CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This work, which the author derived from her doctoral thesis, focuses on women factory workers hired in the late 1960s at a time when the French economy was still growing; many were laid off early in the 2000s, a time of de-industrialization and factory closures. Fanny Gallot’s undertaking is ambitious: to reconstitute the contours of an entire generation of women workers using a socio-historical approach that is both cross-sectional and dynamic. Cross-sectional in that the analysis is not restricted to the factory world but extends to the continuous balancing act women had to perform between work and family life; dynamic in that studying a generation is a means not only of measuring changes in female factory work organization but also of tracking the experiences and demands of women working in conditions that grew constantly harsher over the period.

2Gallot draws primarily on an in-depth study of two companies: Chantelle, a maker of women’s lingerie, and Moulinex, a home appliance manufacturer. The companies were distinct not just in terms of business sector and products but also the profile of their women workers. At Moulinex they were from rural farms in Lower Normandy, whereas at Chantelle, whose main factory was in the industrial region of Nantes, more were of working-class origin. Another major difference: whereas the Chantelle workforce was exclusively female, at Moulinex it was mixed. But despite the heterogeneity of these women’s living, working and collective action conditions, the book is concerned to portray a shared experience, the “collective culture” of women factory workers. Hired as very young unskilled workers, these women aged together in the factory and experienced the same life events at the same ages. Their long careers at a single company ultimately created a feeling of attachment to the factory and its products. Strong ties were also created, though they do not seem to have withstood the shock of factory closures and “restructuration” very well.

3The materials used to study Moulinex and Chantelle (and a few other companies mentioned occasionally, such as Lejaby [another women’s lingerie manufacturer]) are extremely varied. They include written sources (ministerial, company and union archives; feminist archives; women workers’ own written accounts); oral sources (interviews with workers, some conducted by the author herself) and audio-visual sources (documentaries and fiction films). While events are viewed primarily through the women’s eyes, source diversity enables the author to apprehend changes in public policy, management stances and union debates on female employment, as well as the difficult encounter between the feminist movement and women factory workers.

4Gallot combines analysis of class and gender positions. In the course of the twelve chapters, each focused on a different theme, she probes the social and gender-based divisions operative not only in factory work itself but also in union activism and the family sphere. She thus brings to light the range of constraints these women had to cope with: their confinement to relatively low-skilled, low-paid jobs despite policies for promoting occupational equality; the devaluing of their skills, considered “natural” and remunerated less than men’s; increasingly harsh working conditions, including work pace acceleration, permanent production uncertainties, paternalism and/or the rigidity of an almost exclusively male hierarchy; the physical discomfort that comes of performing the same movements and assuming the same positions all day long; sexual harassment by male superiors, considered an ordinary occurrence; the daily strain of organizing and doing both housework and paid work; the impediment to mobilizing represented by having a new house and a mortgage to pay off; possibly having a husband who did not look kindly on an activist wife who was spending less and less time at home, spoke out in public in some cases, and who kept company with other men when occupying factories. Here we clearly discern a set of tensions between issues primarily concerned with private, conjugal and family life and issues related to the public space of work and the politicization of that space during collective mobilizations.

5And yet, far from appearing passive victims of a crushing, overpowering system, the women spoke up, resisted, organized themselves into groups, protested and dissented. When a colleague of theirs had a “nervous breakdown” they launched a strike in protest against excessively harsh working conditions. They deliberately slowed the work pace to protest against overheating and the toxicity of certain substances. Some played the role of “easy woman” worker during strikes, distributing the company’s garters to the forces of law and order in charge of holding them in check, while others refused the director’s usual “buss on the cheek” during the Christmas party and demanded a bonus in place of the glass of champagne. Many mobilized actively during the 1970s against deteriorating working conditions, to defend their dignity, and to demand a re-evaluation of their know-how; later they were actively involved in struggles against factory restructurings and closures. We do of course perceive points of disagreement between women workers – this point might have been developed explicitly – depending on whether they were unionized or not, identified with feminist ideas or rejected that label, went on strike or not, approved company traditions as festive occasions or rejected them as paternalistic, sexist customs. In any case, Gallot shows us how all these women were “raring for a fight” and how they did fight, both on a daily basis and during periods of collective industrial action. And even though their production position does not seem to have changed fundamentally in the end, they did manage to shift some of the lines laid down by standard gender and class ascriptions. Their ability to act, and the many forms that action took, are a common thread that unifies the analysis and enlightens the reader.

6Though the issues of naturalizing and thereby devaluing women’s occupational skills, of sexual segregation in the work place and of health problems specific to women factory workers are not new, they are handled here from a dynamic perspective that enables us to apprehend changes. This holds for the droit de cuissage, i.e., bosses’ or hierarchical superiors’ traditional “right” to demand sexual favours from women workers, which has now become the crime of sexual harassment, and “nervous breakdowns”, long seen as a typically female manifestation of nerves and now officially a symptom of workplace stress. The last example is the shift from “ordinary” rheumatism to musculoskeletal disorder, a recognized occupational disease.

7There are certain limitations to the book, all of them inherent in its strengths. The content seems at points to lack coherence. Based as it is on several sources of different types it speaks from several perspectives, and there are also changes in analytic scale; in some chapters it is hard to distinguish between the women workers’ point of view and the stances of various union, management, government and activist bodies. Surely the choices that had to be made to turn a doctoral thesis into a book, also the great number of areas studied, make it seem at times as if the book is moving from one subject to another too quickly, and it is regrettable that Gallot did not further develop her analysis of women workers’ experience both at work and during collective actions, particularly in connection with factory closures. Last, the generational approach rigidifies the contours of the analysis somewhat, and the reader would like to learn more about what became of the collective culture so painstakingly reconstituted here when younger women, hired in the 1980s on limited-time contracts or as temps, took up the work.

8These points do not seriously undermine the interest of the work or its wealth of information and analysis. It is a highly useful contribution to knowledge of a generation of women workers, and the author has successfully met the challenge of linking changes in women’s factory work to developments in gender relations in the domestic and political spheres over the period studied.

Uploaded on on 11/01/2017
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait