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Female entrepreneurship as a survival strategy: women during the early mechanisation of corn tortilla production in Mexico City

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2020

Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato*
El Colegio de México
*Corresponding author.


Until the nineteenth -century tortilla production was carried out by women through rudimentary methods. New technology for corn milling spread during the 1910s, coinciding with the Mexican Revolution. The analysis of nixtamal corn mills and tortilla shops in Mexico City in 1924 shows that the mechanisation of milling led to masculinisation and an increase in the gender wage gap. However, since tortilla-making remained unmechanised, it allowed hundreds of women to establish tortilla shops that mostly hired women. Their entrepreneurship can be considered a survival strategy of women confronting a technological change in an era of political, social and economic turmoils.

French abstract

French Abstract

L’esprit d’entreprise féminin comme stratégie de survie: les femmes face à la mécanisation précoce de la production de tortillas de maïs à Mexico

Jusqu’au XIXe siècle, la production de tortillas était assurée par les femmes selon des méthodes rudimentaires. Une nouvelle façon de moudre le maïs se répandit dans les années 1910, coïncidant avec la révolution mexicaine. L’étude des moulins à maïs – produisant une pâte de nixtamal – et celle des magasins de tortillas à Mexico en 1924 montrent que la mécanisation de la mouture a conduit à une masculinisation de la main d’oeuvre, augmentant aussi l’écart salarial entre hommes et femmes. Cependant, la fabrication de tortillas n’ayant pas été mécanisée, des centaines de femmes ont pu créer des magasins de tortillas qui embauchaient principalement un personnel féminin. Leur esprit d’entreprise peut être considéré comme une stratégie de survie de la part de femmes confrontées au changement technologique, à une époque agitée de troubles politiques, sociaux et économiques.

German abstract

German Abstract

Weibliches Unternehmertum als Überlebensstrategie: Frauen während der frühen Mechanisierung der Tortillaproduction in Mexico City

Bis ins 19. Jahrhundert bedienten sich Frauen bei der Tortillaproduktion einfachster Methoden. Eine neue Technologie des Maismahlens verbreitete sich während der 1910er Jahre zeitgleich mit der Mexikanischen Revolution. Die Analyse von Nixtamalisationsanlagen und Tortillaläden in Mexico City im Jahre 1924 zeigt, dass die Mechanisierung des Mahlverfahrens zu Maskulinisierung und steigender Spreizung der Löhne von Männern und Frauen führte. Da die eigentliche Herstellung der Tortillas jedoch nicht mechanisiert wurde, waren Hunderte von Frauen in der Lage, Tortillaläden zu eröffnen, in denen hauptsächlich Frauen beschäftigt waren. Ihr Unternehmertum kann als Überlebensstrategie von Frauen verstanden werden, die dem technologischen Wandel in einer Zeit politischer, sozialer und ökonomischer Turbulenzen die Stirn boten.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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I am grateful to Mijal Epelman and Yttzé Quijada for the excellent research assistance they provided. I am also grateful to the suggestions provided by Cristina Borderías, Manuela Martini and other participants of the session ‘Coping with Crisis: Labor Market, Public Policies and Household Economy’, held in the World Economic History Congress, in Boston in August 2018, as well as for those provided by María Teresa Fernández Aceves, Cristina Puga and other participants of the ‘Seminario Permanente del Programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios de Género’, held at El Colegio de México in November 2018. Romana Falcón's advice and suggestions were also very helpful in improving this article as well as those of the reviewers of this journal.


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31 See C. J. Haddad, ‘Technology Industrialization, and the Economic Status of Women’, in B. D. Wright et al. eds., Women, work, and technology: transformations (Ann Arbor, 1987), 33–57; J. Lown, Women and industrialization: gender at work in nineteenth-century England (London, 1990); D. M. Hafter, European women and preindustrial craft (Bloomington, 1995).

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33 Mills were inspected to verify their compliance with regulations that had been passed in 1913 as a result of public concern about the hygienic conditions of these establishments and the practice of adulterating the product. See, for example, ‘La Cuestión de los Molinos de Nixtamal’, El Imparcial, 22 July 1913, 2.

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35 Since the largest share of the businesses that combined a mill and a tortillería was represented by the mill, we consider them in our database as mills.

36 Mexico, Departamento de Estadística Nacional, ‘Industria’, 26–27.

37 Sources of the period divide labour among two distinct groups: empleados and obreros. The first were managers or cashiers, and the second manual workers. The salaries of the first group were generally reported as monthly wages, while those of the second group were reported as average daily wages. I will use the term salaried employees to refer to first, and workers to the second.

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