From the beginning of time, females have been considered the inferior sex. They have been given titles such as, "fragile, delicate, weak... " beings when in fact women have proved that they are certainly equal as men, if not stronger. Child labor is one physical aspect of their strengths that women endure while others constitute taking over the duties of their male counterparts while they fought in the major wars for the country. Yet history hardly gave women credit for their accomplishments in the 19th and early 20th century.
When history did give the female sex a voice, it consisted of their participation in the traditional roles cast upon them as wives and then mothers. Outside of this realm, women"s activities were considered unusual or accidental. This was certainly the case with Latin America, a complex, diverse, stratified region composed of many different nations. It seems appropriate at this time to undertake a search of the history of Mexico in order to probe the little known mysteries of the women"s actual role in society. My search will revolve around the regime of Porfirio Diaz, commonly known as the Porfiriato.
Women of every class and background were involved in many diverse undertakings during that period. Vivian Vallens in her book, Working Women in Mexico during the Porfiriato depicted this picture well. She discussed the upper and middle class women briefly so that a rounded view of women"s activities can be understood. Her book concentrated around the theme of Mexican women working in the textile and cigar-making factories from 1880 – 1910. She stressed how their traditional roles went through a great transition in response to the rise of industrialism and the labor policies of the Diaz regime.
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Prior the Industrial Revolution, women played a direct role in the economy and in the development of society. Most of the population lived on large estates or haciendas on which all production took place for each family. Women worked alongside men in the fields or in home enterprises; in addition to their economic contribution, women also undertook the task of bearing and raising a large family. With the Industrial Revolution came many changes in economics, politics, society, and in the role of women. The production of many necessities shifted out of the home and into the factories.
Many families moved to urban areas to better their economic status and to become a part of the new society. The government practiced laissez faire (no regulation of the business sector) which allowed the factory owners to abuse their workers to reap great profits. The working class was most affected by the Industrial Revolution. Upper and middle class women found themselves with considerable time on their hands since the new economy assumed the production of many household items. While the upper-class women busied themselves with their looks and entertainment, the middle-class women developed the idea of motherhood as a full-time occupation.
These women retreated from their previous roles and public life by totally centering their lives around their husband and children. This change set a pattern of the ideal activities for women being centered around the home and family. Gradually, however, some upper and middle class women found this rather narrow concept of their roles too rigid and restrictive, and they became involved in many activities in order to open educational and occupational opportunities for women. It was the Diaz government and the positivist view that allowed the women to educate themselves and grow both mentally and socially.
As Vallens described it, The positivist concepts about education 'had a profound effect on Mexican women... of the middle sectors,... Juarez and his associates offered women an education and a chance to work outside the home. " They looked to the women of the middle sectors as potential teachers. Yucatan, for example, became one of the first states to make secondary education available to women. As teachers, the Mexican women served not only as agents of literacy, but also as instigators of change and advocates of new ideas.
The positivists had originally instituted education to bring conformity; nevertheless, educated women seemed to bring exactly the opposite. The number of women attending both primary and secondary schools steadily increased. Schools for women were established in the Federal District as well as in leading provincial cities. Women began to enter the teaching profession in ever increasing numbers. "By 1895, 51. 3% of all the teachers were women and by 1910 this figure had raised to 64. 4%. " A select number of women went on to get higher education and became professionals such as lawyers and doctors.
Vallens indicated that such women included Maria Asuncion Sandoval de Zarco and Matilda Montoya. They not only tested their traditional role but also pioneered a path for others to follow. The lower-class women of Mexico faced an entirely different type of change in their pattern of living. The lower class women moved to the urban surroundings to better their economic status with their families. Forced to work in the factories to support their families, these women enlarged their circle of association and this helped them become aware of the communality of the problems faced by working women.
This shift had a tremendous impact because the urban life had the effect of broadening their scope and developing their militancy. Working class women began to thrust aside their earlier attitudes of passive submission and became involved in group activities and organizations. Vallens portrays their struggle in the textile and cigar-making factories. Their docile attitude in the beginning allowed the factory owners to take advantage of them and abuse their condition terribly. The owners hired women so they can reap more profits by paying them less than men.
For example, the Cocolapam textile factory in 1893 employed 90 men, 240 women, and 15 children. Wages varied by factory, by sex, and by age. Conditions under which they worked were horrible and unsanitary. Even more women worked in the cigar-making factories, thus subject to higher percentage of abuse. The Mexican women cigar-makers worked fourteen to fifteen hours per day with each woman searched for factory products before she went home. They too worked in unhygienic atmosphere with low roofs and no ventilation.
Originally, upon first arriving from the rural areas, they accepted any salary or condition of work set by the factory owners of both industries without any protest. With time, however, Vallens indicates that their traditional outlook was slowly discarded after the women were exposed to economic self-dependence and the "spirit of growing militancy among their fellow factory workers. "(38) They realized that they could challenge and protest many of the owner"s actions. Their concept of their proper role changed and they responded to their pressures by organizing, protesting, and striking.
A number of socialists and anarchists helped give leadership to these early organizations. Their political philosophy stressed, among other points, the need for inclusion of women in all levels of activity. For example, Santiago Villanueva – an anarchist – stressed the theme of women"s rights and responsibilities both in Mexican society and within the labor movement. This encouragement allowed women to actively participate in meetings of the labor movement. As a result, women like Carmen Huerta became prominent labor leaders and were elected president of the Congress of workers.
Vallens" book was interesting and easy to follow. She clearly stated her point and used hard evidence from her sources to prove that point. Her use of statistics made her point all the more believable and very realistic. What was shocking to me was that she was able to retrieve such statistics and stories of women"s leadership when history gave them a silent voice. Women, of that era, in fact saw the need for organization and so they played a role in such a development as a result of their tragic experiences.
Many leaders rose to the occasion and served as an inspiration; they laid the groundwork for working women"s acceptance into more active and public roles. They learned their lesson well – that only through collective action could change be made. Such leadership and action cannot be considered accidental or inconsequential as societies of the past have labeled women heroes. Vallens, through her clear-cut style of writing, showed the reader that women in Mexico did not have a quite voice as history has written.
They possessed a loud voice and when they realized they did, they used it! Vallens" theme of the changing role of women and their growing level of consciousness can be best described by Josefina Reyes in La Mujer en el hogar y en la sociedad, Happily we belong to a generation that has the good fortune to conceive the sublime idea of the emancipation of woman, one of the greatest steps that humanity has taken along the broad path of progress. We are now no longer in the error of believing that woman was made only for the home... and... family.
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