September 2017 Spotlight On: Poverty

Gendering Poverty in Labor Legislation in Argentina, 1900-1930

Gender-specific labor laws largely enforced the assignment of women to lower paying activities in the factory and longer hours outside the factory. This had the effect of restricting their mobility and condemning them to poverty.

by Yovanna Pineda

By the late nineteenth century, Argentina had a flourishing economy based on the export of cereals and pastoral goods that attracted millions of immigrants, many of whom settled in the cities. Rising urbanization led to a growing workforce in factories, including increased participation of women in these factories. Resident and foreign-born women in Argentina became an essential labor source in the manufacture of textiles, matches, and cigarettes between 1895 and 1935, representing between 30 and 75 percent of all workers in these sectors.[1] Despite this booming economy, questions arose among Argentine elite leaders about how to house, feed, and control a expanding number of female-headed households and working mothers who they perceived as living on the “margins of life.”

Reformers failed to eradicate gendered poverty or protect women.

This article analyzes the conditions that led reformers to create gender-based legislation for working and poor women between 1900 and 1930. The intent of the legislation was to protect women and children. At their roots, however, these laws reinforced notions of gender, class, and space that restricted women’s freedom. As a result, reformers failed to eradicate gendered poverty or protect women. Instead, these laws were largely successful in controlling the movement of working women, and ensuring their dependence on low wage jobs.

Cultural and Political Background to Legislation

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Argentine elite were influenced by European positivist philosophies and ideas on how to engineer society.[2] Historians have analyzed municipal and national government-sponsored legislation for working and poor women in order to understand how the Argentine elite perceived them. Works by Donna Guy, Karen Mead, and Kristin Ruggeiro, for example, have demonstrated that laws largely exploited women workers and attempted to control all women’s behavior and actions.[3] Likewise, other works have analyzed how the elite used European philosophies, specifically positivism, to identify and categorize criminal activity, vices, and unwanted pregnancy. Positivist reformers sought to scientifically monitor vulnerable groups and ensure the “civilization and progress” of the country through social legislation.[4] They had also worked to create “racial whiteness and cultural Europeanness [as] central to definitions of Argentine identity.”[5]

Women doing the low-skilled work of packaging cigarettes in a tobacco factory. Departamento de Documentos Fotográficos, Archivo General de la Nación de Argentina, ca. 1900-1920.

Nevertheless, both positivist reformers and elected congressional socialists viewed themselves as progressive in their assessment of working women. They understood women’s need to work, but their recommendations for reform suggested that reformers were ambiguous in their understanding of the role of working and poor women in urban society.  On the one hand, they viewed working, single women as a societal problem tied to uncontrolled desires that led to unwanted pregnancy, street children, and poverty. On the other hand, they viewed these women as victims of the ills of modern urbanization and industrialization, such as low wages, disease, and single motherhood.

Gender-Based Legislation and Work Programs

In the end, reformers and socialists advocated and passed legislation that favored women’s roles as mothers. At times, they addressed specific discrimination facing women workers, such as less pay for the same work as male workers. In 1904, physician Juan Bialet Massé, for instance, wrote on the egregious inequality in daily wages between young women and men in Córdoba doing similar factory work.[6] Despite his attention to the issue of unequal wages, he ultimately believed that women should not work outside the home. His final recommendations were that legislation should not disrupt women’s ability to reproduce.[7]

But men were not the only ones to weigh in on the issue of female poverty. Socialist feminist and French-born Argentine Gabriela de L. de Coni was the ad-honorem inspector of factories employing women and children.[8] She viewed the working children and women in these factories as victims of a capitalist system. One report summarizing her findings after an inspection she made at a tobacco factory in 1902 would heavily influence the first gender-based bill presented to the city council of Buenos Aires.[9] She recommended regulations in the workplace, including a legal minimum age of fourteen years old, with applicants showing a proof including a birth certificate, vaccination records, and physical exams. Her protective legislation was likely influenced by her own observations and European gender-based codes.[10] She recommended a maximum eight hours per day of work for women, and prohibited night work between the hours of 6:00pm and 6:00am for women and children. She also recommended that the factory provide childcare spaces so that mothers could feed or nurse children.[11] A watered-down municipal bill based on her recommendations was passed in 1904. Within a few years, this municipal law as well as international gender-based codes were the driving force behind Argentina’s passage of Law 5291 of 1907 that restricted the roles of women and adolescents in factories.[12]

Women workers sorting products for the TAMET company. Departamento de Documentos Fotográficos, Archivo General de la Nación de Argentina, ca. 1900-1920.

De L. de Coni’s case appears unusual, for the norm was that Argentine socialists primarily represented male workers’ rights, arguing against women’s right to work outside the home. But they also viewed themselves as the protectors of all workers, including women, whose “supreme mission” they believed was to be mothers who ideally “should never work outside the home.”[13] Epitomizing this socialist paternalism toward women was Socialist deputy Alfredo Palacio. He claimed to be a proponent for the protection of factory women, helping usher in stronger gender-based legislation in the 1920s to liberate female workers from the “exploitation, subordination, and risks of factory life” by allowing them more time to be mothers at their workplace.[14]

Of this legislation, Law 11317 of 1924 in particular was intended to protect women and minors. It contained a host of stipulations permitting a two-hour lunch break; a maximum eight-hour workday and forty-eight hours per week for women; and a maximum six hours per day and thirty-six hours of work per week for minors (under age 16).[15] The law provided explicit maternal rights, requiring employers to allow mothers to nurse small children every three hours. Managers were also required to contribute to a maternity fund.[16] All women, regardless of maternal status, were restricted from working in any area considered dangerous or toxic and they were prohibited from operating machinery.[17]

Outcomes of Gender-based Legislation

Although the intent of gender-based legislation was to shield women from abuses in the factory, these codes restricted working women’s roles in the factory and thereby perpetuated wage discrimination. Receiving much lower wages than men, women factory workers were more likely to be at the “margins” of Argentine society. Indeed, the outcome of gender-based laws reinforced the patriarchal notion that women needed to be defended from society and the cultural perception that women were being unintentionally removed from their natural role as mothers.

Protective legislation failed to address the overall problems that female labor faced in the workforce such as limited promotion, low wages, little to no machine training, forced industrial home work, and sexual harassment.

New codes did not give women the opportunity to be viewed as long-term factory workers worthy of being trained in operating machinery and competing with male workers for higher wages and supervisory roles. Quite the contrary, laws prohibiting night work for women, for instance, eliminated opportunities for them to become supervisors because doing so required flexibility in work hours, including being able to work after dark. Single women without children did not fare much better. For the most part, protective legislation failed to address the overall problems that female labor faced in the workforce such as limited promotion, low wages, little to no machine training, forced industrial home work, and sexual harassment.

Male workers operating machinery for TAMET company. Departamento de Documentos Fotográficos, Archivo General de la Nación de Argentina, ca. 1900-1920.

Gender-specific legislation restricted women’s mobility and ensured that men remained dominant in the workforce. In congressional debates, it seems there was an implicit fear that women would find work more easily than men because they were paid significantly less than men. Perhaps the Argentine government sought to ensure male employment by reducing the competition from female labor, for the protective code lessened women’s ability to effectively compete with male workers. By 1924, the industrial lobby, Unión Industrial Argentina (UIA), argued against the Law of 1924 because the increased number of breaks disrupted the “order and routine” of the factory schedule and thus hiring women would be inconvenient to factory owners.[18] Although the UIA represented the owners’ interests, they were in the minority in stating that women workers were just as capable as males and should be treated equally.

The intent behind Argentina’s protective laws was to defend women’s role as mothers and wives, and not to protect their right to work.

For the most part, the government, lobby groups like the UIA, and other institutions did not dispute that women were highly productive and dominating in certain industrial and service sectors. But the codes were culturally influenced, permitting a sexual division of labor in the factories that relegated women to the lowest paying and most rudimentary tasks in the factory. Women’s exclusion from better paying positions could be partly blamed on discriminatory practices such as managers’ preferences for male workers and the exclusion of women in male unions. But Argentina’s protective laws reinforced these discriminatory practices. The intent behind Argentina’s protective laws was to defend women’s role as mothers and wives, and not to protect their right to work.

Gender-specific labor laws largely enforced the assignment of women to lower paying activities in the factory and longer hours outside the factory. This had the effect of restricting their mobility and condemning them to poverty. Nevertheless, managers continued to hire women because they were good workers. Census data show that women significantly contributed to factory production, and like men, they played a significant role in industry beginning in the late nineteenth century. Yet regardless of protective laws, managers discovered ways to exploit women workers through low wages, home labor, and piece rate work.[19] Women were vulnerable in the factory because they were never trained in high skilled positions, nor given the opportunity to do so. They could be easily fired and replaced with other women willing to do similar low skill, labor-intensive duties. Managers could also increase female productivity through labor speed-ups, longer home hours, and increased work intensity. Hence, labor legislation for women that only valued their reproductive roles rather than their work productivity was a factor in why working women remained poor in Argentina during its early industrialization.

Pineda-4x6-print-5925Yovanna Pineda is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida. Her specialization is in Latin American history, and her interests are in industrialization, development, and poverty across Argentina and Latin America. She is author of the book Industrial Development in a Frontier Economy: The Industrialization of Argentina, 1890-1930 (Stanford, 2009). She is currently working on her second book project, Innovating Technologies: Farm Machinery Invention, Rituals, and Memory in Argentina, and on a companion documentary, The Harvester.

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[1] Yovanna Pineda, Chapter 2, Industrialization in a Frontier Economy (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[2] Nancy Leys Stepan, “The Hour of Eugenics”: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Eduardo A. Zimmerman, Los liberales reformistas: La cuestión social en la Argentina, 1890-1916 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana Universidad de San Andrés, 1995).

[3] Donna J. Guy, “Women, Peonage, and Industrialization: Argentina 1810-1914,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 16, no. 3 (1981), pp. 65-89; Guy, Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires: Prostitution, Family, and Nation in Argentina (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991); Kristin Ruggiero, “Honor, Maternity, and Disciplining of Women: Infanticide in Late Nineteenth-Century Buenos Aires,” Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 72, no. 3 (August 1992), pp. 353-373; Karen Mead, “Gendering the Obstacles to Progress in Positivist Argentina, 1880-1920,” Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 77, no. 4 (November 1977), pp. 645-675.

[4] Julia Rodriguez, Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine and the Modern State (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[5] Paulina Alberto and Eduardo Elena, Rethinking Race in Modern Argentina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 2.

[6] Juan Bialet Massé, Informe sobre el estado de las clases obreras en el interior de la república. Vol. 2. (Buenos Aires: Imprenta y Casa Editora de Adolfo Grau, 1904), 362.

[7] Bialet Massé wrote “after an 11 hour shift seated at the assembly line, how is her uterus? . . . [She] is as a beast burdened by wages and misery.” Bialet Massé, Informe, 362.

[8] María Silvia Ospital,” Un antecedente del proyecto de ley nacional del trabajo; la labor de Sra. Gabriela de L. de Coni (1901-1904),” Historia e investigaciones, Vol 1 (1976), 68-95.

[9] Gabriela de L. de Coni, Higiene Industrial: Informe sobre las manufacturas de tabaco (Buenos Aires: Imprenta y Casa Editora de Coni Hermanos, 1902).

[10] In the late nineteenth century, social reformers in England, France, Germany and Belgium debated reforms to protect child and female factory labor. Mary Lynn Stewart, Women, Work, and the French State: Labour Protection and Social Patriarchy, 1879-1919. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989).

[11] Gabriela de L. de Coni, Proyecto de ley de protección del trabajo de la mujer y del niño en las fábricas presentado a la intendencia municipal (Buenos Aires: Taller Tipográfico de la Penitenciaría Nacional, 1902).

[12] By 1906, international legislation signed by thirteen industrialized countries prohibited night work in industrial employment for all women. Other reforms called for maternity benefits, shorter hours, and longer breaks for female and child workers. “International Convention Respecting the Prohibition of Night-Work for Women in Industrial Employment,” Berne, September 26, 1906. Reprinted in United States, War Labor Policies Board, Report on international labor standards (1919), 81-83.

[13] A. H. Varela, El Nacionalismo argentino y los obreros socialistas (Buenos Aires: Imprenta López, 1935), 169-174.

[14] Alfredo L. Palacios, Por las mujeres y los niños que trabajan (Buenos Aires: F. Sempre y Compañía, 1912); Bellucci and Camusso, La huelga de inquilinos de 1907 (Buenos Aires: Centro de Investigaciones en Ciencias Sociales, 1987), 24.

[15] Law 11371 of 1924 replaced law 5291 of 1907, prohibiting women and minors from working night shifts and setting the minimum work age to ten. Law 11371 also increased the working age from ten to twelve and set literacy requirements. Law 5291 is reprinted in Matilde Alejandra Mercado, La primera ley de trabajo femenino, “La mujer obrera” (1890-1910) (Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1988), 72-74.

[16] ‘Maternity leave laws give women 30 days before and 45 days after childbirth, with a total allowance equal to 2 ½ months’ pay at the rate of 25 working days a month, up to a fixed maximum benefit. The law also prohibits married and pregnant women from being discharged. In Argentina, a maternity fund is maintained by a tax paid by each employed woman on her wages, by a tax paid by the employer on the pay rolls of women employees, and by a contribution from the state. Members of a textile union in Buenos Aires have asked various women’s organizations to consider with them changes in the maternity-fund law, such as the inclusion of women on the board of directors, and methods of giving benefits so that they will be used for the purpose for which they are intended’. (U.S. Women Workers in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, p. 10).

[17] Article 11 lists activities where working women are prohibited: shipping, mining, construction, machinist (machine operator), working with weapons, cleaning machinery while in motion, tinting and leatherworking, glassblowing, blacksmithing, etc. Law 11317 of 1924.

[18] Nari, Políticas de maternidad, 217.

[19] Belluci and Camusso, La huelga de inquilinos de 1907, 22-23.

1 comment on “Gendering Poverty in Labor Legislation in Argentina, 1900-1930

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Scourge of Severe Poverty – The Activist History Review

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