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Estudos Feministas

Print version ISSN 0104-026X

Estud. fem. vol.3 Florianópolis  2007


Changes in space and time and gender relations under the impact of modernization


Cambios de tiempo y espacio/cambios sociales, bajo el impacto de la modernización



Ellen F.Woortmann

University of Brasilia

Translated by Nina Adel and Miriam Adelman
Translation from Revista Estudos Feministas, Florianópolis, v.15, n.2, p. 476-484, May/Aug. 2007.




This article  discusses the relations between space, time and gender in the context of changes that affected fishing communities of Northeastern Brazil. The analysis is centered on the   perspective of women and highlights the negative transformations of the female condition  brought about by plantations  and tourism, as well as by the modernization of fishing activities.

Key words: Gender; Time/ Space; Fishing Communities; Modernization; Tourism.


Este articulo tiene como objectivo discutir la relación entre espacio, tiempo e género en el contexto de comunidades pescadoras del Nordeste de Brasil. Centra-se en el analizis de essas categorias hacia la ótica femenina, destacando las transformaciones negativas ocurridas en el universo de género face a la modernización en general y el turismo en especial.

Palabras claves: género; tiempo; espacio; comunidades pescadoras; turismo.



The goal of this study is to analyze the relationship between gender relations and changes in space and time in villages that identify themselves as "fishing communities". Empirical data are derived from field work carried out in the coastal area of the Brazilian state of  Rio Grande do Norte. The process of change analyzed herein should be seen as a general tendency which reaches the shoreline villages at different moments in time. Therefore, in some villages, the process was more advanced, while others, at the time of the study, remained in near-traditional conditions.

When speaking of fishing communities, one frequently considers only the productive activities and social agents related to fishing. Furthermore, studies on these communities tend to favor the male point of view , that is, the fisherman. Yet it is not uncommon that these communites carry out agriculture in addition to fishing, as is the case of groups studied by Peirano (1975) in Ceará and by Beck (1981) in Santa Catarina, Dantas Carneiro (1979) and Maldonado (1991) in Paraiba, or among the groups studied by Faris(1972), Nemec (1972), Omohundro (1985) in Canada. In several groups, such as the one studied by Maués (1977) and those that are the focus of the present work,  agriculture is mainly a female activity. To favor the male point of view would thus exclude the fundamental activities that constitute women's domain.

The conjugation of planes of discourse and authority, masculine and feminine, public and private, derives from what Cronin (1977)  has called the "harmony between cultural ideals and productive system". In this work it is my intention to favor the female point of view. I attempt to show how time and space are conceived by women; how these two categories are entwined with each other, how they are related to the status/role of women       

The classification of natural space is also a classification of the social spaces and dominions relevant to each gender. At a more general level, the sea is perceived as the dominion of men, in contrast to the land, dominion of  women. Nevertheless, that bipolar classification is s broken down into other small-scale oppositions. The sea is subdivided into outer sea, high or dense sea,  male workspace par excellence, and inner sea (between the beach and the reefs) where men as well as women perform productive activities. The land, in turn, is traditionally subdivided into agricultural space and the beach, the former conceived as essentially female, and the latter as an intermediate space where, just as in the inner sea, women as well as men work. However, at the level of public discourse, the sea predominates, as when they say that "our livelihood depends on fishing" or "everybody here lives off the sea". The community's identity is thus based on male identity.

In the view adopted here, the feminine condition is (re)constructed in time through changes in space since it is perceived through gender-specific experiences in gender-specific spaces. Space and time are culturally-perceived categories; each society views them in its own way, in accordance with its own culture and history. On the other hand, every society consists of differentiated persons situated within social relations of various kinds of which gender is the dimension of interest to me in this paper.  

Women, for example, perceived the enclosure process of the "free lands", symbolized by the arrival of barbed wire, as the end of the fundamental space of their identity, while for  the men it meant the beginning of  a new space and a new work alternatives in sugar cane plantations, albeit a negatively valued one. Women do not fail to include the male space, the sea, in their conception of time, but they do it by contrasting  the sea that has remained unchanged, to the land that has changed. The men, in turn, do not fail to include the land in their conception of time, yet they construct it fundamentally by what takes place at sea. 

People are historical, and for that very reason their conception of time today is probably not the same as that of yesterday. Formerly, with the meaning  it holds today, only exists today. The perception of historical time is itself historical, as it is constituted  in  specific moments of history – and no less historical, certainly, is the perception of the anthropologist who speaks about the time of others. Not long ago, anthropologists were not concerned with distinguishing between the temporality of men and that of women.

The representation of time is the result of a temporality. For the women studied herein, formerly seems to be a time frozen "backwards", its movement beginning from a point of rupture "forwards". In the perception of the women with whom I spoke, memory begins in a past that "always was", leading to a present that "ought not to be".

Time is perceived by women through oppositional pairs. Formerly was a time of abundance, of unpolluted mangroves, a time of respect, a time when people "lived like people". Today is perceived as a "weird time", a time of need, of violence resulting from ambition, a time in which "we must live half-buried like crabs" ("se mora que nem caranguejo").

In the idealized  past there was no violence against women. The fisherman, upon returning from the sea,  always gets drunk  In the past, however, "the men drank a lot but never touched even one hair of the women"… "My father drank all his life, but never raised a hand at us when we were little girls, or at Mama either.". The violence that existed in the past was between men, due to disagreements, or as a collective act against those who infringed upon moral rules, as in the case of one man from outside the community, who was lynched for having stolen fish from his  buddy, a crime which was less against the individual than against the values central to the group. The violence that exists today against women, perceived as something new, is attributed by them to the ambition that must have "assailed" the men, but  also  to the loss of the traditional  productive spaces of  women, a loss that made them seem "lazy", resulting in a  loss of respect. It is worth noting that today's violence  against women is an individual act (although condemned by the community), while in the  past, as already mentioned it was a collective act which could include lynching. 

Time is always contextual. Thus, women may perceive time in different ways, depending on what they have in mind. There is a daily time, in which they conduct their varied activities, including the care of their children. From this viewpoint, women "have less time" than men.  Women also measure time, in a manner specific to their gender, by generations: "in the time of my grandmother", when they refer to periods which were not lived by the speaker and, notably, when speaking of spaces that no longer exist. Events are situated in time by reference  to the births of their children. The arrival of barbed wire was an event that marked history, by the removal of their productive spaces; delimiting spaces it delimited time as well. But it is  marked by the lifecycle of the woman. From the point of view of one woman it arrived  "shortly after João was born"; another event occurred "just before Maria was born". From the viewpoint of another woman, the barbed wire arrived when "I was expecting Antonio". If a woman didn't know when something occurred, she asked another one, who pinpointed the event in relation to her own  succession of births, or to other life events, such as  marriages and deaths: "that was when I got married"; "that was when my father died". Or then "that was when Mama got married", when the event is passed on from one generation to another. To translate that perception of time into the one  that  is familiar to us, I had to transform the temporality lived by those women into our abstract chronology imprisoning time in dates and decades.

Thus, to situate something in time  women do it through their life cycles. But to think about  time as a process of change, they do it  through space, or rather  through  the presence/absence of a space fundamental  for the gender condition of women.

Time in this latter sense was not spoken of by the women as something by itself, but rather as a means for speaking/thinking about themselves. They did not speak of time but  about women over time. To see themselves in the present, they looked to themselves in the past. Time was like a mirror that shows an inverted image, as present and past have opposing indicators. In this case, paraphrasing the well-known anthropological image, time is a mirror for women. As mentioned before, time, as it relates to the women's representations of themselves, emerges through space, a gendered space. In contrast to the present, there was a time in the past  that "was always that way", a time of abundance and of respect , characterized by access  to the soltas (free land) where women carried out their agricultural activities, and thus by a complementary  relation with men: from a male point of view  in the past, in the days of men's mothers or grandmothers, women were "women that worked"; nowadays they become "lazy women". Respected in the past;  today under assault.

Historical time, irreversible, is here constructed as a process of subtractions,  perceived as the successive loss not only of the soltas but also of other spaces where female activities were carried out, such as mangroves. It is interesting to observe that both free lands and mangroves were only referred to when their loss was spoken of, whether due to privatization or pollution. If time is a mirror through which women  see them selves, so is space.  For women, the passing of time  meant the loss of  specific spaces (mangroves, free lands,  etc)  that they articulated through their various activities so as to form a "total space". Men's space, on the other hand, remained constant: if the land had fallen captive, the sea remained free. It is interesting to note that throughout the Northeastern coast the sea is seen as terra liberta (free land). For them there was no loss of space; what occurred was a change among the men themselves. They were caught by ambition, brought about by a change from fishing to the catching of lobsters. They make more money, but individual greed took the place of a former pattern of reciprocity when fish was sold but also redistributed among families.

In addition to the irreversible time of history, there is yet another time,   a cyclical one, relative to the space of men and  resulting from the conjugation of the nature of the sea and men's activities.  In a general way, the year is divided between the season of fishing and another one, that of an absence of fish; that is, into periods  defined by the specificity of fishing activity.  In the past, the time of abundance, two cyclical, complementary activities existed: one, relative to agriculture and another one relative to  fishing. But the cycles were not coincident: the time of scarcity of fish was also the time of plenty relative to agricultural products. In fact, the latter were of fundamental importance as concerns the nutritional standards of the communities, although fishing  has always been ideologically hegemonic in what concerns  public discourse and the identities of those communities. It is  possible that in the  days in which everything was "as it always was", a time of histoire immobile  and of simple reproduction when  cyclical time  always repeated itself in the same way, it had been dominant. This could be similar to the  perception of time of Algerian peasants analyzed by Bourdieu (1977), prior to the  "disenchantment" of their world by the history introduced by colonialism. The notions of historical and cyclical time approximate those of structural time and ecological time formulated by Evans-Pritchard (2002). By ecological time he means temporal sequences that emerge from relations with the natural environment, not as an immediate imposition of nature, but rather as a socially constructed representation, because, in social terms, nature does not exist in and of itself, but rather as a culturally-learned nature.

Structural time is based on points of reference that hold meanings for specific groups, projecting present social relations onto the past, and  related to group identity. Nonetheless,  my study  suggests that if there are  points in history perceived as significant for the construction of group identity,  the groups as a whole  are frequently defined according to the male point of view  –  the communities are "fishing communities". Structural time thus becomes gendered. 

Women see themselves in face of men as undergoing a process in which  complementary relations give way to dependence – they no longer contribute to the family's well being by providing products ( mainly food )  that result from agricultural activities. They no longer organize specific spaces into an environment. The history of these women is, in large part, the history of disconnection of those spaces.  

If space is an environment, it is not simply a natural environment, but a cognitively-learned and culturally constructed one. As a constructed environment, it is a "signified" space whose social use gives it meaning. An environment includes the social relations and the culture which turn the "population" into a society. New  changes have affected the meanings  given to space with the arrival of new social actors   displacing the traditional population: summer residents and tourists.

With them a new cyclical rhythm was  juxtaposed to the one  constituted by the interaction with the sea.. They became now a new part of the environment In addition to  fishing, there is now a "harvest" of tourists. They have also contributed to changing the social condition of women, in addition to altering the annual cycle of community activities as a whole.  

The tourism industry joined  agribusiness in the process of expropriating women's  basic spaces . Rediscovering  the "paradise lost" in their cities, or "discovering" the sunshine absent in their countries of origin, they run the risk of constructing a hell for the "authentic people" of the locality, repeating what has already occurred in other "paradises"  In spite of how many "alternatives" they believe themselves to offer, they are part of the process that has altered the traditional organization of space. It should be noted that several Norwegian families have bought houses built by real-estate speculators  at the beaches I studied and that a famous British football player is investing millions of dollars in a luxury resort located in one of these beaches.    

One might say that the  processes that changes time by changing space can be seen as something  similar on a local scale, and with its own specificity, of a "great transformation" which  Polanyi (2007) speaks of,  casting people into a new order governed by "monetary connections".  In these localities a market was "invented"  when land and work – to which we can add the homes of local families – gain new a meaning in the form of commodities. Beginning with the enclosure of the former soltas   and  proceeding to the privatization (and pollution) of mangroves; to the growing hegemony of  lobster catch over fishing; to the transformation of fishing due to new technologies, and with  them,  the transformation of the sea which ceased to be terra liberta,  and finally through tourism, the former relative autonomy of these communities as well as the principles of reciprocity  and non-economic time (Bourdieu, 1977)  have been handed over to the ambition that marks a new time  in which time is money – a weird  time

Throughout this process, as we have shown, the relations between men and women have changed from complementarity to the dependency of women on men. If formerly women were equally responsible for abundance, today they "eat from the hand of the husband", as one wife told me.

Subsistence agriculture was substituted by a commodity-based one when the space of women's agriculture oriented basically toward family consumption and  circuits of reciprocity,  was taken over by plantations.  Traditional rafts were substituted by motor boats, increasing the productivity of work. In both cases, an expansion of the productive forces took place, but plantations became the place of cheap labor for men and the new fishing technology left   many men without access to the sea. The lobster catch brought with it a new "work ethic", based on individualism and the spirit of monetary gain. The "monetary connection" came to govern expanding spheres of social relations. In summary, these communities passed through a process of "modernization".  

Finally, it is necessary to establish certain relativities. From the point of view of the peasant family as a whole, even when the woman is exclusively or mainly a housewife and not a  producer, the male-female relationship is still  complementary. The activity of the housewife is central to the reproduction of the family and the work force, as it also is in the urban working class. Furthermore,  in most of Brazil , peasants are usually small scale farmers and agricultural production – pertaining to the male domain - is the main component of their identity.  In these communities the very honor of the pai de família (the husband/father) is contingent on a woman's "non-worker" status. Trabalho (work) is a category that refers only to the activity carried on at the roça (cultivated field), the space of men. If women would carry on such trabalho the husband  would suffer  a loss of respect (in fact women do participate in some agricultural activities but their role is conceived as ajuda – help – always subordinated to the husband's governo  - government. Men' honor would also be threatened if they would take part in the activities of the house. The balance lies in the complementarity between the roça  and the casa (home),  and in women's absence from the former and men' absence from the latter.

In fishing communities an equivalent (but in a sense inverted) opposition takes place, for here fishing is the male trabalho while agriculture corresponds to the female activity conceived as secondary although in fact agriculture has been fundamental from the point of view of the family's nutritional conditions (Cf. Woortmann, 1992). Gender roles and their complementary relations are thus contextual but always related to the group's identity, which, as was seen, is always based on the male activity. It is in the context  studied here that the change from balanced  complementarity to subordinate dependency  brought about by the loss of the soltas should be understood, even if agriculture has always been conceived as a less important activity

Market relations have always existed, for fish, besides consumed by the community were also sold. But a "monetary orientation" became more important . The transformations that turned land and labor into commodities, affecting the worlds of both men and the women, cannot be ignored.  Still, people are not unchangeable; new circumstances create new practices, new dispositions and a new habitus, which at once both structures and is structured by history (Bourdieu, 1980).

Some men left fishing to catch lobsters, thus  adjusting themselves to the new time.

Some  women have became managers of profit-oriented small scale family businesses that offer  food, beer and soft drinks  to tourists , thus adjusting traditional domestic abilities such as cooking to the new cyclical time of tourism and giving a new meaning to space (now reduced to the beach). This reorientation can be seen as an adaptive social response to the new ecological-social environment, which is also a new moment in their history. Women had always  administered family consumption  and they also carried out the production of  food as well as of raw materials for fishing. Now they find themselves, for the most part, outside the labor market or reduced to poorly paid jobs as domestic servants, and such new opportunities do not reestablish abundance nor bring back respect.

These villages continue to perceive themselves as fishing communities. Their identity, from this point of view, did not change. But gender relations and the self-image of women have undergone substantial changes.



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1 This is a condensed and actualized version of the paper  Degradación ambiental/degradación social femenina, unpublished, 51 pages, presented at the 12º International Economic History Congress, in Madrid, 1998.