Hidden work : women in Brazilian's rural economy

Material Information

Hidden work : women in Brazilian's rural economy
Series Title:
Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Spindel, Cheywa R.
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
University of Florida. ( LCSH )
Spatial Coverage:
South America -- Brazil

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Cheywa R. Spindel


The objective of this paper is to develop some tentative
thoughts on the subject of prestidigitation. This is not, of
course, a treatise on the art of conjuring as performed by stage
magicians, but rather a discussion of a social system's ability
to use "sleight of hand" to conceal, or indeed to make vanish,
the labor of Brazilian women working in agriculture. This has
taken the historical form of a failure to recognize the existence
of such labor. Brazilian society as a whole, through its
institutions, ignores the existence of women as agricultural
laborers, and they are therefore denied the few rights and even
fewer benefits which have so far been painfully won by male
farm laborers.

Many observers have sought to place responsibility for this
discrimination on the family, in which "wife and children are
the slaves of the man. The latent slavery in the family, though
still very crude, is the first property. Even at this initial
stage, however, it corresponds perfectly to the definition of
modern economists who call it the power of controlling the labor
of others. Division of labor and private property are identical
expressions. What is said in the former in regard to activity is
expressed in the latter in regard to the product of the activity"
(Marx, 1967).

The power held by men, especially in family production in the
countryside, to control the labor of the other members of the
family and appropriate its products, while taking all the credit
for reproducing the family unit of which they as men are the head,
undoubtedly creates the conditions for concealing women's economic
performance in the last instance. To some extent, as a commodity-
producing unit, the family lends itself to dissimulating, that is,
making socially invisible, the work done by women in producing
goods for consumption and for the marketplace. Within the family,

furthermore, housework is defined as the exclusive and "natural"
task of women, and is indeed not even included in the category
"work". It would therefore seem important to understand how
the concept of "social invisibility" is constructed and reinforced,
and how the paradigm of "naturalness" is sustained; this will
serve as a basis for understanding the maintenance of a continuous
process of "concealment" of women's economic performance as "free
laborers" in an increasingly capitalist society.


Capitalist agriculture in Brazil has developed on the basis of
family production relations. Even today, 70% of all foodstuffs
are produced by peasant families, who also make a significant
contribution to providing agribusiness with its supplies.

When free labor was introduced into the coffee economy (1),
women's role was to provide an indispensable source of labor
by growing food, but they were also taken into account as part
of the labor force, together with their children, when the number
of coffee trees to be placed under the charge of each family was
calculated. But women were never included in any coffee planter's
payroll. The success of the system known as colonato (1) and
the importance of its role in the process of accumulation in the
coffee economy were due to the contribution made by women's and
children's unpaid labor. They always did more work than men on
the coffee plantations.

(1) Free labor was introduced into the coffee economy in the form of the system
known as colonato. The colonists (colonos) were European immigrants, brought
above all from Italy under contract, to settle on a piece of land provided
by the planter and farm his coffee. They were paid in wages, but also had
the right to grow their own food. The basic criterion for recruiting the
colonists was that they should be members of a family with a young mother
and several children, at least one of whom had to be old enough to work.

The production of food was usually the women's sole responsibi-
lity. The process of economic emancipation of the colonists
largely centered on their access to a piece of land on which to
grow food, for not only could they guarantee a cheap and healthy
diet thereby, but they were also able to obtain a certain extra
income by marketing any surplus they could produce. In some cases,
this enabled them to settle for good in the countryside as
peasant farmers in their own right; in others, it provided the
wherewithal for them to migrate to the towns.

Until around 1960, the family--as smallholder, tenant, share-
cropper or squatter--remained the basic relation of production in
the evolving capitalist economy of the Brazilian countryside. In
the period which spanned the years between World War II and 1960,
the rural economy grew at an average rate of 4.5% a year, more
than the average growth of the rural population during the period.
The maintenance of an agricultural surplus throughout this whole
period was of the utmost importance for the national economy, for
not only did this occur without any need to reduce the resources
available to industry, which had become a priority target for
the government by this time, but it also provided additional
resources for transfer to industry precisely in the form of part
of the agricultural surplus produced at this level of capitalization.

It cannot be denied that, among other factors, a major contri-
bution to the economic performance achieved by agriculture in this
period was made by the intensive use of unpaid family labor. It
can also be assumed that the maintenance of a family production
structure, where different types of production are juxtaposed or
even overlap (commodity production, subsistence production and
domestic production of goods and services for family consumption),
enabled women to do their work on the plantation and the food
patch without neglecting their chores as producers of goods and
services for the family. Thus, until the mid-1960s, women played
a major role in cheapening the cost of agricultural production; this

kept market prices at competitive levels and made the family
unit of production viable for capital as a commodity producer
during this period. Moreover, by assuming sole responsibility,
as domestic producer, for the reproduction of the family labor
force, both potential and real, women supplied the market with
a source of labor which could be continually renewed.

Calculations based on population cohorts (Carvalho and Wood,
1977) have shown that during this period the life expectancy at
birth of someone living in the countryside and earning in the lowest
income bracket was several years longer than that of city dwellers
at the same level of income, whatever the region of Brazil
considered, although the size of the gap varied from one region to
another. The same authors analyzed the nutritional status of the
population, stressing the small proportion of the total which
could be considered adequately nourished, and the very large differences
found when comparing the figures for the Northeast with those for
the South and Southeast. They also remark that the rural population
is systematically and homogeneously better off in dietary terms
than the urban.

However, when calculations measuring living standards are based
on the income level necessary to cover the minimum needs of a
family, as Chonchol (1982) shows for Brazil in 1970, the result is
that 73% of all rural families were below the poverty line, while
the proportion was only 35% in the towns. This finding reinforces
the argument used here, in that at least until 1970 a great many
farmers could produce part of their own subsistence without needing
to take part in the monetary circuit. They had both land and a
supply of labor, provided by the women and children, to produce
and process their food inside their own family unit.

Thus, guaranteed largely by the prevailing family production
model, family labor was reproduced by maintaining the elasticity
of the rural labor supply, in spite of the growing migratory flows
from countryside to town during the period.


The economic policy introduced after the military takeover in
1964 aimed at encouraging the appearance of an agricultural sector
which was to focus mainly on supplying agribusiness, not only
through the 'transfer of the surpluses produced, but also in the form
of its contribution as a consumer of the country's manufactures,
thereby guaranteeing the formation of a surplus in the industrial

Over the last 20 years, agriculture has been led to play the
following roles:
a) to become a market which consumes industry's mechanical and
chemical products, manufactured under the stimulus of major
incentives from the late 1950s onwards; b) to help to improve the
balance of payments: (i) directly, by producing exports such as
soybeans, wheat etc.--in recent years, the International Monetary
Fund has brought special pressure to bear in this sense; (ii) in-
directly, as a supplier of raw materials for agribusiness, most
of whose production is for export; (.iii) as part of the drive to
reduce oil imports after the shock produced by the sudden rise in
world prices, through an energy program aimed at finding alternative
sources, mainly by supplying cane to the alcohol plants at the
speed and with the amounts established in official policy targets.
The Alcohol Program was also designed to stave off a crisis in the
auto industry by guaranteeing the preservation of stable demand.

The main instrument in this policy was undoubtedly rural credit,
coupled with other kinds of incentive. Rural credit was institutio-
nalized in 1965, with the creation of the National Credit System.
The amount of credit supplied from 1969 onwards corresponded to 40%
of agricultural production in 1969, and to 102.5% in 1975, but
stabilized around 80% to 90% in the following years (Guedes Pinto,
1981) (2). In current terms, between 1969 and 1979 agricultural

(2) Systematic statistics on the amount of funding invested by the system are
available only for 1969 onwards.

production increased 36 times, while the amount of funding allocated
to rural credit increased 69 times.

Between 1971 and 1977, rural credit grew by 1,900%. In 1980,
some 880 billion cruzeiros were granted as rural credit (the
equivalent of $16.7 billion by the average exchange rate for 1980).
This huge expansion in funding took place as part of a process of
acceleration of industrial development, in the context of a more
intense accumulation process, stimulating income concentration
and centralization of capital. The money goes to a small group
of big producers, and the existing trend is thereby reinforced. It
is also important to point out that rural credit involves an
implicit subsidy which is high in value and has indeed risen even
further in recent years with the acceleration of the inflation

In 1970, when inflation was 19%, the average interest charged
on rural credit was 11%. In 1980, when inflation was running over
110%, interest rates were around 20% on average, which corresponded
to a negative rate in real terms (around -43%) (Maryine, 1983).
Moreover, aside from the fact that this "service" was available to
only 20% of the country's rural properties, the amount of credit
distributed was also highly concentrated even in this framework. In
1977, nearly 40% of all the credit granted remained in the hands
of 1% of the biggest landowners (Guedes Pinto, 1981). According to
Banco do Brasil, 90% of the lesser contracts absorbed 29% of all
loans, while 0.3% of the major contracts covered the same amount
of money.

A large proportion of this funding, like other sources of
money (3), was used illegally for speculation on the stock market
or for the purchase of more land. While the price of land rose by
130% in 1966-1971, the increase was almost 2,000% in the period
1971-1977 (Martine, 1983). This illicit use of government loans

(3) In the early 1970s, there was an abundance of money on the market, saoe of
it from abroad and much of it produced by the "economic miracle", in the
form of a surplus based on drastic wage cuts.

led to even greater concentration in land tenure. The Gini index
rose from 0.837 in 1970 to 0.849 in 1980 (Kageyama and Silva, 1983).
There was an accelerated increase in the consumption of modern
chemical and mechanical inputs (4), encouraged by credit and by
relatively low prices (also highly subsidized). They began to be
used overwhelmingly in the South and Southeast (seven states),
where--"by coincidence"--big agribusiness capital is located, and
to which most of the funding is channelled: in 1975, these regions
absorbed 72% of farm lending, most of it in Sao Paulo.

Agriculture thus became capitalized in the sense that the
highly complex agribusiness base became increasingly larger and
more diversified, while agricultural production was developed
in terms of competition on the world export market.

The impact of these changes in the context of the interplay of
political forces occurred in such a way as to accentuate the
historically inherited economic and social disparities between
regions. As part of this process, which is in a constant state of
transition, the objective living conditions are highly diverse
both among and within regions, and this corresponds to an equally
broad range of different concrete working conditions in agriculture.

As Sorj and Wilkinson (.1983) have said, at this new stage of
capitalization of agriculture, the viability of the family unit
becomes dependent on its ability to keep abreast of technological
change, since it becomes a part of the circuit of modern commercial
capital, finance capital and agribusiness. In this new confrontation
between capital and labor, "there is a sharp acceleration in the
process of horizontal differentiation between members of the
peasantry. To survive in the new productive system, they have to

(4) The table below shows the acceleration in consumption of these inputs:

Year Tractors Number of establishments using fertilizers
Chemical Organic
1960 61,345 52,740 283,386
1970 165,870 425,667 331,494
1980 530,691 893,398 532,610
SOURCE: Sorj and Wilkinson (1983)

adapt, and this is possible only by creating a surplus and/or
becoming freshly indebted. Under these circumstances, successful
families have to reinvest in agriculture in order to survive,
since mere reproduction is the equivalent of negative reproduction"
(Sorj and Wilkinson, 1983).

In the struggle for survival, some families manage to take
the technological leap, and join the ranks of those capitalized
smallholders who already exist. Others are not able to modify
the level of their productive forces and remain in a process of
pauperization leading to proletarianization. The dynamics of this
process in terms of the length of time they can survive is linked
to the possibilities,made available by the regional context and
family structure,for making hybrid forms of labor and production
feasible. Some members of the family may take up temporary wage
labor in the countryside or permanent wage labor in the town;
others may become sharecroppers or tenants; all these forms of
solution are grounded in family production, which sustains their
simple reproduction, even when the levels of productivity are
very different from those attained by society as a whole.

Statistics show that there was a very pronounced increase in
the importance of rural laborers included in the category of
heads of family and unpaid members of families between 1950 and
1970. Their representativity in .relation to the total labor force
rose from a little over half of all laborers and workers in 1950
to 80% two decades later (Agriculture Ministry, 1979). These
figures may be somewhat overestimated for 1970 owing to differential
criteria used in the surveys on which they were based. Yet there
are two kinds of factor which converge to help understand the
relative increase in family production: the intensification, at the
end of the period,of the articulations between peasant farmers and
agribusinesses; and, second, the fact that the impact of the new
technological package on family labor relations, above all those
of landless peasants, such as sharecroppers, tenants, squatters
and others, did not occur all at once and with the same intensity.
Moreover, the destruction of these farmers is not always the best
strategy for capital.

Agribusiness, for example, restructures, recovers and
re-incorporates tenant farming and small family production into
its production process after its own fashion. Although these forms
guarantee the survival of family production, they are highly
exploitative of family labor, and make peasant farmers totally
dependent on the agribusiness corporations.


Between 1970 and 1980, as Table 1 shows, the absorption of
wage labor tended to increase to the detriment of family labor.
The significant differences between the structure of labor
relations in Sao Paulo and the rest of the country show the
regional inequalities in terms of the technical level reached
in agriculture in Sao Paulo state. As the big farming estates
became big businesses, evicting in the process the colonists
or laborers living on their lands, they institutionalized temporary
wage labor. The labor force available to meet this demand
consisted of former families of laborers who had lived inside the
estates and had since become citydwellers but remained dependent
on farm work, mainly because there were no other options open.
To this stockpile must be added the store of temporary labor avai-
lable in the family smallholdings undergoing disintegration or

Table 1 also shows that women have been brought into the wage
labor market at a much more intense pace than men. The significant
increase in the number of women wage laborers which emerges from
recent official statistics must be understood in the light of two
facts: (1) it would seem that the growing number of studies and
movements in support of women's rights has led to a degree of
awareness in certain social groups, and the results of this new
awareness are beginning to make themselves felt in statistical
surveys; (2) in the case of mobile labor, when the commodity


production unit is spatially separated from the production of
goods and services for family reproduction, women's work is split
into two (commodity production and family reproduction) not only in
space but also in time. The dividing line between the two becomes
clearer, and it is easier to calculate the amount of labour contained
in the "time spent in the fields" and the "time spent at home".

Moreover, work for the market ceases to be "unpaid family labour"
and now has a price. It is a very low price, which does not cover
part of the reproduction of labour-power previously performed during
"time spent at home", but in statistical terms it can no longer be
ignored. According to the IBGE, the official statistical institute,
the number of economically active women in agriculture aged 10 or
more rose from 9% in 1970 to 13.2% in 1980 and 21% in 1982 (Saffiotti,




STATUS 1970 1976 1980 1976 1980

All 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Employees 22.8% 36.1% 38.2% 67.4% 68.6%
Family labour 77.2% 63.9% 61.8% 32.6% 31.4%
EAP 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Employees 8.4% 20.6% 32.8% 68.5% 76.6%
Family labour 91.6% 79.4% 67.2% 31.5% 23.4%
EAP 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
Employees 29.2% 36.1% 39.0% 66.9% 67.1%
Family labour 70.8% 63.9% 61.0% 33.1% 32.9%

SOURCES: 1970 agricultural census and PNAD (household sample
survey), apud SINGER, P.I. Dominacao e desigualdade,
Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, 1981, pp. 36-37. Calcu-
lations for Sao Paulo based on 1976 data and the 1980
demographic census, "Labour", Instituto Brasileiro de
Geografia e Estatistica (IBGE), Rio de Janeiro, 1983


Throughout the whole of this historical period in which
family production has been contributing to the national economy,
there seems to have been no attempt to pass legislation or
undertake a government campaign to guarantee the rights of rural
women laborers, both wage-earners and unpaid. What is more, it
might be said that the possibility that a new awareness may emerge
from below, or that women may become aware everywhere of their
rights, will only become a reality if the obstacles placed by
the military dictatorship in the way of the requisite learning
process can now be removed.

However, in 1978 when the National Farmworkers' Federation
(Contag) held its Third Annual Congress, at which a land distribu-
tion program was put forward, women were not at any time mentioned
as possible beneficiaries of such a reform. The advantages of
family properties were highlighted without any recognition of
the major part played by women, although all the arguments used
would become invalid if there were no women in these families.

There follow some transcriptions of extracts from the proceedings
of the Third Annual Congress of Contag (Galeano, 1984):

11 in family production, man generates his living space and
performs better;
21 family production grows 50% more than the average and 200%
more than the big estates (latifundios);
3) family production contributes to the unity and integration
of the family.

In none of the remaining items is there any mention of the
legislation which denies women's right to land and credit, although
their ability to carry on production and to reproduce is proven in

At a recent meeting held by Emater, the Agriculture Ministry
agency in charge of rural extension, in Carpina, Pernambuco,
several statements showed that when the male head of the family

is absent, as a result of death or abandonment, the family
production unit does not disintegrate, as is the case when the
women members are absent, although the latter are not covered
by any of the legal provisions which guarantee men's rights to
manage the family property.

The growing awareness of women, their mobilization and
incipient public demonstrations of protest in support of certain
basic rights for female rural laborers cannot be dissociated from
the broader movement in favor of redemocratizing the country.
This began under the Geisel and Figueiredo administrations, with
the so-called abertura, and reached a new stage of intensity with
the campaign for direct elections for President in 1984, and,
finally, the indirect election of Tancredo Neves in January 1985.
The women's movement found an administrative and institutional
support in a number of states where Women's Councils were set up
comprising representatives of social movements and organizations
together with members of the state governments.

The first Rural Women's Congress was held in October 1984 in
Belo Horizonte, state capital of Minas Gerais, with the backing of
federal and state agencies and UNICEF. More than 300 women from
250 municipalities throughout the state attended. A summary
of the conclusions reached by discussion groups at this Congress
clearly shows that rural women are aware of their problems and
expound them lucidly. Their silence seems to have been due until
then more to the fact that there was no-one to hear them than to
any difficulty in speaking out. Their daily lives are typically
full of the experience of being undervalued, of "not being taken
seriously", of not being paid for their work, not having a retire-
ment pension etc., as well as problems connected with production,
prices, interest, land, fertilizers and so on, or those related to
their children, schools, meals, the quality of education, geogra-
phical distance, the future prospects for the labor market etc.
Their vision of these problems is the vision of citizens--conscious
women, mothers and workers: what they don not have, however, is


When it is considered that this meeting in Minas Gerais was
followed by others in Parana and Sao Paulo, it may be wondered
whether the fact that these three states have extremely high
percentages of mobile labor, indeed the highest in the country,
has any specific significance, or if it is rather a mere

It would seem that there is greater potential for mobilizing
wage-earning women, for the simple reason that when they come into
contact with other workers they undergo a socialization process
and develop an awareness of their specificity as women workers.
The likelihood of this process within the closed limits of
family production is probably far smaller, or at least slower.

A further factor must also be given due consideration. When
women laborers go off to the plantation with their fellows to
cut sugarcane, pick oranges or clear grasslands for planting, the
work they do during the day becomes known to the group as a whole,
that is, it becomes public knowledge, and can be commented on,
evaluated, praised, criticized and, above all, measured.

In a recent strike by temporary wage laborers which centered
on the small country town of Guariba, Sao Paulo (Spindel, 1985),
one of the principal demands,put forward for the first time along-
side the classic demands for more pay and better conditions, was
the demand for equal pay for both sexes in compliance with the
existing legislation which provides for this equality. I believe
very few struggles (if any) in the whole history of movements
by rural laborers have raised the banner of equality and justice
through recognition of women's work. Would it be justifiable to say thatthe
inclusion of the demand for the recognition of discrimination against
women in agricultural labour and for measures to eliminate it,
and even more strikingly, the acceptance of this demand during nego-
tiations between government, employers and unions, was the outcome c
greater maturity on the part of all those involved? Could the elemer
which triggered off this process be the "visibility" (Huiser, 1980)
acquired by women's labour when "elevated" to the category of wage


Studies performed in India in the 1970s have shown a correlation
between the facility and rapidity with which women could be politically
mobilized in the countryside, and the high level of their demands,
with the "visibility" in certain areas of women's labour. It can thus
be asked whether women's role in this strike in Sao Paulo, and the
benefits demanded, should be understood as the product of their own
recognition of their importance in the sense that their labour had
acquired value on the market.

Could it be that when men and women work side by side as temporary
farm labourers doing the same jobs, the evidence of women's strength,
skill, ability and productivity in producing for the market cancels
out the validity of all those false arguments about their "fragility"
and "incompetence" which have always justified and reinforced their
subordination as a norm in family production (5 )? Moreover, the
value of women's work could no longer be dissimulated in this case
by means of the notion of "the incomparability of jobs" (Hinata and
Humphrey, 1983), so commonly used in industry to keep women's wages
down. What justification, indeed, could there be for paying 25-30%
less to women as a daily wage during the offseason (the difference is
even greater in other regions), when they earn as much as or even more
than men during the harvest, when pay is calculated according to

If wage-earning labor performed by rural women outside the family unit
has in fact contributed to or dynamized and accelerated the politicization
of these women, or whether other variables have determined this process,
is a question which can only be answered by further study of the field
and greater historical distance from the facts.

(.5') Spindel (1983) conducted a study in Sao Paulo in 1980 on family peanut growers;
based on information gathered in situ, she showed that the wives and daughters
contributed almost twice as much labour as the men in terms of man/days in
production for the market alone. It would seem that the discovery of the impor-
tance of this contribution to family production has been used "intelligently"
in Colcnbia, where women are being mobilized to solve the food problem by means
of encouragement to produce food for the market on their smallholdings. This
has suddenly raised them to the status of "social agents" (Leal, 1985).

One fundamental point which urgently needs investigating is
how to direct the energies in this movement in such a way as to
transform it into a permanent political gain, avoiding both
a gradual loss of motive power and the emergence of negative
social side effects which may cancel out everything it has
achieved so far. If the Guariba strike is taken once again as
an example (so that concretely experienced facts are discussed),
I observed that the struggle ended in a victory by ensuring
equal pay for women, yet had negligible or even negative reper-
cussions on the remaining aspects of these women's everyday lives.
The very process raising them to the category of wage-earner,
and now to that of a worker with the same status as men, maintains
these women as second-class citizens.
Let us examine this assertion by providing some examples:

(a) Although women are employed intensively during harvest time,
they are called on less in the offseason, when the demand for labour
falls by 50%. This is common practice, which was already well estab-
lished before the introduction of equal pay. Several labourers inter-
viewed for this study believe that equal pay will probably lead to ar
increase in female unemployment in the offseason. Why should employer
give priority to men, when they themselves acknowledge the greater
agility, flexibility and productivity of women? My informants mostly
explained this preference for men as a consequence of the practice
of firing women when pregnant. The labor laws in Brazil prohibit
this type of discrimination, and employers know that they would lose
any lawsuits brought by women in such cases.

Based on my own field observations, I believe a further reason is
that when women do temporary farm work they often have to stay at
home on Saturdays. If married with small children, they need Saturday
and Sunday to be able to get through all the housework which accumu-
lates during the week. Although the employers regularly dock the pay
of those who are absent on a weekday (by not paying Sunday's wage),
it may nevertheless not be worthwhile employing women when it is


their husbands preferred it, etc. One union leader, himself a former
temporary farm laborer, interpreted this fact as follows: "If
they don't work on the same plantation, the wife may work further away
or may arrive late home because the truck that comes to pick her up
is late. So she may get home after her husband, who won't be pleased
if he has to wait for dinner or go out again to pick up the kids, who
are left with a neighbour during the day." So even though the unit
of production for the market has become spatially and structurally
separate from the family reproduction unit, and women's work has
acquired a "value", in many cases men still decide where and how women
are to work.

There are some other explanations given by the women themselves
which seem worth recounting here. When I asked them out of mere
curiosity why they wore a skirt on top of long trousers, they said
the trousers were needed so they could climb up on to the truck which
takes them to work every day, and to protect them from the scrub
which grows amid the cane in the plantations. They also wear long-
sleeved blouses, hats and scarves against the hot sun. But what drew
my attention was the explanation of the skirt worn over the trousers:
they said this serves to reassure the others that they are "honest
girls", properly modest, etc. One woman put it thus: "If we don't
wear a skirt, the men all notice, and people start gossiping about us
being the foreman's mistress or someone else's" (8).

The skirt has a further function, which is practical, as to some
extent it protects them from inquisitive men who might be able to
watch them relieving themselves somewhere near the workplace itself
(there are of course no toilets provided for this). Little importance
can thus be attached to their equality with men in terms of the tonnage
they harvest with speed and skill, or thepay packet.i heybring home at
the end of the week, for even so they are victims of this type of

(-8) Another explanation heard was that long trousers are very tightfitting and thus
would probably burst at the seams because of all the bending and stretching
involved in this work.

social control. In the case in point, this control would seem to affect
them only by subjecting them to a specific way of dressing, but it
may be supposed that this masks other forms of control which are less
skindeep and hence far less bearable.

(c) In these women's discourse, there is no sign that they see such
practices as constraints to their freedom or forms of subjection to
men. What does come through clearly, however, is that they enjoy working
on the plantations and feel at ease among their fellow-workers. This
kind of work is seen as heavy and dangerous, yet even so as preferable
to housework (other studies have shown the same thing). Their reasons
for this preference included such statements as: "it's more fun to
work on the farm", "time flies, you don't even notice it", "it's fun
working in a group", and "you see the results of all your hard work".

Although they say they enjoy the work, the real reason they always
give for doing it is the need to help their husband or their family;
and this is exactly the same as the argument used by the men for
"allowing" them to work. Their dislike for housework because "you
never see the results", or "it makes you very tense" etc., is never
mentioned as a possible reason for wanting freedom. This is probably
because the social discourse with official validity is that "woman's
place is in the home". One local union leader told me clearly: Women
are working away from home at the moment because they've got to give
a hand, or else the family won't make ends meet, but they really ought
tb be just looking after the house and children." The idea this
statement transmits is that women's wage labour is a temporary situa-
tion, which must be overcome so that "normality" can return. So
there is no reason for treating women differently. They have not come
into the world of men's work for good it is not their proper place.

(d) There is therefore no basis in the case under discussion here for
the kind of argument behind the hypothesis that "women's exploitation
by capital helps them to reduce the oppression and discrimination they
are submitted to within the family sphere, to the extent that they
become economically dependent on capital, thereby breaking with one
of the pillars of political domination within the family" (Spindel,
1984) C9 ).

(9) This argument was put forward by Paulo Sandroni and discussed at a seminar an
"Wzmen, agriculture and modernization" held in Sao Paulo in September 1983.

Nothing would seem to have been changed in the sexual division of
labour within the household: women continue shouldering all the
responsibility, as wives, mothers and daughters. It is my belief that
the burden of this double working day entailed by being responsible
for housework and working out must go well beyond mere physical
effort, and that it would be worthwhile investigating its psychological:
effect in order to make an assessment of its real significance. This
might help to explain how heavy, dirty and dangerous work such as
cutting cane, for example, performed in conditions of considerable
exploitation and discrimination, can appear to be desirable and agree-

This may be the right direction in which to look for some of
the possible causes of the minor role played by women in the local

(e) On the other hand, the political struggle and the advances achieved
do not seem to have been enough to enable the movement to take off
in such a way that it can continue under its own steam. When I spoke
to a number of union leaders in person, I found out that the main
difficulty facing them was motivating their members to take part in
meetings and rallies. The number of members had risen, but only a few
actually attended meetings, virtually the same proportion as before
the Guariba strike. Various tactics had been used to attract them to
meetings: recently, they said, some success had been achieved by
hiring local performers and musicians to open meetings with a show to
attract more workers.

Women virtually take no part in the unions, and the arguments -
which I found to be true are always the same: lack of time. Anyway,
the union takes no action at all to encourage or request women to
take a more direct part.

There is one union with a woman president, however. How can this
be explained? As I listened to the "story" of this woman's election
from the horse's mouth, it became clear that this was much more of
a circumstantial "accident" than the acknowledgement of a woman's
leadership or of the political strength of local women. What happened
was simply that the incumbent elective committee having resigned, there
was no local leadership for this union, and no local member wished
to run-for election. In general, women only resort to the union for


welfare assistance or to consult a physician, and even so not very
often, as they themselves told me. But I was also informed unanimously
That women are far more curious and interested than'men when it comes
to learning about workers' "rights" whenever there are changes, or
proposals for change, touching on this subject.
It is also generally thought that they are more intelligent, in
that they are quicker to catch on to the explanations given by the
union leaders. I also heard of cases where women had applied to
the union without their husbands' knowledge, to find out what the
letters' "rights" werewhen they thought they were being more exploited
than usual.

One component in this attitude shows a degree of "readiness" or
a potential which could be channelled and developed into more active
political participation by women, if they had the social conditions
for it. It is in this sense that they should not be seen as disinte-
rested, apolitical or alienated, but rather as socially limited. In
this case, moreover, they have only very recently been initiated
into this type of activity, so that they are apprentices, as indeed
are the unions representing them.

One fact which may perhaps be seen as an example of the political
immaturity of these unions and these women is connected with the
demands on women's conditions included in the negotiations concerning
the next harvest, to begin this May or June. Two of these refer
specifically to biological factors: one demand asks for the present
pregnancy leave (3 months)t6 beiincreased to 6 months, and the other
that women have the right to 3 days' paid leave when menstruating.

It is of course undeniable that Steh benefits are more than
necessary for temporary wage-earning women labourers. Since it is
during the harvest that the demand for women's labour is greatest,
and since pay is based on production, this is the time when they can
make most income from their work. From the fourth montit of pregnancy
onwards, women cannot work with the same speed, and they thus earn
less. It is hard- to disagree, moreover, with the argument that under
the conditions prevailing in the cane plantations or orange groves,
where no infrastructure at all is provided, it is extremely unpleasant
for women to have to work when menstruating.


However, it must also be agreed that the Brazilian tradition of
achieving economic reproduction on the basis of accumulation which is
considerably facilitated by total freedom to extract surplus-value
from workers (among whom women have been specially penalized) makes
demands like these unrealistic to say the least. In fact, the only
effect they had on this occasion when presented to the employers at
a collective bargaining session was to make them laugh (as I was
told by a member of the union's negotiating team).

The unions, however, only questioned the inclusion of these demands
in terms of the operational difficulties they would present as regards
infrastructure and services. How would it be possible to deal with
the need to provide "menstruating" women with certificates in the
large, constantly growing numbers which they would certainly require?
This is but one example of the still limited horizon shared by the
great majority of union leaders, who have not yet learned to seek
out the multiple implications at all levels of any proposal for change.

I believe that pointing out injustice, making public the trap
of women's "social invisibility", and protesting the fallacy of the
"naturalness" of the sexual division of labor all comprise only a
first step towards our goal. It cannot be denied that this is the
right way forward, however, and that the construction of differences
was in this case a social fact and a proof of strength. It is necessary
to go further, however: to give reality and weight to women's right
to question the model, to question this new identity, while refusing
out of hand to identify with the stereotype men offer them as an ideal


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