Globalization: Use this word in a sentence, especially as the cause of something bad, and you will get knowing nods all around. But then press those same listeners to give you a definition of globalization, and watch the silence set in. Globalization has become one of those catchall words now used with great profligacy and imprecision to cover all manner of economic, political and cultural changes on the planet. Generally, it is understood to refer especially to the international flows of money and information across borders, the power and reach of multinational corporations that often override the interests of nation-states and the ongoing dominance of the rich North over the poor South. But what, exactly, do these broad concepts translate into on a day-to-day basis?
Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hoch- schild seek to put a human and, more precisely, female face on the abstractions of globalization in their edited collection of fifteen essays, Global Woman. They persuasively argue that in all the generalized and sometimes highfalutin talk about globalization, the central role that women play in the massive migrations that define and sustain the new economy has been ignored. This they seek to redress, but the book takes a particular angle, focusing not on female factory workers or those in the service or tourism industries but rather on those who travel often thousands of miles to work in the “care” business as nannies, domestics or prostitutes. “Women are on the move as never before in history,” they write, “assuming the cast-off domestic roles of middle- and high-income women in the First World.” Thus the book is really about the “feminization of migration,” in which “half of the world’s 120 million legal and illegal migrants are now believed to be women.” Women have become “crucial economic actors,” moving to where the jobs are and sending remittances back to their families, sometimes to husbands who can’t find work at home or abroad. Most of the articles detail the economic inequities and emotional costs of working as a nanny or domestic worker, and two focus on prostitution.
Although it will come as no surprise that these women are overworked, underpaid and often have lives indistinguishable from slavery, the details of their oppression are gripping and infuriating. The essays on sexual slavery in Thailand and migrant domestic workers in the United States are especially moving exposés that deserve a wide audience. But just as distressing are the stories about the choices these women face: Stay in your own country and raise your children in abject destitution, or leave them behind so you can work in a richer country and send monthly remittances that will lift them out of poverty. The mothers we meet in this collection who leave the Dominican Republic, the Philippines or Sri Lanka to work as nannies in the United States, Hong Kong or Greece miss their children desperately, and are participating in a reallocation of emotional resources in which the nanny’s “love of a First World child [is] being extracted from her own Third World children.” Ehrenreich and Hochschild astutely identify what they call a “care deficit” in wealthier countries, as women who used to stay home and provide the emotional sustenance for a family now go off to work, leaving a nurturing vacuum in the home. The solution? Hire women of color from poorer countries to pick up the emotional slack.
As with most edited collections, Global Woman is very uneven, but Kevin Bales’s “Because She Looks like a Child” is alone worth the price of admission. Here we meet 15-year-old Siri (not her real name), sold into prostitution by her parents when she was 14, her genitals aching from sexually servicing fifteen men the previous night. Siri is one of approximately 35,000 rural girls in Thailand sold into a sexual slavery from which they cannot escape. But Bales is not simply out to shock: His piece is a model essay that places this repugnant practice within its historical, cultural and economic setting, so that readers appreciate the full range of forces that produce and legitimize such a situation. Globalization here also exerts powerful pressure: the explosion of the international sex trade (two-thirds of tourists to Thailand in the 1990s were unaccompanied men); the influx of seductive, high-end consumer goods that families can buy in exchange for their daughters; the rapid rise in wages for men in cities that feeds the prostitution industry; the economic undermining of rural economies and cultures.
Likewise, Joy Zarembka’s essay on abused migrant domestic workers in the United States gives a detailed account of how visa rules protect European au pairs while virtually insuring the exploitation of domestic workers from developing countries. Diplomats, officials of international agencies like the United Nations or International Monetary Fund, and foreign nationals can import domestic help on A-3, G-5 and B-1 visas. Those who come in on B-1 visas–about 200,000 are issued every year–cannot change employers if the ones who brought them in are abusive. (Those on A-3 and G-5 can change, but making such transfers is extremely difficult.) The State Department does not keep records of B-1 workers. Zarembka introduces us to a woman who worked for a human rights lawyer for the Organization of American States; the lawyer reportedly confiscated her passport, made her work twelve hours a day and had a charming friend who raped her. Another woman reported being repeatedly beaten by her employers until neighbors helped her escape. Women who flee from such situations usually have nowhere to go; they are “out of status” and thus liable to be deported by the immigration authorities. These anecdotes cannot tell us how widespread such abuse is, and as with other essays, readers may want more data and footnotes than the author does or can provide to understand whether a lurid story is indeed evidence of a wider trend. But unlike many of the other pieces, which only enable us to shake our fists at the cosmos, Zarembka, who is the director of the Break the Chain Campaign (formerly the Campaign for Migrant Domestic Workers’ Rights), lists a series of concrete solutions, from visa reform to shelters for trafficked women.
Denise Brennan, in her essay on Dominican sex workers in the tourist spot Sosúa, seeks to cast these women not as passive victims but as active agents who willingly become prostitutes in the hope that they will meet a European man who will marry them and get them out of the country or, at the very least, send them money. Some go to Sosúa just to make money. But her evidence–that very few women actually marry Europeans, that most return to their hometowns just as poor as when they left–contradicts the frame of empowerment and self-determination she seeks to impose on her story.
One of the most moving and intellectually nuanced pieces is Lynn May Rivas’s analysis of personal assistants, many of them immigrant women, who tend to the ill or disabled in their homes. Of course there is straining physical work involved, but Rivas emphasizes the centrality of “invisibility” to such work. Adults who need to be bathed or have diapers changed are often ashamed; they need to see the caregiver as someone removed, a cipher, to manage their humiliation. Personal assistants, in turn, need to repress feelings of disgust or pity, and such minute-by-minute emotional management is also invisible labor. Immigrant women, Rivas argues, are seen as ideal for embodying this invisibility in the home because many are mothers, they are foreign, they are socially invisible, and thus they are easily seen as “other.”
Women who travel to become nannies and domestic workers, whether they end up in Hong Kong or the United States, often find themselves subjected to demands that make their work week close to 24/7, and that seek to control their every movement, from how they dress to when they are allowed to bathe. Often these women are told they are “one of the family,” yet they are treated worse than if they were one of the pets. What several of the essays expose, then, are the consequences of having a paid employee tend to the kind of emotional work we in the United States prefer to think of as untainted by and beyond the realm of commercialized, marketplace values. Employers want nannies to love their kids, and nannies, indeed, do often love them as if they were their own. But the nanny (and her employer too) sits on a fragile fault line between the notion that love is something you cannot and should not buy, and that love is something you have to buy. Some migrant nannies in the United States even hire nannies back home to take care of the kids they had to leave behind. This impossible contradiction–as essayists Susan Cheever and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo point out–can lead to all sorts of boundary problems between employer and nanny, especially as the employer treats the nanny like a hired worker one minute and, well, like a taken-for-granted wife the next.
Who or what can we blame for the subjugation of these Third World women? Sometimes the answer is the global persistence of patriarchy, but hovering over many of these essays is a more troubling caricature: an image of the global bitch, the indulged, First World careerist who willfully or mindlessly gets to the top by grinding her spike heels into the backs of the women of color below her. Indeed, “the lifestyles of the First World,” including the indulgence of children, “are made possible by a global transfer of the services associated with a wife’s traditional role–child care, home-making, and sex–from poor countries to rich ones.” One would hardly deny that rich women can exploit poor ones just as effectively as rich men can. Nor would one deny that white racial privilege can prompt some women–probably more than white folks would like to think–to treat their domestic workers inhumanely. But there is too much of a generalized tone here, so that working mothers who have relied on nannies or housecleaners to get from one end of the week to another may wonder whether they themselves are the villains. Most of the female employers we meet or hear about here are perfectly awful. Do all working mothers really feel that “the domestic worker is the employer’s chattel”? Do mothers who hire nannies really have no interest in raising their own kids, as some of the essays imply?
While Ehrenreich and Hochschild do, fleetingly, castigate the US government for failing to respond to the revolution in motherhood since the 1970s by, say, funding a decent daycare system, national after-school programs or paid family and medical leave, their snipes at working mothers confuse readers all too aware of the feminist credentials of both women. We know, from their much-praised previous writings, that they know most working mothers have houses that look like a cherry bomb went off in the laundry basket and rush between school plays, the pizza place, a staff meeting and soccer practice in their efforts to succeed at work and still carry the emotional freight for the family. So we are surprised by stereotypical portraits like this:
Affluent careerwomen increasingly earn their status not through leisure…but by apparently ‘doing it all’–producing a full-time career, thriving children, a contented spouse, and a well-managed home. In order to preserve this illusion, domestic workers and nannies make the house hotel-room perfect, feed and bathe the children, cook and clean up–and then magically fade from sight.
Hochschild’s previous books, in particular, have exposed with passion and precision the gap between this ideal and the reality of most working women’s lives. All women who employ nannies are not Cruella DeVil; many are frazzled, guilty and hate being made complicit in a system of racial domination. But sometimes they really do not have a choice. Many of the essays, in fact, ask us to consider whether the built-in power relations of employer and nanny or domestic worker are so inherently corrupt and corrupting that working women should abandon them altogether.
One very powerful lesson from Global Woman is the enormous clash over gender roles resulting from the migration of women from developing countries to the First World. Many leave behind highly codified patriarchal cultures only to arrive in countries where women have much more freedom to work outside the home, manage their own money, decide whom they will marry, and to divorce, while still being beholden to patriarchal codes about appearance, behavior and whose job it is to raise the kids. In “Clashing Dreams,” Hung Cam Thai analyzes arranged marriages between educated women in Vietnam already deemed unmarriageable spinsters by their late 20s, and Vietnamese men working abroad in low-wage jobs. These “Viet Kieu” men are unmarriageable in their adoptive countries because of their low salaries, but because they live in the First World, they have status to those back home. The Vietnamese bride hopes for a man whose ideas about gender roles have been influenced by American feminism, while the Viet Kieu groom hopes for a “traditional” woman untouched by ideas of gender equality. Such clashes illustrate the persistence of patriarchal dreams, and many women’s insistence–and not just in the First World–that they be punctured.
In the end, Global Woman is less about globalization than it is about migration, but that hardly diminishes its importance. While one would indeed like some of these essays to be more thoroughly researched and contextualized, First World women unaware of the working conditions faced by these migrant workers will find this to be a consciousness-raising book. Women who hire nannies and domestics need to scrutinize the fairness of their terms of employment. But as long as women all over the world have to work, and as long as our government refuses to do anything to help mothers, working or not, citizen or migrant, the structural inequalities exposed by this book will continue.