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Invisible Bodies, Devalued Labor: Contract, Reproductive Labor, and the U.S. Sunbelt, 1900-1963


My dissertation positions Black and Mexican migrant women workers’ reproductive labor as the foundation of Jim Crow era agriculture and extractive economies. My sites of analysis include racialized women’s reproductive labor in turpentine and lumber camps in Northwest Florida, the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley, and beet picking in Bracero era Salinas Valley. This dissertation argues that although women were contracted through relations of marriage and family to industries that produced their labor as non-value and which erased them as historical subjects, they created forms of sociality in excess to the demands of capital. Such an examination brings into conversation Critical Gender Studies, Black Studies, and Chicana/o Studies, alongside interventions by women of color feminists into Marxist labor theory, to reveal how Black and Mexican women workers created forms of life while negotiating the depletion their own. To explore the transmission of their life producing labor, I dovetail readings of plays, legal affidavits, and poems about turpentine debt bondage; coming-of-age stories about Black and Mexican migrant children’s reproductive labor in the cotton economy; oral histories about beet harvesting during the Bracero Program and the transnational labor of Mexican women on which it relied; and experimental ethnographies on Black and Mexican migrants’ gardening practices. Ultimately, this dissertation opens new lines of theoretical inquiry for exploring early twentieth century agriculture and extractive industries by centering the little explored histories of Black and Mexican women’s reproductive labor.

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