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From the Field

Female Factory Strikes: Emancipatory Non-Mixity?

The division of industrial labor often places women workers in all-female factories and low-skilled jobs. Ève Meuret-Campfort examines how periods of strike action lead—or do not lead—these workers to politicize and claim this de facto segregation as an instrument of emancipation.

In the industrial working world, women workers often find themselves in de facto non-mixed situations, concentrated in highly feminized employment sectors such as clothing (Maruani and Meron 2012). As a result of women’s assignment to blue-collar jobs requiring the naturalized skills of dexterity and speed, entire workshops, or even factories, are where women workers work, live, and sometimes mobilize, in a working-class, female "entre-soi". But what kind of non-mixity are we talking about? These women workers are brought together by two social relations: gender and class. In a working-class world symbolically constructed as masculine, gender non-mixity sets these factories apart from others, and they are primarily perceived as "women’s factories". However, they are also distinguished by the fact that they are mainly made up of specialized female workers. Along with immigrant workers, women were the primary recruitment pool for these jobs, which were born of mechanization and located at the bottom of the professional and wage hierarchy. In this sense, their subordinate position in the working-class order reflects a close co-construction of gender and class relations, and their non-mixity is twofold.

To what extent can this situation of segregation be reappropriated by women workers as a basis for politicization and mobilization? In what way does the fact of evolving in a professional world where skilled male workers, the heroes of labor unionism, are absent, encourage the emergence of a specific political voice and practices? Have the labor movement’s traditional union organizations, which are gender-neutral from a class point of view, taken female workers and their specific voice into consideration? These questions need to be asked at two levels: that of the construction of a political subject - can a "we the women workers" emerge within the labor movement? - and that of the militant experience itself - what does gender and class non-mixity produce in the experience of a strike, for example?

This article focuses on the specific period of the 1970s, which corresponds to several concordant phenomena: the multiplication and visibility of women workers’ strikes, the affirmation of the so-called second-wave feminist movement, and the emergence of the "women’s question" within trade union organizations (Vigna 2007; Maruani 1979; Zancarini-Fournel 2002). We begin by reviewing the social and political issues that make it difficult to create a "women workers" political subject, at the crossroads of trade unionism and feminism. We will then explore women workers’ experiences of struggle, based on an archive and interview survey of the Chantelle factory in the Nantes region (Gallot and Meuret-Campfort 2015).

Is "We the workers" a political issue?

Historically, trade unionism has been a central form of political organization in the political experience of the working class. Throughout the twentieth century, trade union organizations played a key role in the affirmation of the "working class" as a major political actor, and as a support for struggle collectives composed and represented by workers conscious of their membership of this group. Numerous works have since shown that this working-class pride has been undermined since the 1980s, and that the working class has always been more diverse than the representation given of it by trade unions or workers’ parties (Siblot et al. 2015). Nevertheless, we need only read the accounts of unionist workers (Corouge and Pialoux 2011) to understand how unionism can be a source of emancipation in the face of a situation of social subordination. Can this class non-mixity nevertheless be articulated with gender non-mixity?

While the "women’s question" was an integral part of union concerns in the 1970s, partly as a result of questions raised by the feminist movement, non-mixity was often a stumbling block. The positions of France’s two main trade union centers differ on this point. The CGT was more favorable to the creation of women’s commissions within its ranks, and in 1955 set up a women’s press organ known as Antoinette. This stance has long been coupled with a fairly restrictive vision of women’s issues, focusing on work and a differentialist perception of women’s roles. The CFDT, since its creation in 1964, has been more reticent about this principle of action, preferring an objective of integrating women and their demands at all levels of the organization, with single-sex spaces perceived as relegation. This opposition in principle does not necessarily translate into practice. Indeed, paradoxically, there appear to have been more company women’s committees (i.e., at the level of union sections or company unions) in the CFDT than in the CGT during the 1970s (Maruani 1979). This was due to the CFDT’s closer links with feminist movements, and thus with the model of single-sex women’s groups then in force in these movements. These women’s commissions nevertheless had a limited existence, mainly concentrated in the Paris region and in the tertiary sectors. Moreover, the principle of non-mixed membership was not established for these groups, which were mostly de facto.

The very idea of a formal exclusion of men seems highly subversive within union organizations, where the principle of "priority of struggles" suggests that women’s liberation will follow on from the liberation of workers, and that any separatism within the workers’ group threatens this objective. More broadly, women’s political autonomy, embodied by non-mixity as an organizing principle, remains an important issue of tension, including within the feminist movement, where non-mixity is also debated (Jacquemart and Masclet 2017).

For women workers, formal non-mixed initiatives were rare. We recall the collective of women workers formed at the Lip factory in Besançon in 1973 following a strike in which they had not found their place, leading to the writing of the brochure "Lip au féminin", which sets out the specific problems of women workers in the factory, at home and in the union (Collectif 1977). In women’s factories like Chantelle, gender non-mixity is a pre-existing fact that female workers, interviewed on the subject, tend to regret and criticize. For them, non-mixity represents an "anti-male" stance that clashes with their attachment to the idea of a united working class, men and women included. What’s more, the feminist movement, to which they associate the idea of non-mixity, appears to them as a "bourgeois women’s" movement, which, while not completely untrue when we look at the sociology of activists at the time and the experiences of working-class women who got involved, does not reflect the movement’s internal diversity (Béroud et al. 2018).

This feeling of distance from feminism on the part of working-class women refers more deeply to the way in which the "nous les femmes" of feminism asserted itself in France. The primacy of class relations and Marxist thought in social struggles at the time led many feminists to think of gender domination by analogy with class domination - in an attempt to construct the women’s class - leaving little room for taking into account the internal diversity of the feminist movement. In the United States, the internal critique of black women - Black Feminism - helped advance a reflection on the "multiple peril" of a section of women and later led to the emergence of intersectional thinking (Dorlin 2008). In France, internal critiques of the specificity of domination experienced by working-class women have existed both within the trade union movement (Jenson 1989) and the feminist movement, with the trend towards "class struggle" feminism (Trat 2007). But, partly because of the French universalist heritage (Scott 1998), such critiques did not really overcome a crystallization of the two movements as homogeneous and irreconcilable. At the time, it seemed as if working-class women had to "choose sides".

In these circumstances, for the majority of working-class women, the camp is quickly chosen: it’s that of their community of life, that of their family and their deepest attachments, with which feminism seems to them little reconcilable. What’s more, from their point of view, feminism seems to emphasize women’s "problems" and "handicaps", whereas they can identify with the working-class pride still embodied by the labor movement, even if this is mainly expressed in masculine terms. It would seem, then, that a "we, the workers" issue is difficult to embody politically on a national scale. On a more local scale, however, collectives of women workers have mobilized and put this double non-mixity into action.

A unique activist experience? Women’s strikes

Non-mixed spaces for working-class women have existed since the very beginnings of the labor movement, and invite us to distinguish the politicization of this principle from what it concretely enables. In the political approach of non-mixity, there is both the notion of safe space (a space protected from those who embody gender and class domination) and the notion of empowerment (taking the floor and power oneself over one’s own emancipation). The example of the female workers at the Chantelle factory in Saint-Herblain, who mobilized on numerous occasions from the 1970s to the 1990s, notably in 1981 in a long strike with factory occupation (figure 1), enables us to grasp what non-mixity allows in terms of militant practices and access to representative positions, even though the struggle remains focused on work and domination as a female worker, without extending to male domination.

Figure 1. Conflict at Chantelle, with occupation of the factory at Saint-Herblain, near Nantes, 1981

Source: Archives Centre d’histoire du travail, coll. UD CGT 44, photo by Hélène Cayeux.

At the factory, female workers were grouped together in a single workshop, with no distinction made between their status, paid on the basis of output and subjected to high cadences, suffering the classic overexploitation of women in the working world. As soon as union organizations were established in the plant - in 1968 for the CFDT and in 1972 for the CGT - these working conditions and wages were denounced, and so began the collective reappropriation of this professional destiny, as well as the collective experience of mobilization.

The absence of men in the factory has led women to take on militant responsibilities from which they are often excluded, such as the position of shop steward. Non-mixity has enabled them to become the group’s legitimate representatives, who always appear exceptional - and therefore unrepresentative - whether on the side of the feminist movement or the labor movement. Research on intersectionality has indeed revealed the "properly symbolic relationship of exclusion that marks the multiple dominated as intrinsically not ’representative’ of their category" (Jaunait and Chauvin 2012). Forms of exclusion can thus be reproduced in collectives described as "non-mixed", such as that of working-class women or lesbians within feminist collectives that nonetheless seek to abolish power structures (Freeman 1972-1973). For the "multiple" dominated, the emancipatory dimension of non-mixity seems only possible in a non-mixity that takes into account their multipositionality. At Chantelle, it’s precisely because the workers’ group is made up exclusively of women specialized workers that several of them achieve the status of spokespersons: had men or skilled women workers been present, they would no doubt have monopolized the positions of representation. On the other hand, the issues specific to specialized women workers would have been relegated to the background, as has often been the case in the history of trade unionism, whereas here they are at the heart of the politicization of the cause: the recognition of their professional skills despite their lack of qualifications, the reduction in the work rates demanded, obtaining social rights - all aspects of a struggle for dignity.

Moreover, their shared experience as workers was reflected in the organization of the strike. In this way, taking domestic constraints into account in the day-to-day mobilization process facilitated the commitment of female workers. The family imposes itself on the strike as much as the strike imposes itself on the family. As far as possible, mobilization time is concentrated on working hours. Meetings are not held in the evening. And when it came to occupying the factory, there was a high degree of tolerance for those who could only come during the day; others "organized" themselves by continuing to do domestic work while on strike. This is where the effects of gender and class non-mixity become apparent: for the most part married with children, they have to cope with the domestic roles to which they are constantly referred and, unlike more privileged women, they have few social and cultural resources to challenge this family base. Working-class women have to come to terms with the situation, and have no choice but to articulate their different roles in their daily lives - including their struggles - thus revealing the cumulative domination they suffer.

This experience of struggle clearly contributes to their politicization in the sense that, particularly for those whose family socialization had not disposed them to get involved, participation in these strikes changes their way of seeing the world, leads them to consider their situation as unjust and to find the union struggle legitimate. This denunciation, because it takes place within a professional and union framework, nevertheless remains focused on the issue of work, and the feminist register does not emerge in the leaflets, collective actions or speeches of the representatives, who are themselves engaged in strategies of assimilation into union organizations (Meuret-Campfort 2018). The striking plant, for example, has not seen the emergence of a collective crèche or organized discussion groups on "women’s" issues. Nevertheless, by freeing up working time, the strike undoubtedly gave rise to numerous political and intimate exchanges between women workers who shared the same living conditions at the crossroads of gender and class relations, in spaces to which union archives do not give access. If they mobilized first and foremost as workers, it was the possibility of not having to choose between the two causes arising from their situation as multidominated women that gave this struggle collective its strength, and enabled them to speak out in the public arena, to defend their voice and the reality of their specific experience of domination.


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To cite this article:

Ève Meuret-Campfort & translated by Oliver Waine, “Female Factory Strikes: Emancipatory Non-Mixity?”, Metropolitics, 26 January 2024. URL :

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