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Group Title: changing class composition of the female labor force in Latin America.
Title: The changing class composition of the female labor force in Latin America
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00089186/00001
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Title: The changing class composition of the female labor force in Latin America
Series Title: changing class composition of the female labor force in Latin America.
Physical Description: 11 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Safa, Helen Icken
Conference on Women and Development, (1976
Publisher: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women
Place of Publication: Wellesley Mass
Publication Date: 1976?
Subject: Women -- Latin America   ( lcsh )
Genre: non-fiction   ( marcgt )
General Note: Paper presented at the Conference on Women and Development, Wellesley College, June 2-6, 1976.
General Note: Draft copy: 16 leaves plus 3 leaves references cited.
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Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
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Resource Identifier: oclc - 06216059

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Full Text


Helen Safa
Department of Anthropology
Livingston College
Rutgers University


4-'A PLEIr,


The shift from an agrarian to an urban, society in advanced capitalist

as well as Third World countries has generally been accompanied by the decline

I the family as a productive unit. Commercialized agriculture and mass pro-

duction of goods and services reduced the role of the individual peasant

or artisan family and moved production into the factory, office or other

centralized work places, with the bulk of the male population becoming wage

earners and depending entirely on the sale of their labor for an income.

In both developed and less developed societies, the rise of commodity

production outside the home thus introduced an entirely new division of

labor in the family as well as in the society at large. As wages became

increasingly important as a principal source of income, male heads of households

assumed primary responsibility for the family's support, while women and

children became principally a reserve labor force, called upon only in times

of need or for highly specialized tasks. The family no longer functioned

as an economic unit, and women were relegated to a subordinate status as

housewives, dependent on a man's wages and, unless they worked, deprived of

an independent earning capacity.

This paper is a preliminary attempt to examine the changes occurring

in the pattern of female labor force participation in Latin America as a

result of the development of industrial capitalism and the decline of the

family as a productive unit. In line with several studies now appearing on

women in Third World countries, it will attempt to demonstrate that the

prevailing style of development, dependent on foreign capital and a relatively

small modern sector, does not favor the incorporation of women, particularly

from the proletarian class, into the labor force. Increases in female

employment as a result of development and modernization, have tended to

benefit women from the upper and middle strata more than wo- en of the rural or


urban proletrait, who remain locked in marginal jobs with little opportunity

for upward mobility.

Women's Role in the Stages of Industrial Capitalism

Within a capitalist economy, we can distinguish at least three broad

stages in the development process, in each of which women play a markedly

different role: 1) the agrarian or pre-industrial stage in which women

participate primarily as members of a peasant family, acting as both a

production and consumption unit 2) the early stages of urbanization and

industrialization, when women are employed as domestic servants, petty vendors,

and unskilled factory workers, particularly in labor-intensive industries

such as textiles and food processing; and 3) the expansion of urbanization

and state bureaucracy, under conditions of monopoly capitalism, leading to

an increase in the service sector of the economy and in white-collar jobs

for women in clerical work, trade, public administration, social services,

etc. While in all three stages a small proportion of highly educated women

are employed as professionals, in the third stage there is a considerable

expansion of this sector along with intermediary jobs for women as secretaries,

salesgirls, and other lower-level white-collar jobs. Thus, in the third

stage, there is a marked change in the class composition of the female labor

force, with middle and upper-class women becoming economically active in

large numbers for the first time. This paper is concerned primarily with

the implications of this changing class composition of the female labor force

for the status and role of working class women in Latin America.

While both advanced capitalist and development countries essentially

pass through the same developmental stages, they differ considerably as to

the rate and scope of change and its impact on female labor force participation.

Third World countries remained agrarian much longer, and a considerable segment



As a result, the rate of female labor force participation in developing

countries bears little relationship to the level of economic development and

industrialization (cf Collver and Langlois 1962). Unlike advanced capitalist

countries such as the U.S., there are few jobs for women in the modern sector,

which is most affected by level of economic development and industrialization

(cf I.L.O. 1975: 67-8).Ev-w the erceta,:: of women employed in manufacturing

shows no appreciable increase as a result of industrialization (Collver

and Langlois, op cit.). Thus, unlike advanced capitalist countries, the

expulsion of women from family production units in Third World countries is

not compensated for by a significant increase in the demand for female wage

labor, particularly at the unskilled level. Consequently, most wdcen are forced

into marginal jobs in the "traditional" sector such as domestic service, petty

vending, and unskilled factory jobs.

The overall rate of labor force participation for women in Latin

America hovers around 20 percent, about half that of the U.S. or western

Europe, and has remained fairly constant for over twenty years (ECLA 1975:2).

This apparent stability, however, masks the sectoral changes which have been

occurring during this same period. Since 1950 or earlier, when most Latin

American countries moved from a pre-industrial, agrarian base to an urban

and to a lesser extent industrial society, the female labor force has under-

gone marked occupational shifts, denoting their changing role in the productive

process. As unpaid members of a family productive unit, women were often

required to do heavy manual labor for which there was little reward or

recognition, though in Latin America women generally played less of a role in

agricultural field labor than in other Third World areas. Still the family

retained a certain degree of autonomy as independent producers, and the

economic role which women played within the family, not only in agriculture,

but in handicrafts, trade, etc. made them an important part of the productive


process. Opinions vary as to how much autonomy and status this gave the women

in the peasant or artisan family (cf. Bourque 1975, Rubbo 1975, Hartmann 1975).

However, she was certainly less dependent on men than in a wage economy in

which men came to exercise the principal role of breadwinner, and the family

as a whole lost all economic autonomy.

It would seem that the principal reason women were not incorporated

into the wage labor market at the same rate as men was the need of capitalist

society to protect women's reproductive functions.2 As Sacks (1974:220

has pointed out, "... class societies tend to socialize the work of men and to

domesticate that of women." Men are more mobile, and can be more intensively

exploited than women, because of the latter's child bearing functions. As

several feminist writers have pointed out (e.g. Benston 1969, Dalla Costa 1972,

Larguia 1973), housewives continue to play a crucial role in the maintenance

of the capitalist system since they are primarily responsible for the main-

tenance and reproduction of the labor force, by clothing, feeding and in

other ways assuring the survival of family members. However, since this

labor is unpaid and has no exchange value in capitalist societies, it lacks

of the status of production for the public domain. Women may continue to

exercise considerable authority in the domestic domain, but the domestic

domain does not have the importance it had when the family was a productive

unit. With the rise of large-scale industrial capitalism, there is a sharp

split between the public and private domain, and the family is reduced

entirely to the realm of "private life" catering to the personal needs of

its members. (cf. Zaretsky 1974). Most economic and political power is

shifted to the public domain, where men predominate (cf. Hartman 1975:15-16).

Thus in the new division of labor introduced by industrial capitalism

men provide the labor power and women reproduce and maintain it. As house-

wives women are useful to the maintenance of the capitalist system, while


as workers they might only add to the surplus of male unemployed. As a result

under industrial capitalism women's reproductive roles as wives and mothers

are extolled, while their productive roles as labor power is disparaged.

In part this is done by assigning women the worst jobs, the lowest pay, and

low priority in employment -- all the characteristics of a surplus labor

reserve. For example, in Latin America today, approximately one-fifth of

the female labor force is employed in domestic service, even in more indus-

trialized countries such as Chile (Ribeiro and Barbieri 1973:177) and Mexico

(Elu 1975). However, discrimination against women in employment is not

limited to the working class. As in advanced industrial counties, even

educated women in Latin America are paid less than men and employed at lower

level jobs (ECLA 1975:14).

The ideology that woman's place is in the home however, appears to be

a rather recent phenomenon and largely a projection of bourgeois values.

Women in the proletarian class never stopped working, at least during the early

stage of industrialization; they merely exchanged one form of heavy manual

labor within the home and on the farm for another in the factory, in the

mill, or most importantly in domestic service. An excellent study by Joan

Scott and Louise Tilly (1975) of working women in 19th century Europe shows

that most working women were young, single daughters of working and peasant

families who found employment in domestic service and the new garment and

textile industries, where much of the labor was done by piecework at home.

These work roles continued to be defined within the framework of the family

economy, with all wages going as necessary contributions to the survival of

the family unit. Thus, in the European peasant and urban working class,

feminine and economic functions were never defined as incompatible and initially

at least, work outside the home had much the same meaning as being a member

of a family productive unit.


Prejudice against female employment among the bourgeoisie began to

wane only with the opening up of new employment opportunities for educated

women in teaching, nursing, clerical and sales employment, etc. Thus we find

a marked class difference in women's pattern of participation in the labor

force in advanced industrial society; a large number of peasant and working

class women were employed in the early stages of industrialization, particularly

in domestic service and in garment and textile industries, and in the United

States also in tobacco and shoe factories and food processing plants (Smuts

1971:33). However,middle class women did not begin to enter the labor force

until jobs commensurate with their status opened up, so that the large increase

in opportunities for female employment have accrued primarily to middle-class

women who could afford the education necessary for white collar employment

(Smuts: op. cit., 32)

In fact factory jobs for women in the U. S. have declined or at best,

remained stable. Smuts (op. cit., 33) claims that about the same proportion

of U.S. women are engaged in factory production now as in 1890, though indus-

trialization has clearly increased tremendously in this period. This is due in

part to the fact that women are concentrated in labor-intensive, non-durable

goods, which have suffered in competition with capital-intensive heavy industry,

employing largely men. It is also due to the fact that as the wages of men

increased, through union activity and government legislation, there was less

need for women in the proletariat class to work, and they now adopted the

bourgeois ideology that a woman's place is in the home. At the same time, the

great expansion in public education in the U.S. during this period made it

possible for more women from blue-collar families to enter white-collar

employment. As a result, the percentages of women engaged in blue-collar

and white-collar occupations in the U.S. from 1900 to 1970 has just about

reversed; in 1900, over 80% of employed females were found in blue-collar jobs,


compared to less than 20% in white-collar jobs; in 1970 less than 40% of

employed women are found in blue-collar jobs compared to more than 60% in

white-collar jobs. (Miller 1975: Figure 3).

If we examine these figures by ethnic background, however, we discover

that it is primarily white women who have moved into white-collar employment

while women from ethnic minorities, such as Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexican

Americans, are still found largely in industrial and service occupations

(Wilber et al 1975: 78-9). The rise in the percentage of women in the labor

force since 1890 has been due largely to the tremendous increase of married

women working (up from 5% in 1890 to one-third of the female labor force today),

and to the increasing employment of women with at least a high school education,

largely in clerical, technical and professional occupations (Smuts 1971: ).

In Latin America the pattern of industrial development has favored the

employment of women even less than in advanced industrial societies. As we

have seen, the bulk of women employed in manufacturing in Western Europe and

the U.S. occurred during the early stages of industrialization, when women

provided a source of cheap labor for labor-intensive industries such as

clothing and textiles. The same pattern is evident in the initial stages of

these industries in Latin America, but only persisted in areas where men had

alternative sources of employment( or:;itsis 1974:6). The abundant supply of

cheap labor in Latin America forced men into these low-paying jobs, since they

did not have the opportunities open to them in more advanced industrial socie-

ties. In addition, as in the United States and Europe, capital-intensive

technology caused a decline in the total work force, but especially among

women. The switch to capital-intensive technology took place more rapidly

in Latin America, since much of the industry was foreign-owned and could import

the more advanced technology already developed in the west (Ibid. 7).

Industries such as textiles and clothing, which traditionally employed large

numbers of women, have also been declining because of competition with foreign


imports such as synthetics and, in an earlier period, imported cotton cloth

from England, and often require government aid through tariffs and subsidies

to survive. (Elu 1975, Chaplin 1967). Thus, the traditional areas of female

employment in industry have also been diminishing. At the same time, protec-

tive legislation, supposedly designed to assist women in industrial employment

has actually worked against than since employers prefer to hire men without

these costly restrictions (Ibid: 10). Unions have also been held responsible

for the decline in female industrial employment, particularly in Mexico where

unions are relatively strong (Elu : 18).

As a result, Chaplin notes, lower-class women in Latin America are

being pushed back into marginal employment in domestic service, street vending

prostitution and back-alley "sweatshops" (Chaplin 1967: ). Chaplin describes

the impact of this premature foreclosing of industrial work opportunities for

lower-class women in Latin America

It appears that in Peru lower-class women have borne the
brunt of this closure, or delayed replacement, of employment
opportunities. The combination of the mechanization of commercial
agriculture and the reduction of women in manufacturing means that
female lower-class employment opportunities are shrinking...
Perhaps it can be said that urban lower-class women are the most
exploited group at this stage of industrialization, with rural
workers in general a close second..." (Ibid: 228-9).

Latin American Women in White-Collar Employment

As industrial employment for women declined in advanced capitalist

countries, some working class women were able to move into new jobs in

clerical and sales fields as well as teaching, a prime avenue of upward

mobility for many working class girls. The expansion of public education in

the U.S. also made these higher-level jobs more accessible to the working

class. Although no systematic study has been conducted on occupational

mobility among working-class woemn in Latin America, there appears to be

even less movement of these women into intermediary type jobs than in advanced


capitalist societies, due to a rigid class system, lower levels of literacy,

and the comparatively small size of the modern sector in Latin American coun-

tries, controlled largely by foreign corporations. As in the United States,

racial and ethnic barriers also keep women out of white-collar work.

In his study of Peruvian textile workers, Chaplin (1967:185) notes

that women are moving out of the plant into the office. They are no longer

employed as obreras (laborers) but as empleadas (salaried wage-earners).

However, Chaplin makes it clear that these are not the same women, or even

from the same social class. In Peru, as in much of Latin America, both racial

and educational barriers force a sharp distinction between obreras and

empleadas, who require at least some high school education and are generally

lighter-skinned. According to Chaplin, the fast growth of educational

opportunities in Peru has actually created an excess of empleadas, with the

result that their wages are often lower than the average textile worker

(Ibid: 184). Still, white-collar work constitutes an attractive and expanding

sector of the economy, compared to the declining manufacturing sector. In the

nation as a whole, 30% of the empleados are female versus 10% of the obreros

(Ibid: 190).

Several studies on the Latin American labor force as a whole describe

the same trends (e.g. ECLA 1975, Gendell and Rossell 1968, Elizaga 1974).

In Brazil, for example, the increasing percentage of women in the labor force

since 1950 appears due largely to the growing participation of women with

some secondary or higher education, which virtually doubled in Brazil in the

1960-70 decade (Elizaga 1974:528). Most of these educated women are entering

white-:ollar jobs in social services, trade, office work, and public adminis-

tration, all of which constitute expanding sectors of the economy.

If women from middle and upper-class sectors are occupying these white-

collar jobs, they will constitute an effective block to the upward mobility

of proletarian women now employed in industrial or marginal occupations. It


means that women from the proletarian class will be locked into their present

occupational status, or with the decline iniindustrial employment may even

be unemployed or retired from the labor force entirely. At the same time, the

movement of middle-class women into white-collar jobs reinforces the existing

class structure, by supporting the life style of this group at the expense

of the working class.

An ECLA report on the participation of Latin American women in develop-

ment notes that "... the urban upper and middle strata that participate

most actively in dependent modernization seem to have grown more rapidly than

other components of the national population almost everywhere." (ECLA 1975:5).

According to ECLA (1975:6-9) the growth of these elite classes has been

marked by 1) an increase in school enrollment since 1960, particularly at the

middle and higher levels; 2) an increase in non-manual middle and upper class

occupations, which however have not kept pace with the growth in education,

leading to rising educational requirements for these occupations; and 3) a

higher concentration of income at near the top, with some gains in

absolute terms for groups near the middle of the income ladder. The ECLA

report notes that these inequities are due largely to the unequal distribution

of power and the inability of the "prevailing style of development" (i.e.

dependent capitalism) to incorporate a large part of the rapidly growing

urban force into adequate or productive occupations.

According to ECLA (1975: 10-13) these trends have been particularly

disadvantageous to women. Although women have made educational gains equal to

those of men, they have not participated to the same extent in the growth of

the urban middle and upper occupational strata. The increase in female labor

force participation is concentrated among single women aged 20-24. They tend

to withdraw from the labor market, temporarily or permanently, after marriage,


so that their chances for advancement through seniority and promotion are

diminished. Only career-oriented women with a university education tend to

remain employed after marriage, since they have more invested in their educa-

tion, and can also better afford to hire domestics to help with housework and

child care (cf. Kinzer 1973 ). As in the U.S. and western Europe, the

expansion of public education in itself has created an enormous job market

for teachers, with women in the majority. In Peru alone, 74% of the teachers

are women. (Testa-Zappert 1975).

Case studies in particular countries reveal a marked difference in the

pattern of labor force participation by women in marginal or blue-collar

occupations vs. white-collar and professional work. As noted above, women in

white-collar work with the exception of highly educated professionals, tend

to regard their work as temporary and their salaries as discretionary. A study

of white-collar workers in Peru notes that 70% of the women are single, with

the majority coming from middle-class homes and native-born Limenas.

(Testa-Zappert 1975). Though they are rather poorly paid (particularly in

comparison to men)and foresee little chance of upward mobility cf the job,

this is not a major source of discontent, since 30% of these women use

their salaries only to support themselves, and have no career ambitions.

The Mattelaarts (1968:120-2) in their comprehensive study of Chilean

women, note a sharp distinction between women who work for individual ful-

fillment and mobility and those who work for economic need. In their sample

of Chilean women from the urban lower class, 56% continued to work after

marriage (the highest rate of any class group) and only 14% had never worked

in their lives. Work becomes an economic necessity because the husband's

salary is inadequate or because they are the sole source of support in the

family. As the ECLA (1975:16) report notes, "female family breadwinners ai,

in the most disadvantageous position of all." Thus, in the proletarian class,


as many studies corroborate (cf. Safa 1974: Piho, 1975; Saffioti 1976)

women continue to define their economic functions within a family context.

Like women in the early stages of industrialization in Western Europe, they

work for the survival of the family, not to fulfill their own career or

mobility aspirations. In the words of Ribeiro and Barbieri (1973:185)

referring to Chilean obreras, "production is a necessity which enables


Thus, the goals of female employment vary according to class sector,

leading to different work patterns over the life cycle. In Latin America,

middle and upper-class women tend to give up working at marriage unless they

have career ambitions and can afford to delegate certain households tasks to

a domestic servant. Continuation of their career therefore depends on the

exploitation of other women. Women from the urban or rural proletariat,

however, continue to work most of their lives, either to maintain their

parents or their children. They may be forced to change jobs with the advent

of marriage and children; thus, it has been found that newly arrived migrant

women generally find work as domestic servants, but are forced to leave their

jobs once they have one or two children.. (Testa-Zappert 1975). Many then

seek work as ambulances or street vendors, or if they are more successful,

obtain a stall in the market. Vending is a job which many proletarian

women find compatible with motherhood, since they are freer to establish their

own hours and can take their children with them. Factory work is more diffi-

cult, unless they are fortunate enough to find a factory with day-care

facilities. The constraints which marriage and motherhood imposes on pro-

letarian women again forces them into low-paid, dead-end occupations.

It could be argued that middle and upper-class women are more "liberated"

since they have a wider choice of jobs open to them and can drop out of the

labor market if a suitable job is not available. They are not forced into

dead-end and poorly paid jobs to insure the family's survival. Middle and


upper-class women, however, work primarily to further their own individualistic

status or career ambition they are a product of the bourgeois ethic which

stresses competition and personal mobility. For these women, the split between

family and economic domains is complete. No longer is work seen as an exten-

sion of the woman's reproductive or family role; the woman participates in the

public world of work as an individual, not as a member of a family unit.


What, we may ask, are the political implications of this increased

participation by middle class women in the female labor force in Latin America?

Clearly this pattern of labor force participation, while not favorable to women

or the working class in general, is highly favorable to the maintenance of an

industrial capitalist system. It creates a huge labor reservoir among the

proletariat, which keeps wages down, while at the same time creating new

jobs for the middle and upper sectors to tie them more closely to the existing

system. The creation of intermediate jobs in clerical and sales work for

women is particularly important in Latin America, where the gap between the

highly educated, professional woman and the illiterate vendor or domestic

reinforced the polarization between class sectors.

It may be, as Braverman has argued, that as in the advanced capitalist

countries, lower level clerical and sales workers will merge with the pro-

letariat, and that the new middle class will evolve into "... the creation

of a large proletariat in a new form" (Braverman 1974:107). However, mass

entry of women into white-collar jobs is still too new in Latin America for

the supposed prestige and status of these jobs to have diminished. While

dissatisfaction with white-collar jobs may grow, more discontent is likely to

arise over the continued denial of access to these jobs to women from the

proletarian class, who seek some escape from tiring manual labor.. The ECLA


report notes that past rates of expansion in education and jobs, particularly

at middle and higher levels, is unlikely to continue (ECLA 1975:7), while

the marginal sector continues to swell. Whether this blocked mobility will

result in working class women in Latin America. taking a more active role to

change the status quo, remains to be seen.

In the United States, men have been seen as the primary opponents

to women's occupational mobility, reserving for themselves the best jobs

and the highest pay. The emphasis on job segregation by sex has tended to

diminish the attention paid to class differences among women in the wage

labor market. Thus, in an extensive review of the historical development

of job segregation by sex in advanced capitalist society, Hartman notes:

"When women participated in the wage labor market, they did
so in a position as clearly limited by patriarchy as it was by
capitalism. Men's control over women's labor was altered by the
wage labor system, but it was not eliminated. In the labor market
the dominant position of men was mainta ined by sex ordered job
segregation. Women's -jobs were lower paid, considered less skilled,
and often involved less exercise of authority or control. Men acted
to enforce job segregation in the labor market; they utilized trade
union associations and strengthened the domestic division of labor,
which required women to do housework, childcare, and related chores.
Women's subordinate position in the labor market reinforced their sub-
ordinate position in the family, and that in turn, reinforced their
labor market position." (Hartman 1975:26-7)

While I would not argue with the mutually reinforcing impact of pat-

riarchy and capitalism on the continued subordination of women, I see a great

danger in emphasizing the opposition along sex lines to the virtual exclusion

of class differences. In the United States, this emphasis on men as the

"principal enemy" has led middle-class women, who are most active in the

women's movement, to be largely concerned with promoting equality within their

own class sector, while ignoring the continued gross inequalities still

suffered by working class women. The women's movement in the United States by

and large, has not addressed itself to the concerns of working class women.

If the Latin American women movement follows suit, it is likely only to

consolidate the minor gains won by middle and upper-class women in recent

years, to the continued detriment of working-class women. Both in the

United States and Latin America working-class women must organize on their

own, and in response to their own needs, rather than relying on middle-

class women to fight their battles for them.


1. In line with Wallerstein (1974:399-401) I distinguish
between agricultural capitalism, which started in Western
Europe in the 17th and 18th century, and industrial
capitalism, which followed in the 19th. Capitalism is
here then defined primarily as production for profit
rather than with the emergence of wage labor, which is
only fully developed under industrial capitalism.

2. Hartmann (1975:35) cites several other reasons for the
exclusion of women from wage labor such as the exclu-
sionary policies of male unions, women's lack of training
and skills, and the financial responsibility of men for
their families. She maintains that the idea of men as
head of the household (and therefore primary breadwinner)
antedates industrial capitalism and was merely reinforced
by it


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Piho, Virve

Life and Labor of the Female Textile Worker in
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Ribeiro, Lucia and M. Teresita de Barbiere
1973 La Mujer Obrera Chilena. Cuadernos de la Realidad
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1975 The Spread of Capitalism in Rural Colombia: Effects
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Safa, Helen I.
AND INEQUALITY. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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1976 Realationship of Sex and Social Classes. In SEX AND
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1975 Women's Work and the Family in Nineteenth Century
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1971 WOMEN AND WORK IN AMERICA. New York: Schocken Books

Testa-Zappert, Laraine
1975 Women in the Urban Labor Force: The Case of Peru.
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Wallerstein, Imnanuel
1974 The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist
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Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 16,
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Wilber, George L. and D. Jaco, R. Haga, AO del Fierro, Jr.
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Zaretskey, Eli
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