Excluded from the ‘modern repertoire of contention,’ women chose means of action anchored in the ‘ancient repertoire
These various activities were supposed to keep the miners away from the surrounding villages and limit potential sources of social and political agitation. The miners’ houses were systematically checked by agents of the company who made sure they were properly maintained according to a certain code of conduct. In fact, a few months before the start of the 1884 strike, Emile Basly, secretary of the Anzin miners’ union chamber, raised the alarm concerning their poor living conditions: The dwellings are unhealthy; in addition, miners are confined like flocks of sheep under the control of an agent salaried by the company.
He passes several times a day and , as he must also make a profit for his bosses, he imposes a fine on housewives as soon as he learns that the orders he has given have not been executed
In addition to or instead of their work at the mine surface, where they sorted coal, women took care of the entire family.
to fit in with the varying schedules of husband and children, laundered clothes blackened by the coal and had the responsibility for household accounting and managing the salaries. By doing so, women massively and constantly participated in the process of social reproduction.50 Dominique Le Tirant studied the social and economic role of mining women, showing how, in everyday life, they ‘play a vital role in supporting production by providing ongoing assistance to their husbands. This activity belongs to the register of “care,” it is also the invisible part of work in the coal production economy.’51 Therefore, even when they were no longer hired by the company, women were still placed under its strict hierarchy and supervision and were expected to conform to strict standards.52 On the whole, the legislation forbidding them to work underground, the continuing separation of wage work and domestic work and their exclusion from male trade unionism meant that women had far fewer symbolic or physical means of contestation when their social or economic situation was in danger.53 All this helps explain why women initiated and massively participated in charivaris. Against the union’s repeated recommendations to keep the strike confined to the rooms of the public houses or estaminets where the meetings took place, women extended the conflict to the entire coalfield through the practice of charivari, asserting themselves in the process as active agents in the strike. To return to Charles Tilly’s concept of the ‘repertoire of contention,’ we can see how, in the case of the 1884 strike, the emergence of union and political reformism did not result in the disappearance of the charivari, characteristic of the ‘ancient repertoire of contention,’ but rather changed its significance and meanings. ‘ As we have seen, most of the objects used during these charivaris belonged to the domestic sphere. In fact, excepting one musical instrument and the hoops, all the objects belonged to the domestic sphere or symbolized the work of women within the coalfield. Pots were used to cook, tongs to keep the fire going, cauldrons served for the washing and the laundering of clothes, and clogs were mostly worn by women. By choosing to gather around the mine pits to make these everyday objects resonate, women deployed the domestic sphere within the workspace of the mine. Traditionally used in an invisible manner and under the strict control of the company, pots, tongs, cauldrons and clogs were turned into instruments of protest during the charivaris. These objects played a role of sound amplifier, and in the process, in a concert of sounds, noises and voices, helped to make women’s living and working conditions audible.