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Women and Economy in Modern Turkey

Session VII-06, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
As the Turkish economy has undergone a capitalist transformation over decades, there has always been a fundamental gender differentiation in this restructuring process. From the patriotic ideals of womanhood of the late Ottoman Empire and the Kemalist watchword of the liberation of women to the conservative construction of gender roles by right-wing political parties and the reinvention of women’s economic position in the neoliberal period, political elites and government-affiliated intellectuals have repeatedly attempted to redefine the economic role of women, linking it to the well-being of the nation. Despite the egalitarian rhetoric, the greater access to education and politics has provided only a limited degree of economic mobility for women. A variety of factors, such as social norms, state policies, male unemployment, and social conservatism, precluded women’s direct participation in the economy, and women continued to face serious inequities in every aspect of the economy. The overall purpose of the panel is to put economic and gender studies into dialogue, which will bring fresh insights into both fields. Whereas the economic history of Turkey has long focused primarily on macro-analytical approaches and data from state archives, gender studies have neglected women’s economic contributions in informal sectors. We address these gaps in the literature in two important ways: First, moving beyond the stark dichotomy of state and society, we discuss how women’s contributions have frequently been overlooked because state documents commonly exclude them from their statistics. Searching for other kinds of historical data, such as letters, newspaper articles, memoirs, company records, and other primary accounts, we aim to evaluate women’s relationship to the economy more comprehensively. Second, our presentations postulate an approach that rejects the monolithic understanding of the woman question in modern Turkey. Instead, they acknowledge differences in social classes, religion, language, and geographical setting. By concentrating on women’s role as economic agents, the development of female entrepreneurship, women’s self-perception of their economic rights, immigrant women’s relations to local and national economies, and the emergence of women’s co-operatives, our presentations introduce new historical data and bring recent global theoretical trends into the scholarly studies of women in Turkey. In dialogue with prolific feminist scholarship, we argue that the various aspects of gender and economy were intimately interconnected. The period of our analysis, spanning from the Early Republican Period to the neoliberal era, allows us to identify long-term developments in the sources and determinants of women’s economic rights and status.
  • Why did the number of businesswomen remain low in early Republican Turkey? What social and political factors did prevent women from forming and owning companies? In its aim to provide more nuanced answers to these questions, this presentation revolves around female entrepreneurship in Turkey from the formation of the republic in 1923 to the beginning of the multi-party system in 1946. It divides this period into three phases. The first one represented the gradual emergence of female entrepreneurship through the enactment of a series of laws in the first decade of the republic. The second phase witnessed the implementation of the First Five-Year Plan. Although the Turkish Women’s Employment Association advocated women’s entry into the business sphere, female-owned small and medium-sized enterprises began to go bankrupt as the effects of the Global Depression spread. The third phase coincided with the Second World War. The percentage of businesswomen rose to its highest level in these years because the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men allowed women more opportunities to do business. Nonetheless, the Wealth Tax of 1942 disproportionately affected Christian and Jewish businesswomen, leading to their elimination from the economy. Accordingly, women remained vastly underrepresented in the business world since the share of businesswomen in Turkey was lower than not only Western Europe but also most surrounding countries. To offer a socio-political explanation for this disparity, this presentation looks beyond official rhetoric and government policies. Despite the attempts of several newspapers to encourage women to pursue careers in business, businesswomen largely challenged people’s beliefs about the assumed nature of women. A coalition of men and women, including those who were associated with the government, became vocal about their opposition to female entrepreneurship. They believed that a woman’s place was in the home and a woman of business warranted no respect. Consequently, women played mostly an indirect role in the business world. Although they did not hold administrative positions, they bought shares of different companies, invested their money in a variety of business ventures, and helped their affinal, male relatives run family enterprises. Grounded in archival material, more specifically correspondence between central and provincial officials, local press accounts, commercial magazines, business catalogs, as well as memoirs, novels, and other literary works by men and women, this presentation argues that sociopolitical factors and the indirect role of women are crucial to the scholarly understanding of female entrepreneurship in early Republican Turkey.
  • This presentation analyzes the writings of Süreyya Ağaoğlu in order to understand the ways in which a liberal ideology emerged in Turkey in the early years of the Cold War. Ağaoğlu was one Turkey’s first female lawyers. In pursuing a career and demanding acceptance male-dominated spaces of political power in the early Republic of Turkey place, she challenged the gendered expectations of many founders of the republic. At the same time, she had the support of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the connections of her father, the well-connected intellectual Ahmet. In other words, she was both an insider and an outsider in the early republic, and this dual status would shape her political thinking. Like her father, she championed a “liberal” politics that sought to limit the role of the state; yet the effects of such a constrained state could be “conservative”: a society that remained unchanged in many practical respects, dominated by the same elites, running the affairs of state and business to enrich themselves. These tensions in her world view can be seen in her writing—particularly in What I Saw in London (Londra’da Gördüklerim), her account of her travels in England in 1946. In this account, Ağaoğlu witnesses—often with skepticism—the formation of the postwar social welfare state. Her observations are even more interesting to consider in light of the fact that, at the same time back in Turkey, her brother Samet and his political allies were developing a political party, the Democrat Party, which would use liberal rhetoric to bring together an electorally-successful center-right political coalition.
  • This presentation explicates the relationship between the economy and immigrant women from the Balkans in early Cold War Turkey. Consulting a wide array of sources, such as official documents, reports of women’s associations, local periodicals, memoirs, and oral histories with immigrant women and their descendants and building on the insights of critical gender studies, it argues that the participation of women in the labor markets was not only reflective but also transformative of their position in the society as they negotiated their social and economic rights through laboring in formal and informal sectors. Although Balkan immigrants have become a popular subject of academic research, the economic experience of women has not been explored in depth. This study expands the discussion of these communities and the politics of gender into the economic history of the country. It evaluates the experience of immigrant women within the broader political context. After coming to power in the aftermath of World War II, communists took dramatic steps in line with the restructuring of the political and economic system that included the nationalization of private enterprises and the collectivization of agriculture in the Balkans. Felt threatened by the magnitude of these changes, thousands of Muslims left their homes to make a living in Turkey and settled in different parts of the country. As Turkey tried to absorb increased numbers of immigrants, their well-being captured the attention of the public because their ability to have viable, sustainable livelihoods was key to their integration into Turkish society. Political authorities afforded a high priority to male employment because of their assumed role of men as breadwinners whereas they wanted women to focus their energies on keeping a home and raising children. As the years went by, and official financial support to newcomers decreased, however, women began to take on new economic roles that varied across social classes. Many women entered the workforce and were subjected to semi-proletarianization because of their participation in both family farming and wage production. A number of women worked as domestic workers in the homes of the wealthy. Some taught other girls and women how to sew Balkan-type dresses, how to read and memorize Quran, and how to cook new dishes mostly in women-only spaces. Apart from unpaid household work, these activities were their principal contribution to the household income, which provided fertile ground for the negotiation of their rights and status.
  • As part of the neoliberal restructuring that started in 1980s in Turkey, Turkish agriculture has gone through a significant transformation process in 2000s. Increasing imports following the liberalization of foreign trade negatively affected the agricultural self-sufficiency of the country. State economic enterprises in the markets of crucial crops were privatized, and agricultural sales cooperatives and their unions were restructured. The place of the agricultural sector in national economy deteriorated, and this was accompanied by a decline in the rural population, in parallel to the shrinking agricultural production and accelerating migration. This ended in multi-layered commodification -of the land, crops, and labour power of the peasantry. The gendered impact of this transformation is largely unclear. The fact that the state supports provided for agricultural development cooperatives, in its new form, included the attempt for increasing participation of women to the economy underlines the need for a gendered lens to account for the macro-level transformation in the agricultural sector. Therefore, this study focuses on one of the women’s agricultural development cooperatives in Turkey (Kınalı Eller Cooperative in Beypazarı, Ankara) to find out the dynamics of changing micro-level and macro-level relations. Women appear as active economic actors, beyond being passive recipients of the neoliberal restructuring, thereby shaping this restructuring process as well. The study is based on a fieldwork that includes in-depth interviews with producers of this cooperative -women- and with consumers of the products -also women-, in addition to the research on the last two decades of the sector. The cooperative acts like a bridge between rural and urban life, as all the inputs depend on local sources and the final products take place on the shelves of markets. Looking at both sides enables us to understand not only the differences and inequalities, but also the newly emerging connection and solidarity among women. The experiences of women in this process leads us to a better grasp of the interrelation between crude dichotomies of public-private and rural-urban spheres or paid-unpaid work. It is argued that, while penetrating to the countryside, capitalism also creates its own challenge. Because the emphasis on individual entrepreneurship in the new form of cooperatives clashes with the re-operationalization of collective knowledge in the production process, on the one hand, and marketization of traditional products of rural women also means collectivization of unpaid labour of both rural and urban women, on the other.