In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Labor in 20th-Century Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Regional History
  • Women in Development (WID), Gender and Development (GAD)
  • Maquiladora Labor Force
  • Labor and Migration
  • Social Sciences
  • Bolivia
  • Central America
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Uruguay

Latin American Studies Women and Labor in 20th-Century Latin America
Susie Porter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0093


A robust field of study emerged in the late 1970s, primarily in the social sciences, and especially in sociology, anthropology, and economics. Social science research flourished as it critiqued international development policy (“women in development,” or WID). Policy concerns continue to drive much of Latin American studies, especially on women in rural work, as paid laborers, and as property owners. Scholars of women in development have explored women’s reasons for taking paid labor, the conditions of that work, and the social and family life of working women. Feminists questioned, and continue to question, whether entrance into the paid workforce empowered or further encumbered women. Topics of analysis include occupational segregation, sex-typing of occupations, and wage differentials. Scholars seek to identify the sources of gender inequalities in the organization of production, and debate the relative influence of interpersonal relations, socialization, and family. Research on the impact of development on women has centered on the relationship of women’s work to education, health, legislation, migration, demographics, family, sexuality, and societal norms. Paid domestic labor is generally either the largest or second-largest occupation for women in Latin American countries. Recent generations of scholars have integrated discourse analysis (borrowed from literary and cultural studies) into social science research. By and large, through the 1980s, labor historians focused on organized labor (largely dominated by men) and strategic industries (ports, mines, steel, automobile, agricultural production). By the 1990s, historians began to incorporate both women as historical actors, and gender as a category of analysis. Due to the paucity of historical studies of women, many scholars place women at the center of analysis while simultaneously remaining attentive to gender. Historical studies are more plentiful for countries with an early and robust history of industrialization, such as Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Since 2010, scholars have more seriously turned their attention to middle-class labor, including professional occupations, government employment, and office work. A key contribution of studies of women and labor has been the inclusion of paid and unpaid work into discussions of noncommodified labor, production value, reproduction of society, and labor movements. This article begins with scholarship that takes a regional approach, and then moves to scholarly production organized by country. Where both the historical and social science literature is rich, studies are offered for both categories.

Regional History

Early publication on the history of women and labor in Latin America appeared as journal articles and as essays in anthologies dedicated to women’s history broadly defined. French and James 1997 focuses on working women, with essays across the region and from a wide range of time periods; the introduction is useful to orient the novice. French and Bliss 2007 provides an introduction to the history of gender and sexuality and explain key concepts. Country-specific studies such as Olcott, et al. 2006 and Fernández Aceves, et al. 2006 are useful for the ways they contextualize women’s work within national historical phenomenon such as education, nationalism, and specific political cultures. Lavrin 1995 includes a chapter on women and work, and places that history within the larger context of the development of feminism and changes in women’s legal status in the Southern Cone.

  • Fernández Aceves, María Teresa, Carmen Ramos-Escandón, and Susie Porter, eds. Orden social e identidad de género: México siglos XIX y XX. Guadalajara, Mexico: CIESAS-Universidad de Guadalajara, 2006.

    Chapters by Mary Goldsmith Connelly on women and men domestic workers and the opportunities and barriers to labor mobilization in the 1930s, Ana María Kapelusz-Poppi on the impact of scientific discourse and the professionalization of medicine on the work of midwifery, and Susie S. Porter on office workers in 1930s Mexico City.

  • French, John D., and Daniel James, eds. The Gendered Worlds of Latin American Women Workers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

    Draws on and theorizes the uses of oral history, subjectivity, and negotiating gender norms and material conditions. Examines the prevalence of the domestic ideal; legal, social, and cultural regulation of women’s work; and the impact wage earning on gender relations within the family. Includes essays on domestic violence and sexual control; working—class feminism; and, women in mining communities.

  • French, William E., and Katherine E. Bliss, eds. Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Latin America since Independence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

    See especially Laura E. Putnam’s “Work, Sex, and Power in A Central American Export Economy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” (pp. 133–162). The editors’ introduction is a useful entry-level introduction to key terms (gender, sexuality, discourse, and queer theory) and to Latin American women’s history.

  • Lavrin, Asuncion. Women, Feminism, and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    Chapter two, “Labor and Feminism: Foundations of Change,” argues that shifts in women’s workforce participation informed feminism. While the work focuses on three specific countries, the analysis is highly suggestive of regional trends.

  • Olcott, Jocelyn, Mary Kay Vaughan, and Gabriela Cano, eds. Sex in Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388449

    Chapters by María Teresa Fernández Aceves on the impact of mechanization of the tortilla industry on female workers, Heather Fowler-Salamini on coffee-sorter community and labor organizing, and Susan M. Gauss on how occupational segregation limited women’s effectiveness in gaining labor concessions. Published in Spanish as Género, poder y política en el México posrevolucionario, edited by Gabriela Cano, Mary Kay Vaughan y Jocelyn Olcott (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2009).

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