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Book Review: Working Women, Working Men: Sao Paulo and the Rise of Brazil's Working Class, 1900-1955

Updated on September 14, 2016

During the spring of 1999, I took a Brazilian History course, which first started out as a bit annoying. I have always been an introvert that does not really enjoy intense group interaction, and even though I did speak in class from time to time, I was not used to a class format where we had an hour long discussion, and everyone was expected to contribute. At first, I was very intimidated by this format, and nervous to speak because I found my classmates cutting me off from time to time, and when I did speak a few times, even my professor cut me off a couple of times to imply I did not a particular book. One time he would not even let me finish explaining what I had meant, and I felt so intimidated since I was not one of those outgoing conversational types. There was another time in class I mentioned how people in Argentina were rich because I had known a few, such as my pen-pal from there, and my professor scolded me by pointing out there were poor communities in Argentina also, and some of the students chimed in with him to scold me.

I was so put off by these experiences that I actually dropped the course because I had felt cut off and humiliated several times during class, but I am sure the professor never picked up on that. Oh the joys of being an introvert that does not stand their ground in group situations! Even though I had felt humiliated by the professor and the students trying to gain his favor by disparaging my remarks in the discussion, that night I rethought my decision to drop the class because the reading and discussion material were quite interesting. I knew this was probably one of the few times I would ever be able to investigate Brazil in this much depth unless I were to just happen to pick up a book to read on my own. The next morning I went to my academic adviser to re-add the class to my schedule. My adviser seemed suspicious as to why I was re-adding now and implied I had dropped it a week earlier since she had not been there when I dropped the class the day before.

Once a few years previously my mom had remarked I was scared of my high school because I hated going to the office to run errands, but the truth was as an introvert I hated dealing with the callous and harsh comments that many outgoing people make in social situations. That was how I felt in those days, and even today I am reticent to say much in public situations because I hate being cut off and not allowed to finish what I am saying, or having others downplay my remarks. Sticking that class out was quite brave on my part because history majors are outspoken and opinionated people, and whereas I may write about my opinions at length, I have never been one to verbally broadcast these in public settings. Sticking this Brazilian history course out was well worth it because that spring of 1999 I found myself speaking more in all of my discussion courses, and chipping away at a bit of my fear when it came to public speaking. There was a lot of reading in this course, and I continued to read all the material carefully, even when my contributions in class discussions may not have come across as eloquent as some the students who were more adept at public speaking. However, I was pleasantly surprised when my professor actually commented on how in my paper I had made a few observations he had not even seen before, which was quite a compliment from him because he was not exactly the type of instructor that was effusive with praise of any kind. I worked harder in this course than I did in many of my other courses because I really had to tackle my fear of group discussion and public speaking, and this paper is a book review based on my reactions to Joel Wolfe's book. These were my observations as I wrote back in 1999, but I have a different reaction if I read the book today. I sold the book after the course, but this hub is meant to be a record of my reactions to this book and this course back in 1999.

Learning to discuss thought provoking books was quite a challenge for me as an introvert in 1999, but I managed to pull through my Brazilian history course and become less fearful of public speaking.
Learning to discuss thought provoking books was quite a challenge for me as an introvert in 1999, but I managed to pull through my Brazilian history course and become less fearful of public speaking.

Joel Wolfe's book chronicles the struggle of the working class to obtain more rights and better working conditions in Brazil during the Vargas era. This book does a good job of illustrating that while Vargas brought many positive changes for white male workers, it was the women, and the lower classes from other ethnic groups who were excluded from these reforms. Upon closer examination, however, the reader finds that some of Wolfe's criticisms of Vargas were unfounded. The populist politics of estado novo appealed to the working class who viewed this as a vast improvement over what they had previously.

The working class felt they could personally identify with Vargas and many of the reforms he made in Brazil. While the policies of estado novo seem repressive to our modern eye, when put int the historical context, the reader sees that reform such as trade concessions, social security, and the passage of child labor laws were things that had never existed in Brazil up until this point. Vargas even allowed workers to form unions as long as they promised not to strike. Wolfe is critical of these unions and presents these as organizations which did little for the workers and merely propped up the interests of the state and commerce. Wolfe notes that the pelegos (union leaders) who controlled the unions did little if nothing to support the interests of the worker. He also contends that even though the pelegos were little more than union workers who found it to their economic advantage to support the state. Even though the pelegos realized that the workers they represented could not keep up with the rising cost of living, they never put real pressure on the state to increase wages. Pelegos encouraged the corporatist vision of a working relationship between the laborers, the state, and industry, which served the best interests of the latter two groups.

Pelegos helped to reinforce the feeling of solidarity by hosting events such as soccer matches in which workers played against fellow workers on opposing teams. Events such as these served the purpose of dividing workers, and thus preventing a sense of a collective struggle against their supervisors from taking place. Despite Wolfe's criticism of Vargas being a politician who merely played upon the sympathy of the workers by calling himself "the father of the poor," Vargas began to work more for the interests of the working class as he advanced in his political career. By the time Vargas came back into power in 1950, he realized that the pelegos had alienated the interests of the working class. Under the administration of president Durtra who came to power in 1945, the pelegos had worked closely with Dutra and the Ministry of Labor, which initiated a series of repressive measures to increase production and cut down on worker strikes.

Vargas addressed the abuses by granting labor unions more autonomy over their own affairs, and by circumscribing the authority that the Ministry of Labor had over organized labor. Many unions even replaced their pelegos with popularly elected union directors. Despite Wolfe's argument that Vargas only used populist propaganda to attack the policies of the Dutra administration in order to be re-elected, the picture of Vargas that comes through in his later political career is that of a man who was beginning to identify more with the interests of the working class. Of course Vargas probably had motivations of his own for being re-elected, but his change of heart does shine through in the new policies he promoted to help the working class.

As the title of this book suggests, one of the noteworthy points is that men labored under better working conditions in comparison to female workers. While this itself is very true, Wolfe tends to isolate the Brazilian experience from the conditions that were taking place in the rest of the world at the time. Wolfe notes that despite the numerous minimum wage laws that were passed, employers used these laws to create a "base" wage for women, which did not take into account the rising cost of living. The large labor demands of the war resulted in factories hiring large numbers of women only to let them go at the end of the war, but this was true of the Rosie the Reveters that also worked in US factories during World War II.

Brazilian women however did remain members of the unions during the estado novo. Assumpta Bianchi attended union meetings, but she was afraid to talk during the proceeding because of the men who dominated the conversation. If the reader examines Brazil in the historical context of World War II and the 1940s, one finds that the position of women in the labor force was similar to that of the United States and other industrialized countries. Wolfe points out that even though men and sometimes women spoke during labor meetings, that all parties felt they had to choose their words carefully in such situations, or they might be fired.

In the book there is an interesting letter written by Julia Antonia Walhimaos to Vargas regarding how her boss cut her wages and eventually fired her for refusing his sexual advances. Unfortunately, the Department of Labor took the boss's word over that of Walhiamos, but that she would even write a letter like this illustrates they had more courage and belief in achieving equality than one might have thought. Workers still believed that Vargas was able to redress inequalities that existed for women in the workplace. Many feminists groups accepted Vargas's policies regarding the role of women in the workplace, which illustrates he must have touched them on some level. That women such as Walhiamos would even write a letter to Vargas demonstrates that while women had lost faith in the system, that they still have faith in their leader to change things for the better. So while some of Vargas's policies under the estado novo may have been oppressive towards women as the book points out, there were many women that viewed him as striving to bring about change they could identify with.

Wolfe's book is useful for understanding how the working class interacted with the state during the Vargas era. Something new I learned from reading this book was that Brazil had had a long history of working class struggle that is similar, yet different in many ways to that of the United States. Although both nations have a history of union organizing, the government in the US has never directly controlled the unions as has been the case in Brazil. While Wolfe is correct in saying that the Vargas era was a time when women and minorities were highly discriminated in the workplace, I still think he was a little too harsh towards Vargas in saying he did not sympathize with their plight. Vargas did more to help the workers than previous Brazilian leaders had, and that is noteworthy in this context. While the estado novo's policies towards workers were extremely repressive, there was an improvement over the policies of the Old Republic. Vargas was responsible for instituting child labor laws and other legislation that aimed towards protecting workers. I think more international context and comparison of worldwide labor conditions could have lent interest to this book, but I do understand focusing solely on Brazil because this is the topic of the book after all.


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    • SweetiePie profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I am glad you learned something new Hello, Hello. This was a book review I wrote in 1999 for a college course about Brazilian history, but I thought that it could have a bit of relevance ass a hub.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for such an interestingly written hub. I learned a lot from it.


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