Common Ground of Creativity


In "The Poets in the Kitchen," Paule Marshall tells stories from her childhood in the late 1930s and early '40s that reflect what it means to be an immigrant, a West Indian, a black in a racist society, a mother, a wife, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and a worker near the bottom of the economic ladder. Marshall's mother and her mother's women friends had all immigrated from Barbados. After a long day toiling as domestics or in other low-paid jobs, and before going home to their families and their own household chores, they would gather in Marshall's mother's kitchen. There, the "soully-gals," a self-reflexive term implying both spirit and the visible self, took the time to drink a cup of tea or cocoa, relax, and comment on their day, their lives, and their jobs. In Marshall's retelling, their humorous stories are philosophical treatises on "living in this man country," as they called the United States. These women strive to make a living, save money as best as they can, and "see the children through."

The poets in the Marshall kitchen are not alone in the way they struggle for survival under inequitable situations. The poets and their poor and working-class sisters from around the world strive to fulfill their obligations as mothers, wives, and kinswomen.

In the Third World, even more than elsewhere, only a few people hold well-paying, high-status jobs. Many more workers find themselves in the informal sector, where jobs range from traditional ones - transferred to cities from rural areas - to producing technologically advanced goods for export. These jobs share the fact that they are unprotected and unregulated.

Because women are discriminated against in both education and the labor market, they are heavily represented in the informal sector. Lacking the educational, political, or social qualifications to find jobs in the formal sector, women create alternative openings for themselves - as street vendors, traders, small shop operators, domestic workers, prostitutes, and so on.

This is true of indigenous women and of poor Third World women in general. Jamaican market women continue to trade as their ancestors did during slavery - a female enterprise that survived the middle passage. Drive off traditional community lands, Peruvian Indian women come to Lima to find employment in the homes of the middle and upper classes. And in Kenya, an oral history recounts how Kikuya girls were recruited for brothels in Nairobi.

That women in many culture utilize similar survival strategies suggests the presence of a global common ground of creativity among Third World women, particularly if they are members of oppressed indigenous groups or of poor and working-class origins and denied access to their society's resources for human development. Poor and working-class women fight for daily survival - and for the future of themselves and their families. These women are chooses and doers, not pssive reactors.


Trading has a long history in the Caribbean. Its heritage begins in West Africa, where trading was an important role for women. According to noted anthropologist Sidney Mintz, West Africans brought the concept of woman-as-trader to their enslavement in the Americas.

In Jamaica, slaves grew enough food in house gardens to sell some of it to other slaves and white masters. In vibrant Sunday markets, a West African TRAdition became a part of Jamaican culture - and stayed the domain of women. Over the next 130 years, notes Jamaican sociologist Elsie Le Franc, "higglering," as it is called, changed little. After emancipation in 1838, as peasant holdings and small farms grew, the trading in produce became entrenched. Today, small farmers produce 90 percent of Jamaica's food, and higglers distribute 80 percent of it.

Recently, a new type of higgler has emerged - the informal commercial importer. These women import goods from Panama, Haiti, Curacao, the United States, and other countries to sell in Kingston. Informal importing expanded in the late 1970s, when scarcity and high prices in Jamaica's formal economy brought the traders high profits.

Despite this connection between the formal and informal sectors, Le Franc argues, the higglers' main goal is to be independent, as individuals and workers. A higgler determines her own time-table and marketing strategy, uses her own access to capital, makes personnel decisions, and manages her own investments.

Similarly drawing on historical roots is the inter-island trade in the Eastern Caribbean, which serves a different function that Jamaica's importers. Ecological differences have fostered a brisk trade in fruit and vegetables from St. Vincent, Dominica, and Grenada to Barbados to Antigua, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe, and the smaller French islands, and from both St. Lucia and Dominica to the Virgin Islands. Small ships carry women traders to nearby islands. Some women specialize in one port, while others diversify.

As Charles Carnegie, a Jamaican anthropologist, explains, the "speculators" of St. Lucia bring both locally made goods and imported items of Martinique and buy other consumer goods in a variety of markets to sell in St. Lucia. Each speculator works on her own or with one or two others, coordinates her crew, and arranges transportation. No one knows how many speculators - called traffickers in St. Vincent and hucksters in Dominica - there are, but it is one of the few occupations a rapidly growing, unskilled population can enter.

In Peru, rural Indian women migrate to Lima and initially work as maids, but many move on to street vending as soon as their first child is born. According to Ximena Bunster, a Chilean anthropologist, and Elsa Chaney, her American co-researcher, the vendors - ambulantes - take up street hawking for two reasons: women can keep children with them, and vendors have "a feeling of `independence' and/or greater flexibility than either a factory or domestic work situation allowed." Ambulantes recognize that their lack of skills, education, and training preclude other ways for them to earn a living.

Women are relatively recent participants in trading in sub-Saharan Africa. Ilsa Schuster describes the situation of poor women in Lusaka, Zambia, who can no longer subsist on farms. With the emphasis on cash earnings, tradings has replaced farming as an important female enterprise. Much the same transition took place in Zambia, says Maud Shimway Muntemba. British colonialism undermined their agricultural role, so women moved to towns to become traders, sell food, and take on other roles in the informal economy.

Women dominate other areas of trade as well. Outside Davao City in the Philippines, sari-sari stores link producers and consumers. In every neighborhood - poor and wealthy alike - sari-sari stores provide a way for a working-class woman with some capital to become an entrepreneur in her own right. Although the government licenses sari-sari stores, most owners operate without official sanction. However, they are free from police harassment, unlike street peddlers, because a number of them do have licenses.

The links between time-honored women's economic activities - such as between West African trading and its Caribbean variants - have contemporary consequences. Traders must have management skills and access to credit to compete for their market-share of goods and services. The women who own sari-saris know their low profit margin is a consequence of the goods they sell and their business's size, as well as its location close to home so they can tend to children.


Perhaps women's most common informal-sector job is domestic service, which ranks very low, often lowest, in prestige and pay. In the Philippines, notes sociologist Marilou Palabrica-Costello, servants rank so low that it only attracts people with little chance of finding any other job.

In Latin America, the institution of domestic service can reinforce the sense of social superiority one group feels over another based on class, racial, or ethnic divisions. Bunster and Chaney note that having a servant is the badge of a lower-middle-class family's upward mobility and the sign that a middle-class family is maintaining its status.

While much domestic work resembles other wage work, it is "fraught with contradictions," anthropologist Shellee Colen suggests, "between its status as wage labor and very personalized relations... and its own peculiar form of exploitation, depersonalization, and dehumanization." The West Indian domestics she has studied call the lack of esteem for housework and those who perform it "the worst part" of their jobs. On the other hands, Bunster and Chaney found that many domestic servants in Lima say that a good thing about the work is their personal relation to a patrona - a good mistress. The servants recognize that changing situations wouldn't necessarily alleviate harsh working conditions, but the women do change their job until they find a patrona. In fact, an agreeable employer is one of the few job-related variables that servants can sometimes control.

Perhaps even lower on the status scale ia another informal-sector job with a long history: prostitution. The reasons why women enter this occupation are many: some are recruited and others enlist voluntarily, some seek the income and others excitement. Alternatives to unemployment, lack of opportunity for marriage, lack of education, and severe economic need are all common motivations.

In colonial Kenya, the choice sometimes derived from government restrictions on women's traditional economic activities coupled with new opportunities for men, such as railroad construction work in the 1920s. According to Margaret Strobel's history of women in Mombasa, Kensya's second largest city, population imbalances, all-male work camps, and few economic avenues for women after the outlawing of slavery fostered prostitution.

Historian Claire Robertson provides a case study of an elderly woman named Murithi, who was a prostitute in her youth in the 1920s and 1930s. An abused wife, Murithi and another divorced woman moved to Nairobi, Kenya's capital. In addition to her native Swahili, Murithi learned English by attending night classes that a church missionary society gave for Christian converts. She and her friend rented a downtown room and began street walking. The clients were Europeans, Indians, and affluent Africans. Eventually, Murithi built a six-room house in Nairobi and recruited Kikuyu girls into the "business." She no longer walked the streets herself but maintained a list of old clients. In her old age, she lived on the income of her house.

Murithi's trade let her assume family obligations. She built her parents a stone house and made the marriage payment for two of her brothers' wives. In 1948, when Africans won the right to produce coffee, she bought coffee trees for her parents, and she continued to subsidize her family over the years.

According to Audrey Wipper, the many prostitutes' associations in West and Central Africa act as mutual-aid organizations, affording protection usually provided by relatives. The most prestigious voluntary associations are composed of successful "courtesans," whose clientele includes high-level civil servants, businessmen, and professionals. The higher-status associations organize festivals and deliver mutual aid; those formed by ordinary women emphasize "bread-and-butter" issues and provide psychological support.

In Southeast Asia, as tourism in general has grown, so have prostitution and controversy over sex tourism, one component of the global trade in sexuality. "Sex-tour" ads mix images of graceful, docile women with those of sexual temptresses, while the proximity of huge military bases means that prostitution as a line of work is ever-present. According to Pasuk Phongpaichit, who has studied thai aarb obnuad - massage parlors - only wealthy men could afford to indulge in the trade of female sexuality in the "old days." "Now any man in Bangkok can get himself a 10-baht massage at the end of the day."

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but the aarb obnuad provides a way to thinly disguise it. In a massage parlor, women work in a safe and comfortable manner, in contrast to other forms of prostitution. Two-thirds of the women Phongpaichit studied came to town to be masseuses, while the rest turned to prostitution after other jobs delivered too little income. " pretty girl who works in a massager parlor can earn seven to eight times what she can earn as a salesgirl," notes Phongpaichit, "and more than ten times what she can earn as an inexperienced housemaid."

The cost is high. Virtually all the women Phogpaichit spoke with wanted to quit the massage parlor. Many confessed to substance abuse and depression. A number of them were afflicted with venereal disease or had had abortions. Many of their young friends in the trade had died from abortion-related complications.


Only realm of the informal sector is an reincarnation of sorts. In its latest form, homework production is industrial home-work - what was known in eighteenth-century England as the "putting out system." However, Third World manufacturing adds a new aspect, in that the women working out of their homes are actually subcontractors - that is, their work forms a "neo-putting out" system. Unless it is a garment, the women rarely make a whole product that is assembled elsewhere. Most type of industrial homework involve simple, deskilled, labor-intensive tasks that require little capital and few tools. Work is unstable and offers to security.

Economist Lourdes Beneria and Martha Roldan, an Argentinean sociologist, have made one of the most comprehensive studies of neo-putting out systems. They show that the differences between the formal and informal sectors in Mexico City arise because production in the latter case is by definition under-ground. Homework means sharply lowered wages, and the lack of labor regulations means a major decline in working conditions.

The workers Beneria and Roldan interviewed listed many motives for the predominance of women in homework: illiteracy, domestic chores, child-care responsibilities, and no alternatives. In other words, industrial homework provides jobs for those the formal labor force doesn't incorporate. Women's willingness to engage in this type of work shows their need to generate income, regardless of exploitation.

In the case of industrial jobs, informal workers are a disguised proletariat: seemingly self-employed workers actually work for others. In other cases, home production may be a family business or part of a coop, which are more lucrative but require capital or outside support. Either way, the informal economy provides wage opportunities when women are unskilled, untrained, and illiterate.


Traders, shop keepers, domestic servants, prostitutes, and industrial homeworkers all speak of similar problems. Survival must be paid in cash, while gender hierarchies, aggravated by ethnicity and class, mean that women have less access to marketable skills and resources.

Despite their limited opportunities, women choose to survive. Wives whose husbands have migrated sell food in the streets to provide the only wage for their families. Young girls sell sexuality to provide for themselves and for families in rural areas. Domestics change jobs to find decent patronage. These women are active agents who channel resources to cope on a daily basis and plan for the future. The varied ways poor and working-class women cope, manage, and survive show that creativity is not in short supply.

Increasingly, women are coming to understand the sources of their exploitation and have begun to challenge them. This is happening throughout the world through new forms of social movements. Battered women's shelters, cooperatives that make and distribute farm products, and literacy campaigns are just a few examples. These organizations are not waiting for governments to deal with these local issues but take steps on their own behalf.

These women's experiences demand that policy makers include the perspective of poor and working-class women, who are looking for new directions. How can women's survival strategies in the informal sector become vehicles for social transformation, rather than supports for the status quo?


Edna Bay, ed., Women and Work in Africa, Westview Press, 1982.

Lourdes Beneria nad Martha Roldan, The Crossroads of Class and Gendler, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Carmen Diana Deere, et al., In the Shadows of the Sun: Caribbean Development Alternatives and U.S. Policy, Westview Press, 1990.

Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminsit Sense of International Politics, University of California Press, 1990.

Women's Worth

Country: United States

Project: Weaving a Future

Since 1986, the Weaving Project has advanced traditional Dineh weaving practices. The project builds traditional self-sufficiency by promoting rug sales and enlarging the precipitously low churro sheep count. Churro wool is well suited for rug weaving because of its length and texture.

Weaving is central to the 300 Dineh living on disputed northern Arizona territory. After 1974, when this land traditionally shared by Dineh and Hipi was split, thousands of Dineh and about 100 Hopi faced relocation. The Weaving Project supplies resisting families with a means for economic survival, although decades of churro reduction, expanding coal mining, and encroachments on Indian land rights have decastated the traditional economy.

The project has grown into a collective of 85 Dineh elder women. It has reintroduced 132 churro sheep to the area and hosts a school each summer to teach children traditions and crafts that could be lost if the relocation is completed.

With over 5,000 rugs sold, the project has helped stabilize the local economy. By eliminating traders and middlemen, the women keep almost all the selling price for each weaving, compared to about 10 percent previously. The project has developed markets in 24 states and sold $700,000 worth of rugs.

Contact: Weaving Resource Center, P.O. Box 865, Kykotsmovi, AZ 86039

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