Gender was key to the consolidation of industrial discipline in Medellín—
before, during, and after the intense paternalism of 1936–53. In the initial
decades of the industry, mill-owners faced pressure to behave in ways that
recognized a special moral responsibility toward young female employees.
Not only local churchmen but also many of the women entering the mills
(and the women’s families) expected that female operatives should be treated
with the respect reserved for señoritas. Women working outside their fam-
ilies’ homes, in places where they intermingled with men, would maintain
that status only if they were clearly identified as virgins. After divisive
strikes in 1935–36, the sons of Medellín’s first industrial entrepreneurs be-
gan to move away from the ad hoc disciplinary forms of their fathers and
toward a more hegemonic model, a local version of the Fordist ideal, which
I have abbreviated with the term la moral. As factory managers consoli-
dated this disciplinary model, the publicly acclaimed virginity of female em-
ployees became the symbolic center of work relations in the textile industry.
La moral did more than ensure the sexual chastity of the majority of
Medellín’s women workers. As manufacturing began to be seen as the life’s
blood of a new, modern Antioquia, it provided the region’s industrialists with
a means of legitimizing their expanding power. In 1936–53, the Echavarrías
turned their mills into showplaces for an industrial model that joined fervent
Catholicism to capitalist factory production. That their paternalistic prac-
tice depended upon the high returns generated by protectionist tariffs did not
weaken the appeal of such a model. Medellín’s wealthiest industrialists of-
fered a vision of industrial ‘‘progress’’ that would not disrupt the familiar
hierarchies of social rank and patriarchal family organization. Explicitly
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