Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey
By Görkem Akgöz
In the New Year’s special issue of the Vatan (Homeland) newspaper, a Santa Claus-like, Father Time figure (zaman, meaning time) rips off the year 1933 from the calendar to reveal the exciting prospects of the coming year. In the front, a steam train bearing the crescent and the star, the two figures of the Turkish flag, rides ahead in a heavy steam cloud, invoking a sense of speed and power. In the background lies a huge factory complex with nine tall smokestacks piercing the sky. The image announces the arrival of the future in the young Republic, which had just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
In the 1920s and 1930s, nationalizing and extending the Ottoman railway network was such a high priority for the Republican regime that the famous 10th Year March celebrated the success of railway policy along with the republic’s war victories: “we [the Turks] covered the motherland with an iron web of railroads.” Railway extensions integrated remote and underdeveloped parts of the country to the old commercial and industrial imperial centers, laying the basis for an integrated national market. The next task was to change the content of rail cargo from imports to locally produced consumer goods. Riding on the rising tide of economic nationalism after the Great Depression, the state adapted an ambitious program for state-led industrialization and, in 1934, became the first country to implement an economic plan outside the Soviet Union. From then on, industrialization was closely linked with the larger Kemalist project of nation-building and modernization.
From the very beginning, state factories received enthusiastic public attention. Industrial iconography and narrative proliferated as republican elites praised factory design, construction, and machinery as built displays of technical prowess. The factory, both its physical shell as well as its internal organization, was modernity in its built form in the imagery of the Republican elites who looked at industrial forms as a way out of tradition-bound Ottoman architecture and backwardness. Their idealization of the factory elevated it to the built physical correlative of the social consensus on national development and a break with the past. With the placement of the female worker in this elevated space of national modernity, industrial modernity gained a whole new weight for it now connected the two most prominent symbolic spaces of Kemalist modernity: women and the large factory.
The secular republic represented nothing short of an all-out attack on existing social institutions surrounding the status of women, which was central to the republic’s image based on a repudiation of the past. In her 1930 Turkey Faces West treatise published in the USA, the prominent national heroine, novelist, and feminist, Halide Edib, called for “cleansing” the Turkish culture of foreign elements. The inferior position of women was a result of the Byzantine and Persian as well as Islamic influences, she claimed. The “genuine” nomadic culture of Anatolia “would delight the soul of the western feminist in some respects…[because] women are on an equal footing with men in every respect.”
The mixed-gender industrial workspaces and recreational facilities significantly reinforced the republic’s secularization agenda and strengthened its claim to a new positioning of the state vis-à-vis women. Though many women worked in late Ottoman factories, Kemalist elites often claimed that the emancipatory path of participation in the industrial labor force was completely closed off for women before the Republic. Alternatively, when Ottoman women’s industrial labor was acknowledged, it was depicted as women’s suffering under foreign control in the “dark, old times.” In the words of a female journalist, the new regime dawned on women as “a morning full of light and joyful excitement…after a centuries-old suffocating night.” Factories, as key spaces for state-making, symbolized transformation, modernization, and progress. They seemed to be a sort of westernized cultural representation of the world with women at the forefront of the representation. Stories of New Year’s parties organized by factory girls or pianos and gramophones played and listened to by women on the shop floor filled the pages of mainstream and women’s papers.
In this blog post, I analyze first the interweaving of the factory and factory women as two principle images of visible industrial modernity in republican representations. I then move on to show how these representations sat uneasily with shop floor realities of female industrial labor, both in the old and new industrial centers. My argument is that despite the historical regional differences, female industrial work followed similar patterns, keeping factory women at the bottom of gendered labor hierarchies.
Factory Women in Old Industrial Centers
The setting is 1940s Istanbul. Early in the morning, Sait Faik, a leading short story writer, is walking inside the old, walled city. Passing through the poverty-ridden neighborhoods on his way, he sees ramshackle city walls and fountains, Ottoman minarets and medreses; the remnants of a distant past that he wants to walk away from. But “the dangerous, story-like history,” and its accompanying imagined soundscape of war, violence and bigotry would not let him break loose. With one more step, he finds himself outside the city walls overlooking a completely different scenery. What he sees is not dark or wrecked anymore; neither is it poisonous like the ghosts of the past. “Oh the factories!” Faik exclaims, “how beautiful they look from afar with their chimneys, windows, sirens, mingling people, coal and soot!”
The imperial capital and its hinterland were the industrial heartland of the Empire. In 1915, Istanbul housed 55 percent of industry; Izmir followed it with 22 per cent. By the beginning of the 1930s, the concentrated urbanization and industrialization patterns were still intact. To address the significantly different levels of economic development between the old industrial centers, the planned industrial investments were geographically dispersed. The expanded railway network served as the framework for the location of Turkish state enterprises. State factories were founded in medium-sized Anatolian towns on railway lines to facilitate the movement of goods and access to the site and to raw materials.
Ottoman women worked increasingly more in the industrial centers of the empire from the mid-nineteenth century on. Their work was not only geographically, but also sectorally concentrated in the traditionally female industries of textiles and tobacco. According to the 1913-1915 Industrial Census, almost one third of the total industrial workforce in the empire was female. Muslim women made a small part of the total female workforce, but their number increased with the Great War and the 1923 population exchange with Greece, which led not only to the loss of an important source of cheap labor but also to the loss of artisanal skills, especially in urban areas. By early 1930s, women made up one out of every four workers. Though we lack archival material on the background of these women, since our period preceded the rural-urban migration, it would be safe to assume that they came from the ranks of the urban poor.
Already with the onset of state-led industrialization, but especially after the end of the Second World War, labor protectionism came to be the most important element of the narrative of contrast between the “semi-colonized Empire” and the “independent Republic.” Factory women had a special place in the rhetorical device of the “old versus new” construct. Republican intellectuals, and also many trade unionists in the second half of the 1940s, referred to the new regime as the “protector of women.” Working women’s voices were lost in the narrative margins of these celebratory narratives as well as of state documents of the time – except for propaganda motives – but when they made themselves heard, they narrated a completely different experience of industrial labor.
Tobacco worker and later trade unionist Zehra Kosova portrays the grim reality of industrial work in the 1930s and 1940s. She details the dire precariousness caused by the seasonal demand of tobacco labor, extreme low pay, hazardous working conditions, and the dreadful housing problem tobacco workers faced in these years. For women, tobacco work was especially detrimental as was seen in the high numbers of miscarriages. The majority of tuberculosis cases in Bursa, for example, were young girls working in hot, humid and dusty workshops for ten to fifteen hours a day at very low wages. Nazlı, the main protagonist of Suat Derviş’s 1936 novel, This is the Novel of Things That Actually Happen, dreads working in unbearable heat in a cramped workshop off a dusty alleyway fourteen hours a day. Terrified of the long commute to the factory, she compares her shaking body and knocking knees to Jesus carrying the cross on his way to his crucifixion. Still, in the old industrial centers hundreds of women and children applied to small textile factories to work twelve hours a day for very low wages.
The discrepancy between the representation and reality of female industrial labor was at times detectable in between the lines of depictions of scenes from the shop floor. A reporter of the Women’s Newspaper (Kadın Gazetesi), a social and political newspaper that followed a state feminist line, was impressed to see “thousands of women enthusiastically working” in a tobacco factory in Izmir filled with the “heavenly smell of Turkish tobacco.” Most women wore a white muslin headscarf; they sometimes pulled it all the way up to their nose for protection against the smell and dust (see fig. 3). When asked if they smoked, some said yes: “the smell is more bearable for smokers.” Besides a miasma of tobacco smell, there was another sensory experience awaiting the visitor in the factory: the voice of a gramophone filled the air with the melody of a popular Turkish song of the time. The aim, managers explained, was to lift workers’ spirits while performing an extremely monotonous job. The reporter quoted only the first line of the song: “There is another possibility…” Had he continued to the second line, we would have read the subsequent ill-fated words: “Is it death you think?”
Industrializing Anatolia and Anatolian Women
Urban planning formed an important part of the program of the new Turkish nation-state. Accelerating in the 1930s, the urban space was fashioned along nationalist practices, performances, and symbols of nationhood. The uniformity of urban planning schemes was remarkable: laying tangent to the old town center, the new Republic Avenue (Cumhuriyet Caddesi) hosted the train station complex, with modern-looking residential neighborhoods built around the complex, and the new public buildings. Outside the towns, the new state factories were connected to the new center through the railway. Modelled after company towns, they were almost like integrated and closed off modern colonies with their social buildings and recreational facilities. The factory as the encapsulation of Western modernity exemplified the unique benefits supposedly derived from the advance of urbanism, and functioned as a training ground for armies of model citizens.
The physical and social design of the new factories built in small Anatolian cities communicated the Republican quest for modernity to the local people. In 1938, three years after the opening of the state-owned textile factory in Kayseri, a journalist drove from the train station to the factory, leaving the old town that was “getting ready to sleep in the eternal depth of darkness and silence” behind. He felt pity for the town’s “poverty and senility” as he laid his eyes on the factory buildings that extended in his sight “wide as a city in itself…under a flood of lights,” filling the flat lying plain with mechanical sounds and radiating “youth and national energy.” Looking like a starry skyline, the factory lured him to itself. But why could it not lure the women of Kayseri in the same way? Where were the women if not at this factory, which needed a ninety percent female workforce? The factory manager complained that Kayseri women chose to work on their handlooms at home instead of working at the factory. Some argued the problem was men’s bigotry; others blamed women for looking down on factory work, and there were those claiming low wages kept spinning women at home. Our factory-lover author was not convinced; to him, women did not come to the factory, “the homely place of labor and honor,” because the “high ideal of the factory” is still not understood by the people.
The remote location of state enterprises complicated the efforts to recruit and retain industrial workers. The need for social benefit provisions, especially housing, acquired increasing recognition in the 1940s. In the 1930s, migrant male workers stayed in dormitory-like factory barracks. This was clearly not an option for women. Muazzez, a girl spinner at one of these Anatolian factories in the 1940s, remembered the freezing cold, muddy walk to the factory that left a white frost on factory girls’ eyelashes and hair.
Continuity in the midst of change
After many years of insistent efforts of both the state and industrialists, the number of factory women did not rise to desired levels, even long after the state-led industrialization took off in Turkey. The main reason behind this was the high degree of continuity with the past in the gendered labor hierarchies, despite the novelty claims of the republican regime, which elevated women to a status of markers of progress. With the onset of industrial development plans, occurring at the same time as factories emerged as model spaces of modernity, the presence of women on the industrial shop floor became the banner of urban industrial modernism. Yet, as the aesthetics of progress depicting women in mixed-gender work and recreational places thrived, information on the actual working and living conditions of factory women rarely appeared in celebratory accounts of Turkish industrialism.
At the same time as they were saluted as national heroines of the Turkish development project, factory women entered the industrial workplace as subordinate individuals and worked in a strictly hierarchical labor market divided by sex. The gendered notions of women’s “suitability” as cheap, docile, and dexterous laborers for labor-intensive work lay behind the demand for their labor. Unsurprisingly, they were concentrated in manual, low-tech occupations and were paid accordingly, their wage being seen as supplementary “pin” money for a household although women who “chose” factory work were mostly young girls and women in poverty-ridden families. The more capital intensive, supervisory and higher paid jobs within factories were confined to men.
The inferior status of women’s work and their image as secondary workers also tainted their trade union experience. The disadvantages women experienced in the workforce, such as the wage differentiation or not having access to training, were justified through trade union discourses. A strong line of state feminism neither eliminated women’s work disadvantage nor changed popular perceptions of their role as mothers first and foremost; but it did, however, hinder the development of a language of class and gender. These would not be enough to give the female workers a public and political recognition of their work status. Women’s subordination to capital, nation, and men would render them as marginal workers for years to come. Deprived of the possibility to develop a work identity that men gained through public and political recognition of their work status, it was only in the 1950s that factory women started formulating gender-specific grievances, addressing the gender wage gap and demanding maternity protection.
Women’s hesitancy to join the industrial workforce attested to the limits of the regime’s success in achieving industrial modernity. The discourse of national industrial heroines neither eliminated women’s work disadvantages nor changed popular perceptions of their social roles. No wonder that women’s double burden and the gendered labor hierarchies persisted: After all, their abolishment never belonged to the masculine imagery of industrial futurism.
 Special thanks to Gökhan Akçura for this image.
 Halide Edib, Turkey Faces West: A Turkish View of Recent Changes and Their Origin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930, 6.
 Şükufe Nihal, “Cumhuriyette Kadın,” Kadın Gazetesi 17 Oct., 1947.
 Sait Faik Abasıyanık (1955, 2019), “Sevgilime Mektuplar,” in Tüneldeki Çocuk (İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları), p. 22-23). Special thanks to Aslı Odman for bringing this story and the Suat Derviş novel cited below to my attention.
 Ahmet Makal, “Türkiye’de Kadın Emeğinin Tarihsel Kökenleri: 1920-1960,” in: Ahmet Makal and Gülay Toksöz (eds.) Geçmisten Günümüze Türkiye’de Kadın Emeği, Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Yayınevi, 2012, 38-115, here 42; G. Bie Ravndal, Turkey: A Commercial and Industrial Handbook, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1926, 347; A.J. Sussitzki, “Ethnic Division of Labour,” in Charles Issawi (ed.) The Economic History of the Middle East (1800-1914), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1966, 120; Çağlar Keyder, State and Class in Turkey: A Study in Capitalist Development, London: Verso, 1987, 104: E. J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, London: Bloomsbury, 1998, 172.
 Zehra Kosova, Ben İşçiyim, İstanbul: İletişim, 1996.
 “Bursa’da Kızlar Günde Kaç Saat İş Görürler?”, Son Posta, 23 September 1930).
 Suat Derviş, Bu Roman Olan Şeylerin Romanıdır, İstanbul: İthaki, 1936, 2018, 33.
 “Sanayi Hayatımızda Amelenin Vaziyeti,” Cumhuriyet, 19 January 1932.
 İhsan Bilgin, “Modernleşmenin ve Toplumsal Hareketliliğin Yörüngesinde Cumhuriyet‘in İmarı,” in:Yıldız Sey (ed.), 75 Yılda Değişen Kent ve Mimarlık, İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yayınları, 1998; Sibel Bozdogan, Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002, 120.
 Sahir Üzel, “Kayseri Fabrikası Günde 5000 Metro İş Çıkarıyor,” Cumhuriyet, 11 May, 1936; Endüstri Hayatımızda İnkişaf (three parts article), Erciyes Halkevi Dergisi, March, April, June 1938.
 Interview with Muazzez Atalay, 4 June 2019.
Görkem Akgöz is a Gerda Henkel fellow based at re:work – Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History. Her main areas of focus are the histories of labour and political economy, women and gender, and social movements and culture. She is the founder and co-coordinator of the Factory History Working Group of the European Labour History Network. The group brings together recent historical, sociological, anthropological and visual works that present new methodological and epistemological perspectives on the study of capitalism at the point of production. Görkem was a research fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2018/19.
Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:
Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.
Citation: Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27004.