I was going to write a semi-bitter post fueled by my experiences as the granddaughter and grandniece of women who worked as domestics and nannies--and I'll get to that in a minute. (though, BlackAmazon wrote something like I wanted to and hers is amazing).
But first, I looked around to see what other people were saying about domestic work. And though it is not connected to Blog for Domestic Workers Day, I saw this statement by Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy:
Some women suggest that a marriage may be made tolerable with the introduction of a third party to muck out the filth. This bit of feudal reasoning, with its profoundly antifeminist essence, is problematic.Good point, I think.
The implications of hiring a menial — always a woman — to perform low-status women’s drudgery suggest an unsophisticated grasp of feminist theory...
And so we see that marriage may be made palatable to women who view housework, rather than male privilege, as the primary agitator against equality in their relationships. To maintain the illusion that she can be married without simultaneously capitulating to the megatheocorporatocratic machine, the feminist wife cannot engage in stereotypical wifey-work behavior. Instead, she hires a surrogate drudge. Unfortunately, this merely demands that she oppress, in turn, women of a lower caste than herself, while doing nothing to address the power differential in her own relationship.
But hold up! Some of the readership disagree, using the
"Cleaning as an activity does not make the 'underclass of women'; our attitude to women and women’s work makes the underclass."And more generally, "Since I am paying 73 bajillion cents an hour, how can I be exploiting anyone?!"
"[W]hy are women the only ones guilt-tripped about being feudal exploiters?"
And I thought, something is being skirted, flirted, danced around here. Even the observation about women's work being undervalued = the reason domestic work is undervalued is missing a big point.
Which women's work is valued least of all? Who's being hired for this newly-fabulously remunerated, unexploited work? Twisty gets at it here. You see, this work is not being undervalued just because it is cast as women's work, but because it is cast as the work of women of color. And yes, white women have and do benefit from our assignment to low-status, low-paid work. From Dr. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, who expresses it much more eloquently:
White women may actually have a material interest in the continuing subordination of women of color in the workplace. To understand the contemporary divergence between the priorities and interests of White women and women of color, we must first understand the historic differences in their experiences as workers. A careful reading of the history of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women workers reveals a persistent racial division of "women's work." This division of labor has subjected women of color to special forms of exploitation, subordinating them to White women and ensuring that their labor benefits White women and their families.*In other words, work may be divided by gender, but it's divided by race, as well, a significant factor to "overlook." From another article by Dr. Nakano Glenn:
In the first half of the [20th] century racial-ethnic women were employed as servants to perform reproductive labor in white households, relieving white middle-class women of onerous aspects of that work; in the second half of the century, with the expansion of commodified services (services turned into commercial products or activities), racial/ethnic women are disproportionately employed as service workers in institutional settings to carry out lower-level "public" reproductive labor, while cleaner white collar supervisory and lower professional positions are filled by white women.**It's almost as if Dr. Nakano Glenn anticipated some of Twisty's readers' responses:
We may have to accept the idea that any policy to improve the lot of racial ethnic women may necessitate a corresponding loss of privilege or status for White women and may engender resistance on their part.My point is, white women aren't just haplessly caught up in this unfair! capitalist! patriarchal! system that's got all us women down equally. They sustain it. They derive benefit from it. And not just the benefit of not troubling themselves with such menial work; in my experience, they derive a mental wage, a sense of "too good to do that work," or "generous me, I'm helping poor her!" or the ability to talk about domestic help and never once bring up issues of race and ethnicity.
And that is where my personal experience is, watching the outward expression of that mental wage. I hated, hated, hated that my grandmother and her sister were domestics.
Not because I was ashamed, but because of the way white people treated them and us.
Like never once saying, "I'm way younger than you; you don't have to call me ma'am!"
Or, giving my grandmother and aunt money, long after they'd retired, not because they didn't pay taxes for domestic help or because they objected to the fact that our government excluded domestic work from social insurance or because they appreciated the sacrifices my grandmother and her sister made. No, that money was proof that, just as their slaveholding ancestors argued, they took care of their negroes even after retirement!
Or, coming to their funerals and sitting on the front row with the immediate family because they had notions of their own importance. "Nanny raised us!" one of my aunt's "white children" exclaimed, then stood there regally as the family cooed and comforted her.
Whether or not hiring domestic help is exploitative is not solely a matter of how much you are willing to pay. Silly rabbits! The most common reasons for hiring--because you don't like housework and can afford to pay someone else to do the damnable stuff or your time can be better spent doing "more important" work... well, that reeks of privilege.
And before we label it as just the result of a patriarchal society's mandate that all women adhere to some standard of cleanliness that does all women an equal disservice (hah!)...
...why do certain women, who so radically dismiss so many other patriarchal demands, choose to abide by this one?
*"Cleaning Up/Kept Down: A Historical Perspective on Racial Inequality in
'Women's Work'," Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1333-1356.
**"From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of
Paid Reproductive Labor," Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1-43.