Roberta M. Spalter-Roth
In a worldwide movement for economic independence and personal autonomy, women have migrated to cities, gone to work for wages or, when wage jobs were not available, set up small businesses such as the vending or hawking of goods on urban streets. In the process, they have competed with better-capitalized merchants, have broken registration laws, and have invaded male turf. As part of their struggle, women have had to develop a wide variety of strategies to resist exploitation by employers and politically influential merchants, domination by men, and control by the state.
This is a case study of women who earned their livelihood by selling cheap goods on the streets of the capital city of a major First World country -- Washington D.C. Their efforts to earn a living have taken place in the face of three processes: capital accumulation by large-scale businesses, sexual harassment by male customers and male vendors, and a strict new city regulatory policy. This regulatory policy was designed to promote upscale, fixed-location retailers, developers, and investors. If successful, the city government hoped to "revitalize" downtown Washington, D.C. Another result of this policy, perhaps unintended by city officials, was to increase male domination of the streets by reducing the number of women vendors using them.
This study recounts the individual, cooperative, and collective strategies (including participation in a newly formed union) that women vendors used to empower themselves in order to earn a living. Finally, it attempts to explain why women vendors' attempts to deal with sexual harassment -- a gender-specific issue-never went beyond the level of individual coping strategies while they used more collective efforts to protect their livelihood and dignity.