then, in the 1930s, by federal labor law. After 1940, as the number and percentage of women active in the workforce grew and growing numbers of women shifted into the service sector and commerce, women’s work experiences would be profoundly shaped by the mobilization of women during the Revolution.
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(24.) Alicia Alva, “La mujer en el trabajo,” El Nacional, July 27, 1933.
(25.) Tercer censo de empleados federales, 4, 36, 51.
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(27.) Porter, Working Women, 156.
(28.) Jorge Basurto, Vivencias femininas de la Revolución (México: Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana, Secretaría de Gobernación, 1993), 72.
(29.) Fernández Aceves, 145–171.
(30.) Porter, Working Women, 182.
(31.) Porter, Working Women, 175.
(32.) Porter, Working Women, 180.
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(35.) Susan M. Gauss, “Working-Class Masculinity and the Rationalized Sex: Gender and Industrial Modernization in the Textile Industry in Postrevolutionary Puebla,” In Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico, ed. Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
(36.) Jaime Tamayo, La clase obrera en la historiad de México: En el interinato de la huerta y el gobierno de Álvaro Obregón (1920–1924) (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno, 1987), 200.
(37.) Thelma Camacho and Hugo Picardo, “La cigarrera El Buen Tono (1889–1929)” En María Eugenia Romero Ibarra, José Mario Contreras Valdés y Jesús Méndez Reyes (coords.), Poder público y poder privado. Gobiernos, empresarios y empresas, 1880–1980 (México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2006), 83–106; Ana María de Dolores Saloma Gútierrez, “Las hijas del trabajo: Fabricantas cigarreras de la Ciudad de México en el siglo XIX.” Tesis doctoral. Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2001.
(38.) Porter, Working Women, 114.
(39.) Susie S. Porter, “De Obreras y Señoritas; culturas de trabajo en la ciudad de México en la compañía Ericsson, en la década de 1920,” En Género en la encrucijada de la historia social y cultural de México, México, CIESAS, El Colegio de Michoacán, 2015.
(40.) Patience Schell, “An Honorable Avocation for Ladies: The Work of the Mexico City Unión de Damas Católicas Mexicanas, 1912–1926,” The Journal of Women’s History, 10.4 (Winter 1999): 78–103; Kristina Boylan, “Gendering the Faith and Altering the Nation: Mexican Catholic Women’s Activism, 1917–1940,” In Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics, and Power in Modern Mexico, ed. Jocelyn Olcott, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
(41.) Tamayo, La clase obrera, 185–186.
(42.) Miguel Olimón Nolasco, Sofía del Valle: Una Mexicana universal (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres, 2009), 54–56; Patience Schell, Church and State Education in Revolutionary Mexico City (Tucson, University of Arizona Press), 2003, 140–142; and Stephen J. C. Andes, “A Catholic Alternative to Revolution: The Survival of Social Catholicism in Postrevolutionary Mexico,” Americas 68.4 (April 2012): 529–562.
(43.) “Dos fases,” Mujer, November 1, 1929, 7, 9. See also “¿Debe permanecer la madre en el hogar?” Mujer, November 1, 1929, 14.
(44.) Leonor Llach, “La feminidady la cultura,” Elegancias, March 3, 1926, 6.
(45.) Llach, “La feminidad y la cultura,” Elegancias, March 3, 1926, 6.
(46.) Ana Lau Jaiven y María Mercedes Zúñiga Elizalde (coordinadoras), El sufragio feminine en México. Votos en los estados (1917–1965) (Hermosillo, El Colegio de Sonora, 2013).
(47.) Ana Lau, “Mujeres, feminismo y sufragio en los años veinte,” In Un fantasma recorre el siglo luchas feministas en México 1910–2010 (México DF: UAM-X, CSH, Depto. de Relaciones Sociales; 2011). México DF: UAM-X, CSH, Depto. de Relaciones Sociales; 201
(48.) “Las mujeres de México pugnaba por la patria,” El Nacional, October 7, 1931, 1.