Dissidence and Domesticity

Studies on the economic divergence between the textile industries of India and Japan, particularly their cotton spinning and weaving industry, have largely focused on technology adoption and labour organization/institutions. In both these respects, the differential role that women came to play has received prominence. The broad themes (very briefly) are as follows: while Japan employed a very high proportion of female workers in its textile industries, India employed a relatively lower proportion, where the labour force was overwhelmingly male. The Japanese workforce comprised unmarried young women aged 15-18 years who worked for a relatively short period of time in these factories. India, conversely, employed a large proportion of adult male workers who sought life-time employment. Japan was able to profitably exploit these relatively unskilled female workers by switching over to ring spinning machines, while India continued to use the older mule spinning machines, employing relatively more skilled workmen.

Commenting on this aspect of labour organization, Wolcott (1994) argued, “Japanese managers were able to circumvent labor’s resistance because their labor force consisted of young girls, 15 to 18 years old, who typically stayed in the industry for less than two years.[…] The Indian laborer, on the other hand, was an adult male who planned to remain in the industry for life. He was willing to endure long strikes hoping to secure future employment and wage levels.” (308). The author does underscore that differences in the gender composition of workforce were less of a factor than the presence of a committed labour force seeking lifetime employment. However, at least partly, the resultant differences in labour organization can be reasonably argued to be a conjunction of gender and life-cycle. Unlike women of the same age-cohort, 15-18 year old Japanese men would not have been under the same pressure to return to agriculture and the domestic sphere. They were in fact more like their male counter-parts in India seeking to create life-time employment opportunities, as argued by Tanimoto (2013).

This focus on India’s (adult male) militant working class in explaining the differential trajectories of the two textile industries stands in contrast to the near complete negligence of the role of female Indian workers. Though a small and a declining proportion of the Indian work force, they were pivotal in the same strike actions of the Bombay millworkers.[1] This absence sharply contrasts with the more recent coverage on the labour struggles/strikes breaking out in the textile units of India and Bangladesh whose participants were overwhelmingly women. The empirical realities of work in textiles have changed considerably, particularly in such export manufacturing units linked to global supply chains where women are a majority of the workforce. Nonetheless, the stark contrast between these striking female garment workers and their relative absence in economic and social history narratives, particularly when the central issues raised by the different sets of workers are similar, is conspicuous.[2] As my colleagues have argued in another blog post, strike actions by women, particularly those working in textile factories, were also central to labour legislations in the US and globally.

Highlighting the role of women in strike actions in Bombay is all the more important given that women workers were affected far more than their male counterparts due to the rationalization measures adopted by the mill industries in India or due to any labour saving technological change which resulted in retrenchment.[3] These measures were largely adopted by the Bombay cotton industry post WWI, particularly beginning in the 1920s, which coincides with more organized workers movements and strike actions.

In the late 1920s trade union action in the Indian cotton mills picked up massively, signaling the birth of an organised worker’s movement amidst the growing strength of the left parties in Bombay mill districts. Throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s, the mill workers agitated and organised against wage and employment cuts, placing demands for better work conditions and greater worker participation in the management decision making. One of the largest strikes spanning many months of 1928-29, organized primarily by the workers, heavily involved the then very nascent Communist Party of India.[4] The Girni Kamgar Union, also known as the lal bawta or the red flag union, was amongst the first to organise women workers during strike actions (Loomba 2018). “The year 1928 appears to be when Trade Unionists awoke to the potential of female militancy” (Kumar, as cited in Loomba 2018, 164). It was during this time that scores of women workers became active in workers political agitations and women leaders like Parvatibhai Bhore and Ushabai Dange emerged as important leaders in the trade unions Ushabai recounted in her autobiography,

“Big ‘dadas’ (thugs) would fear confronting these stormy women. […] At one place the police had proscribed meetings. They had arrested the leaders. The police came to attack the strikers with lathis[5], but the women took out a morcha (demonstration). Now a strange scene unfolded. The police began to flee and the women pursued them with umbrellas in their hands. At another place, a white sergeant cocked his pistol at the workers. At once a woman named Seema stepped forward and caught his hand. Seeing this, scores of women leapt upon him and took the pistol from his hands (Dange as translated and cited in Loomba 2018, 167).

Another incidence in 1939 relates to the retrenchment of women workers followed by strike actions undertaken by women:

“On 11th April 1939 the Bitia Mill owners decided to retrench one woman worker (two women used to work on one spinning machine) from each spinning machine. As a result, many women workers lost their jobs. The workers immediately went on strike which continued for 200 days. Two hundred women came to the mill area and surrounded managers Modi and Gokhale. For two days this gherao continued, then at the intervention of the Home Minister K. M. Munshi, Modi and Gokhale were able to come out.” (Chattopadhyay 202, 962).

Another colourful account of female worker militancy in Bombay mills in the 1950s and 60s states that the active discrimination against hiring women workers was because of their more militant bearing in comparison to the male mill workers:

“The female proclivity toward defiance is also manifested in organized demonstrations of protest. Women are frequently found at the head of strike processions, and scores of them were prominent in the November 1955 and January 1956 riots in Bombay” … “the female’s use of violence is more purposeful and calculating than the occasional total outburst by the otherwise deferential male To illustrate: In one of Bombay’s largest mills, the women had pushed various working condition grievances for several months without success, until one afternoon a top-management official was seized by a group of female workers and locked in the reeling department. He was held at dagger point for three hours while they discussed their problems, whereupon he was released unharmed. Shortly thereafter, their grievances were attended to” (James 1962:214-215).

And neither does this defiance seem limited to Bombay. As told to the Industrial Conditions Enquiry Committee by managers of the New Pratap Spinning, Weaving, and Manufacturing Company in one of the smaller mill towns of western India – Dhulia – in 1948:

“We have to encounter a lot of difficulty in training up male workers for the Winding and Reeling Departments which are run solely by women workers in the day shift. With great persuasion and effort we have to a certain extent overcome the reluctance of the women workers to permit male workers to learn the job in their department” (p. 181).[6]

These concerted strike actions by organised workers in the Bombay cotton mill districts in the late 1920s and 1930s were directed against a range of issues related to their employment, retrenchment, wages, and living conditions. The Bombay cotton industry was characterised by a large pool of precarious workers – the badlis – and others, particularly women, who were employed as piece-rated workers on low wages. A persistent complain of the striking workers were grievances related to wage payments and arbitrary wage deductions. And through organised protests they were partially successful in bargaining for slightly better conditions as evidenced by passing of bills like the Payment of Wages Bill, 1933, and the Control of Employment of Badlis Scheme in 1935.

The impact of worker militancy on retaining employment was however not only less successful but differentiated in terms of gender (table 1). This casts serious doubts on Wolcott’s and other scholars’ argument on the extent to which worker agitations against retrenchment were in fact successful in maintaining overstaffed departments, the failure to implement rationalization methods, and consequently lower productivity of the Bombay cotton mill industry. Despite militant actions, women continued to face the brunt of rationalization methods and continued to be a declining proportion of the labour force in Bombay and elsewhere. The specific reasons for overstaffing and the more general problem of the lower productivity of Indian cotton manufacturing firms need to be sought in the precarious conditions of work that were at the root labour-capital antagonism that characterised the Bombay industry. And as in the past, this situation continues in the globalised flexible production systems which in the recent times has also seen concerted actions by its female workforce.

Table 1: Average daily employment of women Bombay Cotton Textile Mills, 1884-1947

Year Total Employment Women YoY Difference Women Proportion
1928 118617 25817 -6231 21.77
1929 118368 25356 -461 21.42
1930 127578 29163 3807 22.86
1931 124963 27441 -1722 21.96
1934 128420 24319 -3122 18.94
1937 148137 23581 -738 15.92
1939 145691 21757 -1824 14.93
1944 220681 26784 5027 12.14
1947 205491 22962 -3822 11.17

Source: Calculated from data provided in Morris D. Morris (1965), p. 217-218


Bhattacharya, S. (1981). Capital and Labour in Bombay City, 1928-29. Economic and Political Weekly, 16(42/43), PE36–PE44.

James, R. C. (1962). Discrimination against Women in Bombay Textiles. ILR Review, 15(2), 209–220. https://doi.org/10.1177/001979396201500203

Kumar, R. (1983). Family and factory: Women in the Bombay cotton textile industry, 1919-1939. The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 20(1), 81–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/001946468302000105

Mhakar, Sumeet (2020, April 14). Ambedkar’s fight wasn’t just against caste. Scholars have overlooked his labour activism. The Print. Accessed from https://theprint.in/opinion/ambedkars-fight-wasnt-just-against-caste-scholars-have-overlooked-his-labour-activism/401133/

Morris, M. D. (1965). The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854-1947. University of California Press.

Loomba, A. (2018). Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism, and Feminism in India. Routledge.

Savara (1986), Changing Trends in Women’s Employment: A Case Study of the Textile Industry in Bombay, Himalaya Publishing House: Bombay

Tanimoto, M. (2013), “From Peasant Economy to Urban Agglomeration: The Transformation of ‘labour-intensive industrialization’ in modern Japan” in Gareth Austin and Kaoru Sugihara (2013) (eds) Labour-Intensive Industrialization in Global History, pp. 144-175, Routledge: Oxon

Wolcott, S. (2008). Strikes in Colonial India, 1921–1938. ILR Review, 61(4), 460–484. https://doi.org/10.1177/001979390806100402

Wolcott, S. (1994). The Perils of Lifetime Employment Systems: Productivity Advance in the Indian and Japanese Textile Industries, 1920–1938. The Journal of Economic History, 54(2), 307–324. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700014492


[1] More dated Indian feminist and labour histories have noted this aspect, but it finds no mention in the newer economic and social history analysis which tends to underpins the role of Indian adult male militant mill worker in the Bombay mill industry, without any reference to the striking female workers.

[2] The basic issues raised in more recent times deal with demand for minimum wages; workers’ right to organize and against the suppression of union activities and layoffs. Women workers in Bangalore, a south Indian metropolis and a large garment manufacturing hub, including for brands like H&M, spontaneously stepped out to protest low wages, particular relating to a government ordinance on Employee provident fund and poor work conditions .

[3] See Kumar (1983) and Savara (1986).

[4] For a detailed analysis of the 1928-29 mill workers strike see Bhattacharya (1981). As noted by the author, “The 1928 strike was directed chiefly against rationalisation and surreptitious wage reduction. The seventeen point Charter of Demands (May 3) can be divided into three parts. Some points related to rationalisation, which we have seen in Section I above. Another set of points (1, 2. 8 and 12) demanded restoration of wages to the 1925 level, raise for those who received less than Rs 30 per month, consolidation of high price allowance (HPA) with wages, and 10 hours maximum limit on hours of work. A third set of points related to miscellaneous grievances regarding working conditions (machine cleaning, attendance record, termination of service notice, etc). The interesting thing to note is that on each issue the Charter demanded “consultation with representatives of workers’ organisation”, “approval of workers through their organisation”, etc”.” (PE 38-39).

[5] According to the Cambridge dictionary, “a long, heavy stick, especially one used as a weapon by police officers”.

[6] File No: 264/46 Pt IV B, 1947-50, Industries and Labour Department, Industrial Conditions Enquiry Committee, Interim Report on the Cotton Textile Industry in Bombay Provinces


2 thoughts on “Dissidence and Domesticity

  1. Thank you for these colorful accounts, Aditi! It was very interesting to read that women played such an active part in fighting for better work conditions in the textile industry as they still do this very day.

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