Women played a crucial role in the phase of industrialisation in India which began in the nineteenth century. They were drawn into certain occupations like the mechanised textile industry in Bombay. Radha Kumar's account shows the existing sexual division of labour was one factor in the composition of the new labourforce.
By the 1920s women were at once industrialised and often militant factory workers, yet linked to casual employment networks in their communities. Marginalised within workers' unions and defined by reforming policies that they were unable to affect, their aspirations and interests in the 1920s and 1930s can be deduced from their resistance to rationalisation which increasingly wasforcing them out of the mills and waged employment.
This historical perspective enables us to see that the sexual composition of a labour force is neither constant nor predetermined and that even within forms of factory production various degrees of casualisation have persisted, especially in connection to women workers.
In the early phases of industrialisation in India, women constituted an important source of labour for textile factories, jute mills and mines. Almost a quarter of the workforce of the Bombay cotton textile factories, for example, were women, from the mid to late nineteenth century, when the factories multiplied, until the 1920s, when rationalisation and retrenchment set in. Women had traditionally been employed in textiles in domestic or handicraft forms of production. This work had consisted largely of preparatory processes: cleaning and sorting cotton, processing it for spinning, or spinning it itself. Women weavers were a rarity. The factory system adopted this traditional division of labour and added to it. Because the first factories in Bombay were spinning factories, spinning itself became the kind of skilled occupation which was reserved for men. Though by the early twentieth century the Bombay cotton textile industry expanded into weaving as