English Grammar

“Feminist Studies” Volume 23, Number 3 by Claire G. Moses pp. 550-553


When Mexico’s Border Industrialization Program was established in 1965, it was already framed in public, gendered rhet:lrics. The border, export-processing factories, known as “maquilas,” were ostensibly intended to hire men expelled from migrant labor jobs in the United States. However, like other export-processing factories in free-trade zones around the world, maquila managers already had an image of “export workers” and male farmworkers were not it. Advertising for Senoritas and Damitas throughout the border areas made clear-only young women need apply. These policies were repeate dIy, if indirectly, legitimated in public discussions by managers, union bosses, and political commentators, all of whom persistently invoked the superiority of women workers and the deficiencies of their male counterparts. In a typical article, a manager commented matter-of-factly: “85% ofthe labor force is made up of women, since they’re more disciplined, pay more attention to what they do, and get bored less than men do.” In an article headlined “Maquiladoras Don’t Have Problems with ‘Saint Monday’ ” (an allusion to [male] workers’ unilaterally taking Monday as a holiday), the president of the Association of Maquiladoras explained that dependable work attendance “is one of the positive aspects offered by a female labor force.”

In the early 1980s, however, the image of the docile young woman began to crack. Inter-union conflicts led to several strikes, bringing anomalous pictures of defiant women workers, sticks in hand, to the front pages of local newspapers. Shortly thereafter, peso devaluations dramatically cut wage costs in dollar terms, and the demand for maquila workers soared. This led to a shortage of young women willing to work at maquila wages and to an increasingly assertive attitude on the part of those already employed. Confronted by young women workers who did not behave like “women” at all, some managers faced by shortages turned to young men. By the end of the decade, men made up close to one-half the maquila work force; and within individual factories, managers deployed increasingly diverse discourses around gender in their hiring and labor control strategies.

Given the historical persistence of the trope of the “malleable working woman” described in the literature/o early public discussions of essentialized femininity come as no surprise. What is more remarkable is the ongoing resilience of this trope in citywide discussions of the industry in the face of changed labor market conditions and labor control strategies. More than a decade after men began entering maquila jobs in large numbers, the head of labor relations for the Association of Maquiladoras comments that maquilas do better to hire women: “Men are not inclined to sit. Women are calmer about sitting.” Current interviews with managers about ideal workers elicit the same tropes-patient and malleable women, impatient and uncontrollable men. These traditionally gendered descriptions of “ideal workers” emerge even in the conversation of managers who-in response to the unavailability of cheap, young women deploy distinctively gendered hiring and labor control strategies in the day-to-day management of their own factories.

Thus, these labor market shifts have produced a highly visible disjuncture between public narratives about gender and work and managers’ gendered shop-floor strategies. Individual manager’s claims around the gendered nature of the “ideal” worker reference public framings but do not reproduce them. Instead the specific institutional functions and managerial subjectivities on each shop floor lead not only to particular systems of production and labor control but also to specifically gendered versions of these systems. As a result, within the context of these individualized strategies and workers’ responses to them, distinctive gendered subjectivities emerge for workers on each production floor.

This demographic shift provides us with an opportunity to investigate the localized construction of gendered meanings in a historical moment in which public narratives are relatively weak and local discourses are comparatively easy to discern. Thus, in the pages that follow I will take up where previous authors have left off, at the factory door. Entering the arena of production, I will show the variations in gendered meaning structures between three factories located within what is otherwise a common discursive context. In so doing, it will become possible to identify fissures in gendered meanings at a local level and to trace these differences to the particular struggles within which they emerge. In addition, in each locale, we can delineate the consequences that emergent gendered meanings have for the struggles that generated them.

The maquilas I will discuss here are typical of large plants in the area and exhibit a set of basic similarities. Although two have official “unions,” in all three, workers are basically unorganized and managers set the parameters within which shop floor struggles occur. All are directly owned by enormous, world-renowned transnationals. The factories themselves are large, ranging from 750 to 1,100 workers in the day’s first shift. Wages are low, generally about fifty dollars a week. This is far less than is necessary to support an independent life, still less a family, in Ciudad Juarez. As a result, workers tend to be in their teens or early twenties and generally are unmarried and childless. The absence of any compensation for seniority leads to high turnover, and most workers have been on the job for under a year. It is against this backdrop of low-wage, low investment work that the stories I recount below take place.

Given the level of managerial control in structuring these shop floors, I will pay particular attention to managerial practices in identifying the discourses that constitute local gendered meanings and subjectivities. Nonetheless, the narrative will not take the form of structured comparisons of a consistent set of explanatory variables across shop floors. Subjectivity cannot be “held constant.” Rather, I analyze each case as a unique configuration of structuring discourses within which the logic of local gendered meanings and subjectivities becomes comprehensible. Hence, I will argue through illustration, underlining in each case the highly idiosyncratic mix of managerial decisions, worker responses, and resultant gendered subjectivities on each shop floor. Each subsection should be read as a unit, an instance of the way that particular gendered meanings are constituted in terms of a specific context of domination and struggle.

The analysis draws on eighteen months of participant observation, interviewing, and archival research in Ciudad Juarez on Mexico’s northern border.Given my interest in localized subjectivities, the meat of the “data” comes through factory ethnographies. That is, I gather information on the “constitution of gendered meanings” through locating myself within the meaning-imbued practices, narratives, and structures of a particular shop floor. It is through interacting, through addressing and being addressed, that I come to grasp the formation of gendered subjectivities on a local level. Thus, the images below are not those of a worker or of an observer but of a “participant observer”-of an outsider located both literally and metaphorically on the line.

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