top of page

Gender norms in a Chilean copper mine

A copper mine in Chile
A copper mine in Chile.

[This was supposed to be a short outline for a student presentation I had to give. So excuse the roughness. Here are more book reviews.]

As the capitalist mode of production has colonized the world, it has required the development of new work patterns, new forms of community, new lifestyles and values. Pre-industrial, rural indiscipline has had to yield to industrial, clock-driven work processes. Stable working-class communities have had to evolve from the chaos and population-upheavals of peasants’ mass eviction from the land.[1] In Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951 (1998), Thomas Klubock picks apart the history of one example of such evolution, in a mining community in Chile from the early to middle twentieth century. In his words, he focuses on the process of class formation, “the transformation of a population of itinerant laborers into a settled and trained workforce in a modern capitalist enterprise” (p. 5). Working-class men and women created new sets of social relations, a new culture and politics, a new class-consciousness and gender-consciousness, “in response to initiatives by both North American capital and the state to establish a disciplined and stable labor force.” Klubock’s main interest is gender: he argues that “the process of class formation in the copper mines must be understood as a ‘gendered’ process in which formal gender ideologies and informal norms, values, and practices surrounding sexuality shaped working-class structures of feeling and political consciousness. ....Proletarianization in the mine involved a reorganization of the gendered division of labor and redefinition of masculinity and femininity” (pp. 7, 8).

In 1904 an American company bought the El Teniente mine from Chileans; a few years later it passed to the Guggenheim family, and the Kennecott Copper Company was formed. Conditions at the mine were brutal, and labor turnover among the migrants was always high. Company executives were also constantly frustrated by workers’ supposed laziness, insolence, carelessness, gambling, drinking, absenteeism, and thieving. Women were not allowed to work in the mines, but many lived in the camps and worked as prostitutes, tailors, seamstresses, servers in bars, or owned small businesses. Small settlements in the environs of El Teniente also distracted miners from their work. In addition to all this, the workers were quite militant, staging major strikes -- “full-scale rebellions” -- in 1911, 1916, and 1919. To increase productivity and discipline, therefore, company executives decided they had to inculcate new habits and values in both the male and female workers, i.e. regulate their social lives.

In the spirit of welfare capitalism, the North American company took such measures as building better housing for married men in mining camps (to encourage workers to settle permanently), adding recreational facilities, schools, social organizations, sports clubs, libraries, cinemas, etc. The priority, however, was to restructure gender relations, because it was thought that stable households, middle-class family relations, were fundamental to a stable workforce. The company “sought to tie workers to their jobs by rendering women and children dependent on miners’ wages” (p. 59). Thus, couples that cohabited were required to have legal marriage certificates. Miners were not allowed to live with extended family members. The company newspaper indoctrinated women with norms of respectable domesticity, middle-class consumption, and feminine beauty. Men, on the other hand, were expected to provide for their families, refrain from gambling and drinking, and train their sons to be disciplined and moral. The virtues of Chilean patriotism were also extolled, since patriotism and domestication were thought to belong together. Despite all these welfare policies, however, as well as the company’s attempts to get the state involved in social regulation, traditional repression remained essential to the suppression of workers’ movements in the 1920s.

The global economic crisis of the early 1930s restricted miners’ mobility, due to the lack of available jobs elsewhere, so more people began to settle in El Teniente, “attracted by the company’s corporate welfare system, high wages, and social benefits” (p. 81). A permanent, as opposed to migrant, workforce was thereby established by the late 1930s and 1940s. Industrial peace still didn’t prevail, however, because work conditions remained horrible and people’s freedom was limited. A union was organized with the help of Communist and Socialist party activists at the same time as the national government was becoming more responsive to leftist and labor influences, until finally in 1938 a Popular Front government was elected. The ideology and rhetoric of the Popular Front movement and government supplied, really for the first time, “a nationalist language of citizenship. ....Workers and peasants were now endowed with the universal dignity of citizenship and recognized as members of a new national category: Chileans” (pp. 112, 113). With the help of the labor-friendly government and the union, a fairly stable mining community was at last established in the 1940s.

Interestingly, the government, organized labor, and the North American company “shared common understandings of gender, social welfare, and cultural reform” (p. 118). The government wanted to build a new national culture of patriotism and moral citizenship, which entailed state and corporate welfare programs and social regulation along the gendered lines articulated by the company in the 1920s. Organized labor had similar goals but also thought that for an effective labor movement to come into being it was necessary for workers to overcome such vices as gambling and drinking and instead to educate and discipline themselves. On the other hand, in a challenge to conventional gender relations, the union argued that women should not merely embody domesticity; they should also fight on behalf of the working class, seize their potential political power. (And they did so, in the 1940s.)

Miners’ work itself was understood in gendered ways. It was an intensely masculine work culture, miners defining their labor “as a source of masculine affirmation and pride” (p. 138). They competed to prove their strength in battles with the mine, which was seen as a stubborn, threatening, consuming female that had to be dominated and conquered. The masculine work ethic expressed itself also in miners’ solidarity against foremen and supervisors, their willingness, for example, to physically assault their bosses “with enormous frequency.” They also fought each other frequently; fights between strikers and strikebreakers were especially common, the latter being seen as contemptibly feminine and treacherous. (In one case, a strikebreaker was forced to dress up as a woman and then paraded around the camp as a form of public humiliation.) Many workers refused to submit to the prohibitions against alcohol, gambling, and illicit sex, taking pride in their rough “masculine” lifestyles. Others internalized the “respectable” norms promulgated by the company and confirmed their manliness through hard work, higher pay, and social mobility. All, however, resented their substandard living conditions, which contrasted cruelly with the luxury of the neighboring mining camp for North American workers and their families, separated from the Chilean camp by fences and guards. Both the socially “responsible” and the socially “irresponsible” miners fought the company’s authority in their own individualistic ways, as well as in the collectivist ways made possible by the union and mutual aid societies.

Life was hard, then, for miners, but it was perhaps even harder for women. Single women had limited options for work due to company policies, and domestic service paid little. Many turned, therefore, to prostitution, which was dangerous; rape and physical abuse were common, and, due to regulation of female sexuality, the law usually sided with the accused man. Marriage was preferable to the single life because it promised relative economic security, but domestic violence abounded. Most husbands expected absolute obedience from their wife in return for the economic security they made possible; they resorted to violence when they did not receive this obedience. Women’s only defenses, unfortunately, were the police and the courts, because, due to their substantial acceptance of domestic roles, women did not have many social organizations of their own.

The Popular Front government ended in 1948, and a years-long repression of the Left ensued. The 1960s saw a rejuvenation of miners’ militancy, with strikes and protests focused on housing conditions, schools, services, wages, and work conditions. Women and children took part in these community movements, as they had in the 1940s. The 1960s was a decade of great advances in miners’ standards of living -- made possible through collective bargaining and frequent strikes -- which “further reinforced the stability of the nuclear family in the camps, the masculinization of work, and the relegation of women to the domestic sphere” (p. 281). Thus, the hegemony of middle-class gender relations was reinforced by miners’ economic victories.

[1] In recent decades, these working-class communities in advanced capitalist countries have in turn been breaking apart, leading to new forms of chaos and population-upheavals. What these processes will lead to is unclear.


Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page