Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy.
Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, editors. New York: Metropolitan Books. 2003
“The personal is global”. With this new take on the old 60s and 70s feminist slogan “the personal is political” sociologist Arlie Hochschild finalizes her own contribution to the edited volume, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the Global Economy, a wonderful book replete with tales that move from sad and harrowing to fascinating and, occasionally, hopeful. Its well-documented stories from around the globe also present some excellent sociological and anthropological analysis of how women (and children, and families and men) navigate the contemporary world system.
I became intrigued by Arlie Hochschild’s more recent work after having the opportunity to hear her speak at the Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona, and immediately set myself to the task of getting to know it better. The essays and articles that make up the volume are suggestive and inspiring for several of the ongoing projects I share, at present, with numerous students, colleagues and friends, and what I will try to do here is to present some general ideas so that those of you who visit this little piece of cyberspace get a better idea of what the book has to offer.
In the introduction, editors Ehrenreich (another one of my longstanding favorite critical social analysts) and Hochschild expound on their basic topic, the current and ongoing process of feminization of transnational migration. They point to how this process is intimately linked to the “care deficit” that has been created in “First World” societies: as more women devote themselves to work and public life outside the home (and trends toward increased male investment in home and domestic life continue to be relatively negligible) the scenario for a “global transfer” of services associated with a “traditional wife´s role”* is created. An intensified influx of women from countries and communities ravaged by debt, poverty, colonial histories and “problems of development” to the kitchens and households (and sweatshops, restaurants and streets) of the world’s “global cities” and richest nations enables life to go on smoothly for many, though the consequences and ramifications this has for the lives of villages, communities and families in poor and developing countries is not often considered.
When Hochschild suggests that perhaps a “woman’s care” constitutes the “new gold” flowing from south to north, she may not be exaggerating. There really does seem to be an ongoing reversal of trends if we consider that one of the most oft-discussed aspects of the history of women and work from the 19th to the 20th century in advancing industrial nations was the shrinking of domestic service, a type of employment that had been fundamental in an earlier period of Western bourgeois culture and society.
And what about the other side of care deficit, that one that is generated "on the other side of the ocean" by this new scenario? Parreñas’ article on the care crisis in the Philippines discusses repercussions in the care-exporting country (how children and families adapt to women’s absence) and is careful to point out that, considerable suffering notwithstanding, activists and policy-makers who take a stand against women’s migration become moralizing forces calling for the disciplining of women, while it is truly important to re-think the issues in ways that can work to dismantle or at least alleviate not only global inequalities and also to promote re-thinking the gender order (which would include new ways of thinking about fathers’ caring for children and families). Anther fascinating contribution shows how in contexts like that of Sri Lanki, emigrating women may spend years toiling abroad while unemployed husbands “mismanage” the remittances received, thus blocking family routes out of poverty. Among the saddest of texts is one which discusses cases of African women who were virtually imprisoned within the U.S. households where they were providing domestic services – often for professionals with high level positions in international organisms such as the UN, World Bank, IMF and in one incredibly paradoxical case, within the home of a human rights lawyer.
Young women’s incorporation in the global sex industry is the theme of one of the most powerful contributions to the volume, Brennan’s account of her ethnographic study of sex-workers in transnational sex/love circuits of the Dominican Republic. In the cases she discusses of young women from desperately impoverished rural areas of the island – most often, young mothers struggling to feed, clothe and raise their children on their own – and their relationships with German men who flock there to enjoy its beaches and ample opportunities for “sex tourism”, strategies up and out of poverty figure more clearly than concerns with conventional “romantic love”. And in the book’s concluding chapter, Sasskia Sassen speaks poignantly of the “feminization of survival” yet also makes it clear that women are not mere victims of global capitalism – nor are they mere victims of the specific beneficiaries of their services, such as more privileged social groups, elite households or mafias (and governments) who profit from trafficking of women. In many ways, she suggests, women involved in particular forms of transnational movement (particularly- I would imagine - those in which transnational circuits are linked to female and familial networks at a grassroots level) actively strive to have access to opportunities and often acquire new resources that enhance their ability to re-shape their own lives outside of conventional patriarchal constraints. In fact, the possibility of shaping and re-shaping one’s life, beyond conventional borders and boundaries - , geographic and the symbolic – and to do so, while creating new communities (local and/or global) is a hope and a struggle for women all over the globe. It is perhaps the best of the “cultural consequences of globalization” to which Indian Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai refers, this possibility to (re)imagine the self that is part of intensified global circulation of people, goods and images. Whether these “re-imaginings” can be connected to the genesis of more egalitarian forms of social life and culture is a major issue, and is clearly linked to the patterns of a global economic order which would require fundamental restructuring to loosen the forces of suffering and economic (and political) coercion that send so many people out to distant corners of the globe against the backdrop of a dire lack of options. For the time being, - and only exacerbated by the current context of crisis - women and men all over the world will continue packing bags and knapsacks, crossing oceans in planes or flimsy wooden boats, smuggling themselves or being smuggled across borders with no guarantees of what luck will be theirs “on the other side” - because this is all they feel they can do. The young woman who, while cutting my hair in a beauty salon ( a franchise of a national chain) in Barcelona shared her story of migration away from a small town in the Brazilian north east claims not to have been disappointed by her sojourn, guided as it was by her hope that somewhere else, things could be better. Or if not better, at least different, worth seeing, knowing and perhaps (as suggested by another informant, a Brazilian architect also residing in Barcelona) de-mystifying.
* As Saskia Sassen, in her contribution to the volume clarifies, a new household type has emerged which can be referred to as a “professional household without a ‘wife’ regardless of whether its adult couple consists of a man and a woman, two men or two women.” (p.259)