Male workers were willing to identify with her position, in terms of a shared class identity, as a “poor” person in need of employment; yet this shared identity implicitly rested on her new position within a patriarchal family where she was contributing to her husband’s household. This collective class support was framed by gendered ideologies which may easily have been overlooked without placing the context of her work experience within her broader life experience in her community and family.
I have represented this life history in order to point to the ways in which women workers must negotiate the complex web of the family structure, gendered practices in employment, and the exclusionary practices of trade unions. The experience of this woman worker embodies the relationship between the system of authority in the factory and the institution of the family, the gendered ideologies of management policies regarding issues such as recruitment, and the exclusionary practices of trade unions. However, despite the power of these combined institutional and ideological forces, Rekha was able to persist in her work in the weaving department of the factory, a skilled occupation in which women are generally never employed. The importance of this encroachment on the fields of power that have shaped the position of women jute workers is underlined by the fact that the woman in question was one of four women working in this skilled occupation in the entire industry. During my visits to other factories, management and union leaders would refuse to believe that a woman was working in this occupation in the mill. They insisted that it was impossible, because the weaving department represented the toughest job in the factory and could only be performed by men. Given the fact that Rekha was able to obtain and retain employment in this department without consenting to the sexual exploitation by the management staff, I suggest that this act must be understood not merely as a form of survival but also as an act of resistance. I am aware of the dangers of overstating the case for resistance, but the significance of her ability to resist the managers’ sexual harassment without the organizational resources of the unions or any support from her family or community should not be underestimated. Furthermore, despite the extreme structural constraints conditioning her life circumstances, Rekha also displayed a strong consciousness of the extent of her accomplishment which her labor represents. She argued:
The most important thing is to work. I want to work. I will do any kind of work. Anything I am asked to do, I will do. Any work. That is the only thing in life. If you work you can put food in your mouth. Marriage doesn’t help. I became worse off after I got married. Before I was big and strong. Now I have become so thin since I got married. But I take care of my family. Even my mother-in-law. I take care of her. She is like my mother-I treat her like that. I will give food to everyone-my mother-in-law, her daughters, my husband-before putting food in my own mouth. See, for Durga Pujawe had less money to buy new clothes. I bought clothes for everyone but myself. My husband told me not to buy him anything, to buy something for myself. But I didn’t do that. I bought him new pants. Because I thought if he had a job he would have done that for me. He would have bought me a sari and not bought anything for himself.
This interpretation of her labor can be understood not in terms of a misguided form of “consent” to the control of her labor but as a form of consciousness of the significance of her ability to economically support her family. Within a context of economic and social domination Rekha was able to transform her role into a source of empowerment, one that allows her to survive the gendered ideologies that have classified factory work as “men’s work” and transformed “the working class” into a masculine construct. This resistance must no doubt be qualified by the harshness of the circumstances which she continues to face and perhaps highlights the ironic reversal of the Foucauldian approach to resistance in Lila Abu-Lughod’s reminder that “where there is resistance there is power.”
These fragments of Rekha’s life signify the processes through which unions and community practices reproduce consent to a patriarchal model of the working-class family. However, Rekha’s ability to maintain her employment and interpret her survival as a sense of accomplishment provides a contradictory moment in the exclusionary gendered public sphere which I have analyzed. This momentary point of contestation underlines the constructed and political nature of the jute workers’ counterpublic and prevents us from resigning women workers in this context to a role of passive victim of oppression.
If such possibility for contestation exists, let me end then by returning to the implications that Rekha’s story has for the gendered representations of the workers’ public sphere. If the Action Committee envisioned a future for the urban working-class communities in the jute mills that rested on social order of the patriarchal family, what did this future signify to Rekha? In many ways her vision coincided with the one put forth by the leaders of the committee. She spoke at length about her children’s future and about her desire to educate them, in particular her daughters (without mentioning her son once during the conversation). This hope was mixed with her own memories of loss.
You know I studied till class eight. I passed all my exams. I still keep my certificates. I thought I could work with papers like this [she points to files on the desk]. I wanted to study more. But when I got married I had to stop. My [first] husband didn’t want me to study. And then when he used to come to meet me at the school, people used to talk about me. They used to say things about me-they used to say I was going with this man. But then I showed them the sindoor in my hair and they realized I was married. But still they didn’t like it. So I stopped going. I felt bad to go.
Moving back from the past to the present, she went on to assert: “I want my girls to go to school. Then after that they can get married.”
This decision to invest in her daughters provides a clear contrast to the masculinized image of the community organization. More significantly, although the male community leaders could envision the possibility of building a community within their residences, Rekha’s image of hope rested on the possibility of escaping this community as well as the mill. As she said: “I want to send my three-year-old to the hostel [that is, put her in boarding]. So I can at least get her out of here. I will try and send her away.” This desire presents a severe comment on the meaning that “community” has for working-class women and their daughters. The notion of a unified “subaltern counterpublic sphere” within the jute working classes falters on the gendered terrain of community as it compels a working-class woman to want to send her daughter away in order to preserve some hope for the future.
I have examined the ways in which workers in the Calcutta jute mills engaged in the production of a gendered public sphere, one that simultaneously contests management authority and manufactures gendered hierarchies among workers. We
have seen that discourses and practices within this subaltern counterpublic converge with management’s construction of the social and moral disorder within workers’ communities; both workers and management reproduce a set of shared discourses that underline the significance of a patriarchal model of the working-class family. This process ultimately inhibits the ability of the workers’ public sphere to effectively represent the interests of all workers and contest management authority. In effect, as we have seen through the life history of one woman worker, such gendered discourses exclude women workers from full participation and representation within this public sphere. An analysis of the exclusionary nature of this subaltern counterpublic sheds light upon the everyday practices and political processes through which industries, such as the jute textile industries, are transformed into masculinized spaces.
The article has also demonstrated the ways in which the “public sphere” must be understood as a gendered and culturally constructed category. In this context, the construct of the public sphere becomes a useful tool for analyzing both the exclusionary, masculinized spaces which characterize this sphere as well as the consequences for women workers. Through such a deconstruction of the boundaries of the subaltern counterpublic, we are able to confront and conceptualize the theoretical and material effects of discourses and practices which allow the “subaltern” to signify a gendered category.
2. Научная статья из сборника “Feminist Studies” Volume 23, Number 3 by Claire G. Moses pp. 550-553