Experience and Identity : A Historical Account of Class, Caste, and Gender among the Cashew Workers of Kerala, 1930–2000

Anna Lindberg

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)

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Since the 1930s female cashew workers have constituted a majority of the registered workers in the South Indian State of Kerala and today number some 200,000. This group challenged the stereotypical view of Third World women because they were organized into unions, worked in the formal sector, and were literate. The background for this thesis has been the ?Kerala Model?, i.e., the political context of a state known for its radicalism, redistribution of resources, and high social indicators for citizens (men as well as women). How did the encounter of women of different castes at the cashew factory take place? How was the factory work structured with regard to gender and caste? How did membership in unions shape women's view of their own lives? How have marriage and motherhood influenced their identities? Why did females suffer more pronounced capitalist exploitation than males? At a theoretical level this interdisciplinary study engages in a dialogue with Marxist, Subaltern, postmodern, and feminist scholars. In the analysis, change and continuity have been considered not only with regard to material ?realities?, but also in terms of discourses and ideologies. Among the main themes traced over the period 1930-2000 are the organization of work in the factories, wages, trade unions, and marriage; and how elements in these spheres have interacted in the formation of identities based on class, caste, and gender. The limitations imposed upon female laborers by poverty and extremely unequal power relations between capital and labor alone cannot adequately account for the discriminatory treatment of female workers over males. Neither can women's lack of class-consciousness serve as a justification. The story of the Kerala cashew workers chronicles not only shameless, brutal capitalist exploitation, but also demonstrates that we have to go beyond economic structures to explain oppression and lack of empowerment: cultural and ideological factors must be incorporated in the analysis. Low-caste female workers have gone through a process of effeminization which has acted to curb their class-identity and limit their scope of action. The historical development traced shows a widening gap between femininity and masculinity, with a more dichotomized gender ideology visible among low-caste cashew workers. While it does not mean to imply a deterioration of living conditions for women, it should not be taken as idealizing a better and more gender-equal past; rather, it seeks to highlight the complexity of historical analysis. The thesis has striven to show that, once one takes a gender perspective, a polarization such as ?traditional? or ?modern? is seen as flawed. Capitalist forces were active in spreading a patriarchal, high-caste gender ideology among lower castes, who were seen to ?modernize? their gender relations by introducing male breadwinners and dependent housewives as the ideal. Union leaders themselves ?modernized? gender relations by supporting an internationally-acknowledged wage system which was institutionalized by the minimum wages committees in 1953 and 1959. This study shows that the radicalism of males turned to be built upon women's maintaining of the families-a reality which strongly contradicts hegemonic gender discourses and confuses gender identities.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • History
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2001 Oct 13
ISBN (Print)91-628-4915-8
Publication statusPublished - 2001

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 2001-10-13
Time: 10:15
Place: Department of History, Lund University

External reviewer(s)

Name: Uma Devi, S.
Title: Professor
Affiliation: [unknown]


Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • History

Free keywords

  • cashew factories
  • cashew workers
  • experience
  • identity
  • effeminization
  • housewifization
  • dowry
  • marriage
  • breadwinner wages
  • gender discourses
  • gender ideologies
  • trade unions
  • women
  • gender
  • caste
  • class
  • Quilon
  • India
  • Kerala
  • Sociology
  • Sociologi
  • Social and economic history
  • Ekonomisk och social historia


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