Almost thirty years ago, I worked as a cleaning woman in the executive offices of an electronics manufacturing company. I was several months pregnant and looked about 16 years old. One day, while I was cleaning the men’s bathroom, a senior employee walked into the stall next to me and began to relieve himself, ignoring the “Closed for Cleaning” sign posted outside the door and my brown frame on all fours scrubbing the toilet.
Totally invisible: that is how it feels to be the help.
The only bathroom I clean these days is my own. But I have not forgotten the sting of being unseen.
I thought of that incident as I read that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a son with his former housekeeper and that former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly sexually assaulted a maid at a New York hotel. Political power links these men, but so does an age-old elite attitude toward the (often colored) female help: such women are there for sexual favors. Their invisibility leaves them vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances.
Our culture offers multiple variations of this story—from the scheming maid who sleeps her way into the wealthy family to the deluded help who thinks trysts with her boss are part of an unfolding love story to the tragic housekeeper who is forced to have sex with the boss to keep her job. You’ve read the news stories and the novels and you have seen the movies. The story always ends tragically: he tires of her; she retreats with her unwanted child; or, worse, he kills her. She may get some money for her trouble, but rarely does she emerge the victor. His life goes on, as it did for Schwarzenegger for a decade.
The allegation against Strauss-Kahn, a standard bearer of global capitalism as the former leader of the IMF, sends a particularly strong message because his agency is responsible for policies affecting poverty reduction, crisis prevention and sustainable development—issues that directly impact the well-being of women in the developing world. The kind of women involved in both Strauss-Kahn’s and Schwarzenegger’s stories.
News reports say that the mother of Schwarzenegger’s teenage son is from Guatemala and that the 32-year-old maid who has accused Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape, criminal sexual assault and sexual abuse is from West Africa. In the United States, cleaning offices, hotels and homes is increasingly the domain of unskilled immigrant women. In Chicago, where I lived for years, Polish women were fixtures in the building janitorial companies that served the city’s glitzy skyscrapers. In Texas, where I now live, Latinas form the majority of those in residential and commercial cleaning. Their work is at the bottom of the economic ladder, where they serve and cater to the personal needs of wealthy people. And some of these men apparently think that the women who clean and serve them would be privileged to service them sexually.
The Hollywood class fantasy Maid in Manhattan did include one scene that rang true. Jennifer Lopez plays a Latina maid who hides her identity to have a fling with a wealthy white GOP candidate staying at the high-end hotel where she works. When her occupation is revealed, she tells him he wouldn’t have given her a second look if he had known she was a maid. Her character was right.
At some point in every woman’s life, she learns what it is to be marginalized and discriminated against. Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn’s stories remind us that as far as we’ve come, at some point, we are all still the help.