Activo Inmaterial: Women in Colombia’s Labor History

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By Leah Hutton Blumenfeld

Introduction

Writing a historiography of labor in Colombia is not a simple task. The variety of topics and time periods that have been covered in the literature reveal that it is underdeveloped, since there are not a significant number on any one era or area in particular. Generally speaking, as one searches for sources on Colombia, one finds hundreds of articles and books on drugs and violence. This may be part of the explanation for the unevenness of sources on labor, and can be considered a reason to explore other aspects of Colombian history so as not to pigeonhole it any more than it already has been. A reorientation in the approach to Colombian history may, in fact, help illuminate the proclivity towards drugs and violence in Colombian history in a different and possibly clearer fashion.      

For purely normative reasons, I wanted to look at child labor in particular for this essay, but it soon became clear that the number of sources was abysmally small. Even by focusing on women instead, I have had to be creative in my approach. While there are some good historical studies on the subject, this work is supplemented by texts from anthropology and sociology. I have also included some texts for their absence of women.

“Latin America has one of the lowest formally recognized employment rates for women in the world,” due in part to the “invisible” work of home-based labor.¹ Alma T. Junsay and Tim B. Heaton note worldwide increases in the number of women working since the 1950s, yet the division of labor is still based on traditional sex roles.² This phenomenon, as well as discrepancies in pay rates for men and women, has been well-documented in developed societies. The same pattern exists in the developing world though it is less well-researched.  

As Charles Bergquist pointed out in 1993,³ gender has emerged as a tool for understanding history from a multiplicity of perspectives and that the inclusion of women resurrects a multitude of subjects previously ignored. Eugene Sofer has said that working class history is more inclusive than a traditional labor history, one known for its preoccupation with unions, and that working class history incorporates the concept that “working people should be viewed as conscious historical actors.”⁴ If we are studying all working people, then where are the women in Colombia’s history?

Old Texts, Old Concepts

It seems strange that much of the historical literature on labor in Colombia would focus on organized labor since the number of workers in unions is small, with only about 4% of the total labor force participating in trade unions in 2016, and the role of unions is generally less important in comparison to the rest of Latin America.⁵ If the traditional approach to labor history obscures as much as it reveals, then a better approach to labor is one that looks at a larger cross-section of workers.          

According to Bergquist’s earlier work, the historiography of labor in Latin America as a whole is still underdeveloped, but open to “interpretive efforts.”⁶ The focus of his book is undeniably on the history of the labor movement; that is, organized labor and its link to politics as history. Bergquist also says that the traditional approach to labor that divides it into the two categories, rural (peasant) or industrial (modern proletariat), is inappropriate for Latin America; a better categorization would be to discuss labor’s role within any export production.⁷ This emphasis reveals his work as focused on economic structures. This focus is especially apparent in his chapter on Colombia, which concentrates on the coffee sector.⁸

Aside from economics, Bergquist incorporates sociology and culture by addressing the ethnically and “culturally homogenous agrarian society” of Colombia as the basis for an analysis focused on class and politics.⁹ In the coffee growing regions “the nature of life and work on these farms merits our close attention” since therein “lies the source of the cultural values and a certain political consciousness that deeply influenced the development of the Colombian labor movement and the modern history of the nation as a whole.”¹⁰ This analysis is one based on structural determinism: the development and dissemination of class-based identity and ideology begins in the agrarian home and is passed from one generation to the next, giving rise to a sort of uniform working-class consciousness. The supposed homogeneity within Colombian coffee society should be all the more reason to look for other differentiating factors such as gender, age, geography, or industry, and the “close attention” he speaks of should then include the lives of women and children within this structure, especially the details of their participation and indoctrination.            

Miguel Urrutia’s 1969 book The Development of the Colombian Labor Movement is considered the major work in this genre, though David Sowell, in a later book on the same topic,¹¹ faults Urrutia for his Marxist perspective and scant attention to the social and cultural experience of the workers. The book begins with the Society of Artisans (La Sociedad de Artesanos) in 19th century Colombia, though who they are exactly is not fully explained. The nature of their competition with British textile imports may lead one to believe they are local or indigenous craft and cloth makers − men, women, and children alike – but one cannot be sure from the text. It is possible that most of Urrutia’s sources did not specify such facts; this was, after all, 19th century Bogotá. The book, while probably accurate, is flat. The workers are undifferentiated masses perpetually referred to in generic terms: carpenters, tailors, and craftsmen.¹²  

Both Urrutia and Bergquist are guilty of simplifying their subjects into generic categories. They take data from discreet sectors of Colombia and attempt to fit them not into a pan-Latin American model of class-consciousness and political activism, but an even broader theory. Urrutia focuses first on class war and then industrialization as the mitigating factors, and Bergquist uses the development of an export economy. These are grand themes with little room for subtlety in their manifestations over time and space.  Equally important is the limited scope for examining participation. If the mass of workers is involved, then the reader must assume that all individuals within that mass participated in the same way. Variations or dissention among the ranks are never considered.

Where are the Women?

Class, economic, and social development in Colombian coffee society depended on “family-centered, labor intensive coffee production.”¹³ Birth rates were crucial to continued production − an idea that could open to an exploration of women’s roles − yet “the pattern of life and labor on…small family farms is consistently ignored in the literature.”¹⁴ Similarly to the coffee family, “in most artisan families both men and women worked, as did children old enough to be apprenticed or earn some money.”¹⁵ It was “impossible to isolate the artisan shop from the artisan home” and together they were “the primary sources of social values and class consciousness.”¹⁶ This is essentially the same argument that Bergquist made about the family coffee farm. Each author relies on the system as a determining factor in workers’ identity formation and organizational interests, with little attention paid to other elements. The assumption is that there is a nuclear family where the father is the worker who supports the family and the mother cares for the children, who grow up to perpetuate their parents’ roles in society.  

In spite of this monolithic approach, “women and children, often from the families of permanent hacienda workers, joined…in the coffee harvest.”¹⁷ In other words, they were not considered a permanent part of the coffee labor force, although an editorial from 1933 stated that the coffee industry in Colombia provided “adequate and almost permanent work to women and children.”¹⁸ There were women who participated directly in the coffee industry as the sorters and graders of coffee beans (escogedoras) in the husking plants called trilladoras.¹⁹  

Familial relationships could make or break the success of a farm or family’s independence and there was often competition between neighbors. A man as the head of the house might maintain more than one household as the number of children affected the amount of available labor. If success was linked to this manliness, where did women and their labor fit? Women are included, yet the descriptions of their participation are merely factoids, with no analysis of their influence in a significant cultural or social manner. For example, while the men and older boys did the “heavy labor,” the “women and children of both sexes played an important role in the harvest.”²⁰ This role included the picking, depulping, drying, and sorting of coffee beans before their transport to the coffee towns.²¹ Women and girls made clothes, wove baskets for the harvest, made candles and soap, and did the washing.²² On the family farm, the division of labor for growing food crops is not specified, and much of Bergquist’s description of daily life in the growing region reads like an ethnography, an anthropological text rather than a history, and some of it sounds as if he were describing a primitive culture existing within a modern one. He notes the geographical separation of these communities and the physical hazards from insects and tropical diseases, as well as the “social and political reality” of life as “mean and frightening.”²³ These living conditions have not changed in over 100 years and indeed may be frightening to a foreign observer or even to someone from the urban and modern world of the cities of Colombia.      

Women’s role in organized labor is limited though the National Coffee Strikes of the 1930s, which involved a broad range of workers including the escogedoras.²⁴ In 1935, activists for both the Communist Party and the UNIR (Unión Nacional Izquierda Revolucionaria) led strikes.²⁵ The efforts of the Communist Party that year were to “concentrate primarily on organizing the female work force in the coffee trilladoras,” where about 85% of the workforce consisted of escogedoras.²⁶ Yet the women working in the coffee towns were not the same women as those in the growing areas. The author has not explored who the escogedoras were, where they come from, or what their lives were like inside and outside of the workplace.

One individual woman does earn a special place in Colombia’s labor historiography: María Cano, the Socialist Revolutionary Party’s “most celebrated public speaker.”²⁷ Born to an upper class family, she “developed a concern for the plight of the working poor.”²⁸ She then became “a symbol of insurgent labor, a speaker capable of electrifying the crowds of workers who flocked to hear her passionate rhetoric.”²⁹ She only gets two-thirds of a paragraph and a footnote with a source, should you have an interest in reading more about her. Cano is also mentioned only briefly in Urrutia’s text, one of few indicators of women’s involvement in organized labor.³⁰ Her name is like many others throughout the text: a name with a related significant fact or action but little other biographical or personal information. The only other time Cano appears is in Pedraja Tomán’s work.³¹ Again, the discussion is brief and the reference is the same used by Bergquist. My own search for additional sources on her yielded few titles, none of which were written later than 1988.    

Unions were generally looked down upon by employers in early twentieth century Colombia and most strikes were repressed or worse. The press “played…on the fears of male readers and the anti-Communism of the Colombian middle and ruling classes.”³² Working women then were not only seen as a threat to traditional social order and gender roles, but to the safety and political stability of the state. There were few benefits to unionization since the nature of coffee production was such that producers could go for a long time without employees. Most union members were fired and few unions survived.³³    

New Texts, New Concepts?

According to Steiner Saether, the economic and social history of Colombia had only begun to be studied with “seriousness and professionalism” in the 1960s and 1970s.³⁴ Add to that John D. French and Daniel James’s assessment that there has been a “collective blindness among historians of Latin American labor”³⁵ that fails to see women and tends to ignore differences amongst the members of the working class in general, and we begin to see that perhaps the historiography of Colombian labor is a late bloomer. In academia, there tends to be a separation of women’s studies from labor studies. Indeed, as I searched for sources I found many about women in Colombia that had nothing to do with labor, and vice versa. While some research has been done within sociology and anthropology, historical research can contribute, too, by showing patterns over time rather than “snapshots.”³⁶  

It is difficult to know where to draw a line in the timeline of Colombian history. Some texts published in the 1980s (such as those by Dawn Keremitsis³⁷ and Terry Jean Rosenberg³⁸) appear to have been ahead of their time, and, along with Tomán,³⁹ could be considered pioneering work in feminist labor history in Colombia. Unfortunately, they also rely on already existing categories to examine their subjects, which is exactly what French and James say historians should avoid. New work should not rewrite history in a new category of women, or simply add women to old histories and conceptual frameworks of men’s labor, but attempt to understand sex and gender − male or female − as one aspect of any history.

Keremetsis’s 1984 article inserts women into already existing categories occupied by men.⁴⁰ The article discusses the division of labor by sex in textile mills of Colombia and Mexico, though it presents statistics more than anything else. Her text delineates with charts the number of male and female workers over time within the industry and their participation in unions, though there is some discussion of the cultural attitudes towards the desirability of men over women as employees, and vice versa. These themes are discussed in more detail in later works by Luz G. Arango⁴¹ and then by Ann Farnsworth-Alvear⁴², with different conclusions (discussed below).         

Sowell attempts to bring other elements into his work by pointing out that the growth of economic dependency on coffee in Colombia did not affect labor evenly in all geographic areas of the country.⁴³ Bogotá was still favorable to artisans and industry. The small industries and factories that opened in the late 1800s generally increased job opportunities for women because the demand was for unskilled labor that did not directly compete with the artisans.⁴⁴  

Sowell also says that “craftsmen is an appropriate label”⁴⁵ for skilled workers in mid to late 1800s Bogotá since only 1% of women identified themselves as artisans, according to census data.⁴⁶ Additionally, he looks at travel accounts from the period and is able to describe the racial composition of the society. Not only is his analysis interested in these differentiating factors, but he also notes the importance of defining artisan “in the Hispanic context,”⁴⁷ in contrast to non-Iberian or Marxist characterizations because the artisan occupied a different social stratum in Latin America than his counterparts in Europe. This focus is something that Urrutia did not do and something that Farnsworth-Alvear discusses at length. In spite of a promising first chapter, Sowell’s analysis focuses on organization and politics, on men or “workers” in the generic, and in the end is not all that different from Urrutia’s work.

Other recent publications, such as those from W. John Green⁴⁸ and Jesús Bolívar Bolívar⁴⁹ fall back into the same mold as the earliest publications examined here. Green’s article is pure politics, with the generic mobs of workers differentiated only by their respective leaders and party affiliations. Bolívar is narrowly interested in union organization, though he does move away from the masses of workers to describe two individual labor leaders. He also takes the reader to a new geographic location in the port city of Barranquilla. In both cases, there is no mention of women at all.   

The body of work done by Farnsworth-Alvear is meant to add texture and nuance to the history of labor in Latin American cities. Using oral histories obtained from interviews, the stories and nostalgia from her subjects is a starting point for discovering the history of change within a society. Drawing from her evidence, she makes two arguments: that “changing understandings of femininity and masculinity shaped the way all…actors understood the industrial workplace” and that “working women in Medellín lived gender not as an opposition between male and female but rather as a normative field − marked by ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ ways of being female.”⁵⁰ The use of gender makes the understanding of historio-cultural change in Medellín in relation to industrialization in the early twentieth century relevant to men as well as women. The way in which she frames the concept does not take gender as a simple bipolar social model of male and female, but examines the divisions within each category, the areas of overlap between them, and changing definitions over time.     

In the early twentieth century, the Catholic Church in Colombia was critical of industrialists that hired women to work for them. By 1918, reformers succeeded in getting an ordinance passed that required factories to hire what were called vigilantas,⁵¹ whose job it was to watch the workers and keep the workplace moral and disciplined.  By the 1930s, “the city’s textile mills were defining themselves as Catholic institutions and promoters of public morality.”⁵²  

Policing women’s interactions with their male co-workers had become an official part of a company’s code of discipline. Working in a factory was a different experience for men and women, something Farnsworth-Alvear is able to illuminate through her discussion of fighting in the workplace. Conflicts between workers were defined in different ways for men and women. Fighting was not only a transgression of work rules, but “gender boundaries separat[ed] anger, strength, and self-defense from images of femininity.”⁵³ Most women told their stories in a “double voice,”⁵⁴ both proud of their reputations as good employees and their ability to stand up for themselves.

As never before, women in the factories existed in a new and different sphere: “In social/sexual terms, factory space was different from both home and street.”⁵⁵ It was safer than the street and freer than the home. Not only could women move away from traditional definitions of femininity in defending themselves, but they could also enjoy a new kind of flirtation without involvement. In the space of the factory, these liaisons were less formal than traditional courtships.

The interviews distinguish between mutual flirtations and sexual intimidation. In the same way the women spoke in a double voice about workplace fights, they also distanced themselves from any damaging characterization as loose or immoral women. Farnsworth-Alvear shows how the experiences of women in the textile factories of Bogotá were not so different from their counterparts elsewhere. She is able to make a connection between her specific subject matter and the larger history of working women, not just in Latin America but everywhere.

Finding History in Other Disciplines

A 1989 book by sociologists Junsay and Heaton⁵⁶ is a comparative study between distinct countries, with Colombia chosen to represent Latin America. The research is based on personal interviews, though whether these interviews can be considered oral histories is debatable. The data were collected from at least 1000 households chosen at random in Bogotá and nearby rural areas. The book then turns into a bunch of number-crunching and charts, and the conclusions are predictable: the more education the person has the better the job she is likely to get, a woman is more likely to work if she is single, and so on. The authors’ observation that religion is an important factor in the perpetuation of gender roles in Colombia is interesting compared to the other case studies from non-Catholic countries. This book is more science than history, and I imagine that the transcripts from the interviews tell some fascinating stories; those who did the interviews might have written a different book than the one we have from those who analyzed the numbers.  

Anthropologist Ronald Duncan claims that the presence of ceramics throughout Colombian history makes them “a good indicator of the social, political, and economic changes that have occurred in the country…as much as the history of wars and presidents.”⁵⁷ His 1998 study of pottery workers in Ráquira addresses an example of “male appropriation of women’s work.”⁵⁸ In Ráquira, pottery is traditionally associated with women, though men began making it in the 1950s when mass production equipment was introduced. Since then, men have established workshops, sold their wares to wider markets in a more commercial fashion, and thus have been the primary beneficiaries of the economic development of crafts in Colombia.⁵⁹ There is a shift in the view of pottery as craft to pottery as commodity, with a parallel shift from rural production to towns as centers of pottery making and a decline in the status of women from primary producers to assistants.

Since the 1970s, state agencies, like Artisanías de Colombia, have aided the establishment of workshops and the purchase of equipment primarily for men who are thought to be a better investment.⁶⁰ The reasoning behind this can be found in the work of Arango, Farnsworth-Alvear, and Keremitsis. They explore various gender-based theories on changing numbers of women participating in the workforce that, while drawn from specific urban case studies, could also apply to rural phenomena.  

The number of male and female pottery workers in the rural area is nearly equal, but twice as many men as women work in pottery in the urban workshops.⁶¹ In town workshops where there are hired workers, they are generally men. Most of the women who do work are related to the man who owns the shop.⁶² Women’s work supports the man’s, but is undervalued and often discounted. Official statistics often reflect this phenomenon by not counting a woman who works for her husband as employed. “Women’s work in cottage-industry crafts is frequently viewed within the local culture as unskilled work, simply an extension of their domestic work and not something to be remunerated at wage rates used for men.”⁶³ This classification then justifies low pay, if any, for their work.

While most of the people of Ráquira learn pottery from their elders, not everyone becomes a potter. With the introduction of mass production techniques, some worry that the traditional handcrafted techniques and styles will eventually be lost: “As the economic momentum of men’s workshops in town makes good incomes possible for young men…fewer young women are obligated to learn their gender-specific version of the craft.”⁶⁴ Thus, there may be a loss of cultural form in the name of progress, something that might not be visible in a non-gendered analysis.  

Duncan thoroughly discusses Colombia’s history from the colonial era to the present. While he spends most of the time on the economic and political aspects, he uses these to emphasize the blending of indigenous forms with those of the Spanish. For example, the blending of forms is apparent in the pottery itself. He cites the small number of Spanish women who came to the colonies and the number and influence of indigenous wives and mistresses as the reason “Colombia’s biologically mestizo society was largely indigenous culturally.”⁶⁵ This definition is an obvious contradiction to Bergquist’s claim that Colombia is racially and culturally homogenous. While they are both concerned with rural areas, they are obviously not looking at the same two regions.  

Duncan’s book emphasizes the indigenous/Spanish cultural dichotomy in parallel to female/male polarity, and links both to the colonial era especially. Women as keepers of tradition are also constrained by that tradition. They are not innovators in the world of new technology and markets like men who have fewer obligations to family and community.

Duncan’s 2000 book focuses on women and child laborers rather than on their competition with men, as in his previous book. He looks at a different region and that is part of the explanation for this difference in focus. Duncan is dealing with a slightly different system, though using the same argument about a continuity of cultural and social stratification passed down from the Colonial era. For the people of La Chamba, the influence of capitalist expansion is one more example of power in a history of dominance by outsiders.

In La Chamba, as in Ráquira, there are few choices for young women. Most are not encouraged to go to school and there is little opportunity for upward mobility. While pottery provides some income, it is not highly profitable. There is some horizontal mobility in that a girl can choose to move to another town for work. In La Chamba, there are more households headed by women than in other parts of Colombia (30% versus 5% in Ráquira).⁶⁶ Most of these households depend on the sale of ceramics for their entire income. Since women tend to earn less than men, these families, though independent, they are also very poor. This poverty is often the reason young women leave to pursue other paths, “erod[ing] the future” of the craft.⁶⁷

The work of economic anthropologist Greta Friedmann-Sanchez reveals that women in Colombia’s floriculture industry are pushing the boundaries of sex roles even further than those in the factory setting. Dr. Friedmann-Sanchez has studied the floriculture industry of central Colombia extensively and has conducted numerous interviews with workers in the region.⁶⁸ Colombia’s flower industry has been a major source of employment for women for the past four decades. Women make up 60% of the workers, earning equal wages and gaining a sense of self and empowerment through this employment. At the same time, women still feel the pressures of their domestic roles, and unpaid caregiving labor in the home is a reason many do not remain employed on the flower farms for more than a few years at a time.⁶⁹

According to Freidmann-Sanchez, when women take on paid work, they experience an elevation in status and feeling of self-worth. Employment in the flower industry is a way out of the isolation of the home and into a larger community as equal individuals.⁷⁰ Their work is valued and their worth is reinforced by others. Many have come to the realization that the work they do at home should also be valued by others, and thus the experience of paid labor is creating an entirely new worldview among them.⁷¹ This new outlook has not necessarily changed how men and others see the women who work. Women’s identities are still closely tied to their roles as wives or mothers, and the term las floristeras (the florists) is used pejoratively, implying her loose sexual morals.⁷² Women’s growing economic autonomy is still a threat to traditional values. The main difference Friedmann-Sanchez has found compared to the previous generation of laborers, is the women are not bothered by these comments and feel little need to defend or protect their names or character: “When asked about their reputation as being loose sexually, workers laugh and say, ¿Y qué, que les duela? Yo recibo mi depósito cada quincena.”⁷³ This roughly translates to, “so what if it bothers anyone? I get my direct deposit every two weeks.” This seems a departure from Farnsworth-Alvear’s finding of the double-voice among factory workers earlier. The value of the labor – both as income and a source of self-esteem – has superseded the importance of reputation.

While women are forging this new ground, they still struggle with balance and the workplace that has welcomed them has not entirely accommodated them either.  Freidmann-Sanchez notes the high degree of turnover among female workers in the floriculture industry. She finds women often leave work, even if only temporarily, because the majority of caregiving – one type of unpaid domestic labor – still falls to women: “Women have adapted to the rigidity in the gendered social norms of who provides care by leaving their jobs in the floriculture industry temporarily.”⁷⁴ Caregiving labor involves not only childcare, especially for infants and young children, but also pressures to supervise adolescent children who are susceptible to involvement in drugs and gangs, as well as caring for ill or aging family. Each of these is a trigger for women to quit their jobs and recur as cycles in their lives.⁷⁵ What has not yet shifted are industry or national policies that might provide more support. Given the importance of women to this industry, and in turn its importance within Colombia’s economy, women’s newfound agency and self-worth may have profound effects on workplace structures moving forward.

Conclusions

“Women’s identities are not constituted apart from those of men’s…nor can the identity of individuals…be derived…from any single dimension of their lives.”⁷⁶ In other words, sex should be observed and acknowledged as one factor influencing the actors that make history, but it cannot be considered the sole defining or determining characteristic. This idea then is a challenge to the “falsely dichotomized categories with which we have traditionally understood working class life” such as masculine/feminine, home/work, east/west, or public/private.⁷⁷ As Farnsworth-Alvear, Friedmann-Sanchez, and Duncan’s work shows, gender also opens a window to understanding women’s and men’s positions within Colombian society. This understanding can be more enlightening within the context of Colombian history than are accounts of names and events. These narratives provide a textured ‘who’ and ‘why’ for the ‘what’ of history. For example, a discussion of Colombia’s La Violencia could be enhanced by an examination of the role of women and children in the escalation of the violence, and could be related to a discussion of rural structures and ideology. If La Violencia “was mainly a product of the coffee zones,”⁷⁸ then the role of women should be explored; was involvement a family affair or another incidence of manliness? What was the role of the workers in the trilladoras?        

Of all the texts I read for this essay, Farnsworth-Alvear’s were the most enjoyable. They were interesting and engaging compared to the dry texts like Urrutia’s, which were full of names, dates, and acronyms that meant little to me once I closed the cover. Her analysis is not merely feminist, but humanist and personal. In reading it, one remembers that it is human beings who make history and experience it not as history but as life. I am reminded of Paul A. Cohen’s book History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth.⁷⁹ Farnsworth’s subjects are part of an event of history, the industrialization of Colombia, but their histories are oral testimonies to the experience. Her work departs from that of Cohen’s in the realm of myth. Instead of a larger than life labor movement that brought great things for Colombia’s workers, her work shatters the myth of an all-male labor force, or that of a uniformly submissive, quiet, and virginal female labor force. Friedmann-Sanchez’s work then suggests this more accurate depiction of the workforce also reflects one that will continue to affect change into the future.

According to French and James, what Farnsworth’s work suggests for historians will require the use of different kinds of sources, tools, and questions. It shows “the crucial role that oral testimony has played in rescuing the hidden voices suppressed in other types of historical sources.”⁸⁰ The “individual life stories of a smaller group of women workers” show us “the complicated mixture” of emotions “that characterizes interpersonal relations,” and by doing so breaks “the implied homogeneity of pre-existing categories.”⁸¹ This approach creates texts whose substance and focus stand in marked contrast to the work of Urrutia and others.

The use of oral testimony requires caution. As did Farnsworth-Alvear, French and James are careful to remind the reader that subjects are “not just informants but story tellers.”⁸² The historian has to see the context in which the story is told. Often the story is a reinterpretation after the fact, with events changed to suit the image the storyteller wants to remember. This reinterpretation is an example of agency versus determinism. It is not just an experience that defines who one is, but what one does with that experience. This distinction separates the work of Farnsworth-Alvear from that of Duncan, Bergquist, or Sowell. For Farnsworth-Alvear, different women were able to create their own solutions for the problems and challenges they faced unlike the women in Duncan’s book, whose fates were determined by their position within the structure of the system. I would argue, and to an extent Friedmann-Sanchez illustrates, that they are both right: human subjects do have agency and often surprise the observer with their ingenuity. At the same time, others are severely constrained by socio-economic and historical/cultural contexts that limit the possibilities for creative action.

Future research will be enhanced by comparative studies of variations in gender ideology between and within countries. There are, unfortunately, limited sources for doing a gendered history. French and James think that the use of micro-histories, including interviews and oral histories, may be the way to fill in the gaps left by official documents. In Latin America, factory work is a relatively new kind of labor; the majority of women work in the home and in service or informal sectors, areas that are frequently neglected by historians, other scholars, and officials alike. None of the sources included in this essay looked at labor in the service sector, and only Duncan came close to the informal economy. Historians can also take a lesson from Duncan and not leave gender to be the work of women alone.  

There is still a lot of space for future research–literally–as even the best sources presented here tended to focus on one particular geographic area. There is room for a broader conceptualization than the urban-rural dichotomy of Colombian labor, as evidenced by the way that the books reviewed here have revealed differences between rural areas and cities. There is plenty of material for comparative studies within the country, which will lead to a richer, broader, and more inclusive historiography for Colombia.  

Leah - Barry portraitLeah Hutton Blumenfeld, PhD, is a professor of Political Science, International Relations, and Women’s Studies at Barry University. She received her doctorate from Florida International University, graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Harvard University, and holds a Master’s Degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Connecticut. Dr. Blumenfeld has presented her research at numerous academic conferences, including the Caribbean Studies Association and Florida Political Science Association, where she is Ex-Officio Past President. Dr. Blumenfeld is also involved in her community through the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women, where served as chair of its legislative committee and as elected Member-at-large of the executive committee, and the Miami Beach Women’s Conference, as part of the planning committee during its inaugural year.

Image: Flickr

¹ Duncan, Ronald J. The Ceramics of Ráquira, Colombia: Gender, Work, and Economic Change. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998.

² Junsay, Alma T. and Tim B. Heaton. Women Working: Comparative Perspectives in Developing Areas. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

³ Bergquist, Charles. “Labor History and its Challenges: Confessions of a Latin Americanist.” American Historical Review (June 1993): 757-764.

⁴ Sofer, Eugene F. “Recent Trends in Latin American Labor Historiography.” Latin American Research Review 15 (1980): 167-176.

⁵ Cárdenas, Mauricio and Carlos E. Juárez. “Labor Issues in Colombia’s Privatization: A Comparative Perspective.” Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 34.S (1994): 237-259. and López-Alves, Fernando. “Explaining Confederation: Colombian Unions in the 1980’s.” Latin American Research Review 25.2 (1990): 115-133.

⁶ Bergquist, Charles. Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), ix.

⁷ Bergquist, “Labor History and its Challenges: Confessions of a Latin Americanist.”

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ Ibid.

¹⁰ Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, 318.

¹¹ Sowell, David. The Early Colombian Labor Movement: Artisans and Politics in Bogota, 1832-1919. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

¹² Urrutia, Miguel. The Development of the Colombian Labor Movement. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969.

¹³ Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, 277.

¹⁴ Ibid., 317.

¹⁵ Sowell, The Early Colombian Labor Movement, 14.

¹⁶ Ibid.

¹⁷ Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, 315.

¹⁸ Ibid., 299-300.

¹⁹ Ibid., 304.

²⁰ Ibid., 320.

²¹ Ibid.

²² Ibid., 321-322.

²³ Ibid., 323.

²⁴ Ibid., 332-333.

²⁵ Ibid., 350.

²⁶Ibid., 351

²⁷ Ibid., 344.

²⁸ Ibid.

²⁹ Ibid.

³⁰ Urrutia. The Development of the Colombian Labor Movement, 81, 97, 101.

³¹ Pedraja Tomán, René de la. “Women in Colombian Organizations, 1900-1940: A Study in Changing Gender Roles.” Journal of Women’s History 2.1 (Spring 1990): 98-119.

³² Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, 353.

³³ Ibid., 354.

³⁴ Saether, Steiner. “Café, Conflicto, y Corporativismo: Una Hipótesis Sobre la Creación de la Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia en 1927.” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura 26 (1999): 134-163.

³⁵ French, John D. and Daniel James. “Squaring the Circle: Women’s Factory Labor, Gender Ideology, and Necessity.” In The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997, 2.

³⁶ Ibid., 3.

³⁷ Keremitsis, Dawn. “Latin American Women Workers in Transition: Sexual Division of the Labor Force in Mexico and Colombia in the Textile Industry.” Americas (Academy of American Franciscan History) 40.4 (1984): 491-504.

³⁸ Rosenberg, Terry Jean. “Female Industrial Employment and Protective Labor Legislation in Bogotá, Colombia.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 24.1 (February 1982): 59-80.

³⁹ Pedraja Tomán, “Women in Colombian Organizations, 1900-1940.”

⁴⁰ Keremitsis, “Latin American Women Workers in Transition.”

⁴¹ Arango, Luz G. Mujer, Religión, e Industria: Fabricato, 1923-1982. Bogotá: Editorial Universidad de Antioquia, 1991.

⁴² Farnsworth-Alvear, Ann. “Talking, Fighting, and Flirting: Worker’s Sociability in Medellín Textile Mills, 1935-1950.” In The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers, edited by John D. French and Daniel James. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997. and Dulcinea in the Factory:  Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia’s Industrial Experiment, 1905-1960, (Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 2000).

⁴³ Sowell, The Early Colombian Labor Movement, 15.

⁴⁴ Ibid., 21.

⁴⁵ Ibid., 5.

⁴⁶ Ibid.

⁴⁷ Ibid., 8.

⁴⁸ Green, W. John. “Sibling Rivalry on the Left and Labor Struggles in Colombia During the 1940s.” Latin American Research Review 35.1 (Winter 2000): 85-117.

⁴⁹ Bolívar Bolívar, Jesús. R. “Barranquilla: Dos Tendencias en el Movimiento Obrero, 1900-1950.” Memoria y Sociedad (January 2001): 121-128.

⁵⁰ Farnsworth-Alvear, Dulcinea in the Factory, 4.

⁵¹ Ibid., 84.

⁵² Farnsworth-Alvear, Talking, Flirting and Fighting, 150.

⁵³ Ibid., 158.

⁵⁴ Ibid., 159.

⁵⁵ Ibid., 167.

⁵⁶ Junsay, Alma T. and Tim B. Heaton. Women Working: Comparative Perspectives in Developing Areas.

⁵⁷ Duncan, Ronald J. Crafts, Capitalism, and Women: The Potters of La Chamba, Colombia.  (Gainesville:  University of Florida Press, 2000), 75.

⁵⁸ Duncan, Ronald J. The Ceramics of Ráquira, Colombia: Gender, Work, and Economic Change, 1. 

⁵⁹ Ibid.

⁶⁰ Ibid., 7-8.

⁶¹ Ibid., 83.

⁶² Ibid., 73-74, 77.

⁶³ Ibid., 71.

⁶⁴ Ibid., 74.

⁶⁵ Ibid., 26.

⁶⁶ Duncan, Crafts, Capitalism, and Women, 101.

⁶⁷ Ibid., 14.

⁶⁸ Friedmann-Sanchez, Greta. “Assets in Intrahousehold Bargaining Among Women Workers in Colombia’s Cut-flower Industry,” Feminist Economics, 12:1-2 (2006): 247-269. and “Paid Agroindustrial Work and Unpaid Caregiving for Dependents: The Gendered Dialectics between Structure and Agency in Colombia,” Anthropology of Work Review, 33:1 (2012): 34-46.

⁶⁹ Ibid.

⁷⁰ Friedmann-Sanchez, “Paid Agroindustrial Work and Unpaid Caregiving for Dependents: The Gendered Dialectics between Structure and Agency in Colombia,” 38.

⁷¹ Ibid., 39.

⁷² Ibid., 41.

⁷³ Ibid.

⁷⁴ Ibid., 42.

⁷⁵ Ibid., 42-43.

⁷⁶ French and James. “Squaring the Circle: Women’s Factory Labor, Gender Ideology, and Necessity,” 4.

⁷⁷ Ibid., 6.

⁷⁸ Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, 364.

⁷⁹ Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

⁸⁰ French, John D. and Daniel James, “Oral History, Identity Formation, and Working-Class Mobilization.”  In The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers (Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 1997), 298.

⁸¹ Ibid., 299.

⁸² Ibid., 298.

 

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