Women’s importance to society is paramount, with their accomplishments being under-appreciated for much of history. In all aspects of life, this truth is profound with society only grasping this as a norm recently. To help understand why, a case-study between India and Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is necessary.
The economic significance of women in these two nations is vast during this time period. Facts and photographs can easily prove this. However, the same oppression of women is shown to them in both of these countries. By looking at women’s role in the urban and rural economies of both India and Mexico, conclusions will be drawn on how important women truly were to these societies, and extrapolate a possible explanation for their suffering.
Women in India
Women in India were not treated as equals to men during the late 19th and early 20th century. There was an “oppressive patriarchal domination” by men that thoroughly defined the lives of women (Carter, 1996, 178). Women were seen as inferior to men, with them being physically and mentally the weaker of the two sexes. They were “unwilling, gullible and demoralized, if not depraved” in the eyes of society, with them simply not being fit to work (Carter, 1996, 177). Societal norms claimed that they were better off in the domestic sphere, to maintain the essential “domestic gentle feminity” that was coveted by men so much (Sarkar, 1987, 2012).
This leads to the conceived notion of women being trapped in the home. Their roles primarily consisted of childbearing, and being wives to urban men (Shukla, 1991, 63). Such oppressive norms such as arranging the house neatly, child rearing the children appropriately, dressing in nice clothes for when the husband returns home, never sitting idle, spending all hours of the day sewing and embroidery, and practicing a musical instrument to allow the husband to relax dominated the woman in the 19th century (Shukla, 1991, 65).
However, women were incredibly active in the economy during this time period. Both in the urban and rural spheres, women allowed the economy to grow and support families. Much of the unwritten and forgotten work was conducted by women, which makes it incredibly important.
The social reform movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries paved the way for many women to significantly contribute to the Indian economy. Women were tired of being aligned with such norms as “child marriage, sati, purdah, and lack of education” (Patel, 1998, 158). By initiating the slow progression away from these stereotypes, women entered the workforce and contributed greatly in the urban sphere.
There was a strong group of educated women that were able to establish themselves as successful entrepreneurs (Carter, 1996, 178). Women took up many professions in the urban environment, such as “social workers, teachers, academics, and doctors” (Patel, 1998, 158). This picture shown here reinforces the point of successful women in the urban setting.
The two women shown here are Nagar Brahmin women. The garden like setting states that it is within a city, seeing how urban areas contained many gardens and rural countryside looked quite different. The clothes also enforce this point, as the intricacies of the garbs are those worn by women of the city.
The lack of shoes is quite telling as to why these women are, in fact, working. Shoes were only worn by women in the city, as rural families could not afford such luxuries. Within the urban setting, only women who did not work wore shoes. Women who wore shoes were denoted as being more “polite, patient, kind and considerate,” with women staying in the domestic sphere the only ones who were able to fully project such qualities (Shukla, 1991, 65). These two women are not wearing shoes, indicating that they in fact work.
The success of these women is apparent, as their garbs are well made and their jewelry being prominent throughout their dressing. These women epitomize the successful female actuality in India during the period, showing that women were in fact accepted in contributing to national development and economic progress (Patel, 1998, 159).
Women also contributed greatly in the textile mills. The industry needed an ever increasing labor force as the world economy became more globalized around the turn of the 20th century. With women, the mills had found this ready-made labor force. Women began to leave their domestic spheres for the production mills (Sen, 1999, 39). Women in urban economies made significant contributions in many aspects.
Though women in the urban economy were greatly beneficial, the importance of them in the rural setting was even greater. Generally, men worked in the city while women would work in agriculture (Sen, 199, 52). Their participation in the plantation sector of the colonial economy was immeasurable, with the work being vital to the family’s stability (Carter, 1996, 178).
Many Indian families could not survive with just the man working in the city. The female’s work in agriculture “subsidized the industrial” work of the man (Sen, 1999, 52). The woman’s work was generally more intense, with this hard labor key to the survival of many Indian families (Sen, 1999, 53). Due to this, the woman’s place in agriculture grew rapidly.
This photo exemplifies the urban-rural split in the gender workforce. These are fisherwomen. In order to occupy this profession, access to a market must be available indicating that they are in fact from the city. These women have multiple garbs on, with some being quite well made, yet the overall plainness indicates that they are at work. There are many women here, reinforcing the notion that this was common with families, as the woman’s need to supplement income was vital to survival.
Women began to enter the labor market more and more in the rural economy. Rice, wheat, sugarcane, tea, and coffee farms were worked by women (Roy, 2005, 26). This enabled the expansion of India’s capabilities, securing the female’s place as a vital part of the Indian economy.
In this photo to the right, women are posing around the wine jugs they have made. These women, based on their basic attire, work in the rural sphere. The slumped postures with the drooped heads show the exhaustion the women are under. The young girl on the left demonstrates the poor socioeconomic standing of these women, as the man’s income is needed to be helped by all women that are able. This type of work was typical in Indian culture, with women’s importance in the workplace growing rapidly.
Women in Mexico
Women in Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced many of the same ill-conceived stereotypes as women in India. The woman’s place in the economy was viewed as minimal, with the little work completed being unskilled and unproductive. Often, these jobs consisted of hard labor with low salaries (Fernández-Aceves, 2003, 87). This could not be farther from the truth.
During this time period, women played a vital role in Mexico’s economy. More than a quarter of all women worked, with this making up a third of the entire workforce (Wasserman, 2000, 41). Women’s contribution to the Mexican economic system was essential in all sectors, with their inclusion being necessary in all aspects of life.
Women labor in the urban environment was vital to economic progress. The all-important corn mills in Mexico were run by the women, as their necessity gave them an almost possessive feeling towards the industry (Fernández-Aceves, 2003, 93). Other mass production work consisted of the textile industry. Women again provided much of the labor force, with their role of spinning being the most labor-intensive (Villanueva, 1985, 18).
In this photo women are doing the weaving and spinning to produce coffee bags. This factory is all women, demonstrating the commonness of women working. The open spacing of the factory suggests that it was made for mass production, with many of the clothes being produced necessary for the Mexican economy. Women’s role in the factory was clearly quite pervasive.
The marketplace in the urban setting was also dominated by women. Many vendors at the market were women. The creation of sellable goods was also significant, with the women’s norm of being an artisan being incredibly prevalent during this period (Wasserman, 2000, 42). With the men working in other sectors, the woman’s role in the necessities of life proved invaluable to Mexican economics.
This photo here represents the woman’s role in the marketplace. This woman is of a lower socioeconomic standing, demonstrated by her lack of display and simple attire. The food and baskets being sold by her were essential for daily life in Mexico, showing that she would be quite important for many families. Women in the urban sphere were crucial in continuing the economic system of Mexico.
On top of the urban importance, women were the primary farmers in the Mexican economic society (Wasserman, 2000, 32). Women tilled the land, the most intensive work of the farming process, and made sure the crops grew throughout the season (Monk, 2010). In particular, the women’s role in shucking corn and grinding maize was prevalent, with the entire diet of the Mexican culture based around those crops (Wasserman, 2000, 142). Women played the central role in agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Mexico, providing the backbone of the entire economic system.
Women’s rural role of food production was of great importance as well. In this picture, two young girls are grinding corn to make tortillas. Women of all ages were expected to produce in this manner, as there was generally a labor shortage for the work required. The young age of these women highlights that fact. The girl on the left holding the baby demonstrates the poverty of these women, as the family is forced to have the baby at work instead of with a care-giver. The girls were clearly important to their family’s survival, as many women in this time period were. Women were underappreciated in Mexico, yet their actual importance is incredible.
Women in Mexico and India were clearly necessary for their respective economies at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Though these two nations were on opposite sides of the world, the oppression and ungratefulness of their gender and contributions are shared. Women during the time period, and much later on as well, were seen as simple heads of the domestic sphere, providing for the family being their only occupation in life. However, through the photos shown, one can see the true significance of women in the economy. These nations would have never been able to support themselves without the contribution of women. The injustice shown to them is criminal, though the cultures are completely different. The only commonality between these two countries is Men, which were more than willing to cast these all important figures in society away. It is clear, by the strides made by women, that men actually failed to do so.
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