Women and capitalism

FEMINIST writing normally falls into one of 2 categories: either it is completely simplistic rabblerousing targeted at the lowest common denominator, or it is jargon-ridden academic work that theorises ad infinitum about the reasons for women's oppression. Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone and other American women who wrote at the height of the women's movement in the '60s belong to the first category while Marxist-feminist writers such as Michele Barrett fall into the second.

Strangely enough, this book doesn't quite fit into either of these slots. Defying definition, Kalpagam's book is a combination of a theoretical macro framework and case studies of female workers in various parts of India.

Kalpagam's thesis is simple. She argues that gender and class are not 2 separate categories of analysis but work in conjunction with each other. And that the nature of women's work is determined by a combination of the forces of capitalism and the ideology of patriarchalism. It is within this basic theoretical framework that she examines the nature of women's work in India, using a wide cross-section of women such as garment workers in Madras, construction labour, fisherwomen and ragpickers.

Kalpagam states her theoretical position at the very beginning but the evidence she provides does not quite support her point of view. Contrary to her thesis, her case studies suggest that it is the forces of capitalism more than patriarchal notions that determine the nature of women's work. If women do not enter the market on an equal footing, it is more due to the peculiar nature of the development of capitalism in India.

India has a multistructural system under which labour is divided into 2 basic categories: self-employed and wage-earning, with the latter further classified into regular wage earners and casual workers. The fact that women are assigned the lowest kind of work -- whether in terms of skill or wages -- is because labour is subsumed by capital in the process of the globalisation and marketisation of the economy. Moreover, if women are crowded out of industry or if they form a reserve army of labour, it is a result of the development of the economy rather than an extension of household dynamics.

Having established the macro framework, Kalpagam goes on to examine the experience of women in the labour force within the multistructural system. Based on studies of the textile and garment sector in Coimbatore, Calcutta and Madras, the lacemakers of Narsapur and the food processing industry in Kerala and Calcutta, she comes to the following conclusions: that the development of capitalism in the labour surplus multistructural context of India did not, as Marx and Engels concluded, lead to "female labour-displacing"; that women generally perform unskilled tasks; and that export-oriented industries not only seek cheap labour but also attempt to substitute machinery with labour. Even Kalpagam concedes that the nature of women's work is determined by the supply-demand framework; and that the role of patriarchy in wage-determination remains unexamined.

In fact, Kalpagam's own research on the garment export industry does not indicate the interaction of capitalism and patriarchy. Class is the determinant factor, with the division between the factory and the non-factory sectors being more significant than the division between male and female workers. Kalpagam herself concedes that "it would be a naive conclusion that men workers in the non-factory sector are better paid than women workers in both the factory and non-factory sectors without accounting for the differences in the hours of work, productivity, work intensity and stability of employment".

The book also examines the experiences of women's groups -- using the activities of the Working Women's Forum and SEWA as case studies -- and their efforts at mobilising women in both the formal as well as the non-formal sectors. Although the author argues for "struggle through development" or "empowerment through self-activity", she is a bit sceptical about such projects since they "do not offer the true solution to oppressive work conditions". She also wonders whether empowerment through self-activity means "social transformation based on class, caste, gender or nationalist struggle".

However, the analysis of the mobilisation of women through the credit cooperative societies of the Working Women's Forum does not quite fit into the capitalism-patriarchy model. Although joining the Forum helped heighten the awareness of the women, more often it was their class rather than gender consciousness that was sharpened. The credit societies help to challenge the more conservative trade unions where forms of mobilisation and struggle are limited to factory gates, shopfloors and wage issues -- which is not to say that women did not perceive their specific oppression in the context of a caste and patriarchal society after joining the Forum.

Based on her studies of the WWF and SEWA, Kalpagam concludes that the only way out of this oppression is integrating women into the process of development and promoting the self-help development approach. However, what she does not explain is why women workers in India do not confront the power structure. It is a question that she raises towards the end but does not care to answer.