One of India's first protests on sexual harassment at the workplace erupted on April 14, 1920 in a Madurai cotton mill - Hindustan Times

One of India's first protests on sexual harassment at the workplace erupted on April 14, 1920 in a Madurai cotton mill

ByShobhana Warrier
Apr 07, 2024 06:49 PM IST

In colonial Madras, women workers of a mill unionised to ask for equal pay, equal work, and a workspace where they were not insulted, humiliated or harassed

More than a century ago, women workers of a cotton mill in Madurai held a nearly-two-month-long strike. They came together against gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and began to unionize — all this against the backdrop of early nationalist activities. Unlike the popular notion that most resistance to such issues comes from middle-class women, history teaches us that dignity at the workplace and a congenial work environment were basic demands articulated by the woman worker in mill work.

An image of Harvey Mills, a colonial-era cotton mill in Madurai, sourced from 'Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources', a book compiled by Somerset Playne and published first in 1914. (WikiCommons) PREMIUM
An image of Harvey Mills, a colonial-era cotton mill in Madurai, sourced from 'Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources', a book compiled by Somerset Playne and published first in 1914. (WikiCommons)

Further, constant engagement with the mass media, and these days, social media, creates a sense of a continuous present, as if our current being is isolated from the connected past. In the recent #MeToo campaign, middle-class women rallied together on social media to persuade dormant institutional and statutory structures to bring to book sexual harassers.

However, my research into the conditions of work in the cotton textile mills of colonial Madras in the early 20th century had thrown up multiple instances of active, organised protest by working women against workplace sexual harassment and the complex ways in which the issue of sexual harassment was deployed by various stakeholders during strikes. Women workers in the textile mills were active members of trade unions and militant participants in strike actions. Many lost their jobs because of their activism.

Historically, there has been evidence of feminisation of occupations in the cotton mill industry. Women were employed in low-paying, labour-intensive jobs, and many of these jobs were also seen to be unskilled. Women in the Madura Mill understood the experience of feminization of work in the women-only departments that were low-paid and were demanding that they work side by side with men in other departments. This is something that working-class women identified as a form of discrimination and fought to reverse, sometimes causing conflict with male workers and at times also dividing among themselves on union and political lines. They succeeded in winning the support of the trade union movement, nationalist leaders, and even official functionaries charged with identifying the causes of labour unrest. The Constitution’s mandate for equality of remuneration between the genders did not come out of a vacuum. The gender pay gap continues to be an area of concern.

Read an excerpt of the chapter, ‘Women, union, and the strike against sexual harassment in colonial Madurai, 1920’, published in Gender in Modern India: History, Culture, Marginality.

The Madura Mill Strike: 14 April to 10 June 1920

The Madura Mill employed 750 women in a workforce of 4000 workers. These women were mainly in reeling and winding. A two-month-long strike was provoked by the management’s conduct. A Tamil newspaper described their action as women workers’ defence of their honour. Such defence of honour aligned not only with the traditional womanly virtue of chastity but also resonated with the Gandhi-led discourse on women’s self-respect as the national movement sought to mobilize women. In the specific context of Tamil Nadu, the notion of self-respect gained a life of its own in the subsequent anti-caste consolidation of Dravida politics.

To the English daily newspaper, The Hindu, it was the struggle of the women against the management and the maistri for having denied them the right to join the union. The interpretation provided in the Hindu report is that the women were protesting on account of being denied the right to unionize, so women’s resistance was characterized as part of the larger effort to organize the workers. In a letter to the editor in the Madras Mail newspaper, George Joseph (honorary president of Madura Labour Union) makes the point clearly:

the dismissal of over 67 workers by the mill manager, Gillespie, being peddled as that of undesirable workers, was primarily on account of their demand to form a union and the original demand on which women struck work was that the management should dismiss the offending reeling maistri.

The sequence of events was as follows. The women workers had wanted to start a cangam (organization) with the help of Mrs George Joseph, the wife of a nationalist lawyer from Kerala, locally working with the workers of the Madura Mills. George Joseph was actively engaged with taking up the causes and concerns of the workers in the region and was also closely involved with setting up unions for the mill workers. In the Madura Court, he also lodged a case challenging the provisions of the Criminal Tribes Act as a violation of the rights of the people from the Kallar community. Kallar workers were vulnerable to being controlled by the mill management, as the law required members of criminal tribes such as the Kallars to report to the police station periodically, subjecting them directly to state surveillance. Joseph was deeply influenced by and close to Gandhi in his style of work and approach to issues and soon was appointed the editor of Young India, a nationalist periodical.

In the Madurai Mills, when the maistri, Guruswami Naidu, came to know of the efforts of the women to join the union, he abused and insulted the women workers. Gillespie, who was the manager of the mill, disapproved of the mobilization happening in the mill towards unionization of women and took matters into his hands by meeting the women and addressing them directly, asking them what their demands were. The women immediately complained and demanded that Guruswami Naidu, who was prone to using foul language and insulting the women, be removed from their department and struck work on this demand. Soon afterwards, the women also raised the demand for the transfer of the reeling clerk, C. S. Sambasiva Mudaliar, who according to them, taunted them and abused them, making the work environment toxic. The women demanded that they work along with men in various departments and stated that they were not comfortable with being confined to mainly women-centred sections such as reeling or winding as it also impacted their wages. Thus, here we have an instance where women were not uncomfortable to be working alongside men, contrary to some portrayal in the literature of women workers as shy, reticent, and wary of the mill environment. In fact, they were making a case that because of the differentiated work assigned to women, they were losing out on wages. Therefore, they were bidding for a better wage option of working in departments where there were men as well. This could also do with the fact that these women had kin working in the mill.

The 700-odd women who started the strike vociferously demanded payment of their outstanding dues for work done until 13 April, the last day before the strike. On delay in payment, they took recourse to direct action, forcibly stopping the car of the mill manager Gillespie. Though the manager tried to placate them by promising them their wages, they stood firm on their demand that the maistri be dismissed. One of the women, their leader when asked her name, spiritedly responded, asking, as to why she should volunteer to give her name. By no stretch of imagination could this sequence of events have been a product of women being pushed by men to the forefront, for this form of accosting of the management by groups of women and men workers became a pattern of protest culture during strikes on multiple occasions in the region thereafter.

The strike started on 14 April, with all regular workers, including men, joining in and went on for nearly two months without much success. The men soon started distancing themselves from the strike, seeing the strike as no concern of theirs! So here was a case when on an issue that concerned the self-respect of women comrades at the workplace, during a phase of the high tide of the Non-cooperation movement, most of the men workers did not see eye-to-eye with protesting women and there was a gender divide on the matter during the strike. At the same time there were moments during the strike when there were altercations between pro-strikers and strike-breakers, when women were there on either side and got hurt on both sides. One of the demands made during the strike, an important one for women workers, was that for appointing women maistris. The demand for women maistris soon became part of the public discourse on bettering the work environment for women when the Royal Commission on Labour recommended it nearly a decade later.

The chapter authored by M V Shobhana Warrier has been extracted with permission from ‘Gender in Modern India: History, Culture, Marginality' (2024), edited by Lata Singh and Shashank Shekhar Sinha, published by Oxford University Press.


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