Friday, June 15, 2007

Because I Missed Blog for Domestic Workers Day...

...and I promised my girl I would do it. And since she was nudged by my other blogmiga, I just have to take a break to talk about it.

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.

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.
Good point, I think.

But hold up! Some of the readership disagree, using the tired tried and true observations:
"Cleaning as an activity does not make the 'underclass of women'; our attitude to women and women’s work makes the underclass."

"[W]hy are women the only ones guilt-tripped about being feudal exploiters?"
And more generally, "Since I am paying 73 bajillion cents an hour, how can I be exploiting anyone?!"

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.


Breena Ronan said...

I agree with you. Of course I have never been rich enough to hire someone to do housework for me, but I would be embarrassed to do so. Maybe I'm just weird, but I think everyone should clean up after themselves. The nanny thing is especially creepy, like hiring someone to be your child's mom. My friends who have worked as nannies felt really conflicted because they bonded with the child and so feel guilty if they have to move on to a new job. Especially because the parents were often not the most caring of people.

Cynthia said...

Interesting post. It just goes to show that when it comes to the perpetuation of racism/superiority, white men and women are equally guilty.

Unknown said...

i am a 47 year old white woman who worked many years as a domestic, nanny, housekeeper, and waiter and barkeeper. with these jobs i put myself through nursing school and am now a registered nurse. although i am now paid better and have more benefits, i can't say the work i do now is less demeaning than my former occupations, just better compensated. i don't see anything wrong with any type of work. it's the inequity of whom is being cleaned after that is the problem. in an equitable world, those unable to take care of themselves would have others to help. providing caregivers to the disabled and aged, and paying those caregivers a living wage would restore a work ethic. also, punishing those who hire undocumented workers to illegally profit from the fruits of their undercompensated efforts would stop the degradation. i think it is important to see service to others as a noble thing and not something to look down on.

Zan said...

Two things -- one, I tag you for a meme. The instructions are on my blog.

Two -- do you think it's possible to hire someone to clean for you without expressing privilege and/or oppression? On one hand, women employed in domestic work are doing legitimate, honorable work. They can only do that work if someone employs them. And certainly, they have as much right to make a living as anyone else. So, how do we manage to walk that line?

AcadeMama said...

In line with what Alan commented, I'm wondering where white women who make a living doing housekeeping, childcare, etc. fit into this equation? My mother cleaned houses for several years, because it was a somewhat flexible job that allowed her to be home by the time I was out of school. As an undergraduate, I did housekeeping work for one of my professors. While I can see the class implications in the latter more obviously, I never felt like I was caught up in the dark underbelly of "white feminism." I guess my question would be, doesn't class play a significant role in the equation as well?

elle said...

do you think it's possible to hire someone to clean for you without expressing privilege and/or oppression?

Zan, I don't believe that I do. Not in our world. To be able to do that, we'd have to eradicate the structures that define women's work and the work of women of color, in particular, as less worthy of remuneration, honor, etc. and challenge this place women of color are assigned to where they are 1) less "feminine" and thus can be given jobs considered too dirty, demeaning, and arduous for white women and simultaneously 2) "valued" for skills that are supposed to be "inherent" to women--dexterity, ability to work monotonous jobs, a natural desire for "cleanliness" and "order," etc.

Academama, class DEFINITELY plays a role, though I will admit that, in this post, I limited it to poor women of color.

As far as where white women fit in, I will note that from your and Alan's example, domestic work was a transitory phase, a stepping stone to some other, better-paid, higher status occupation (or for some white women (historically) marriage). I would argue that this is one major difference b/w your experience and that of WoC.

Because I am most comfortable speaking of black women's experiences, that is what I will focus on. There was, at the end of the 19th and well into the 20th century, no period of transition--black women were kept in domestic work by force, by practice, by tradition. I'd think the same would be true of Latinas today. There has been little other work for us. And marriage will not "save" us as our spouses suffer the same economic and educational injustice(s) we do.

In the U.S., WoC have not been defined as women who work domestic service but as domestic servants, in other words, in the terms of employers and society and not on their own terms. I believe white women have been afforded more autonomy in defining themselves and in defiing their work.

AcadeMama said...


thank you for the further elucidation; it makes complete sense.

Anonymous said...

In all the choices I make, in the intersectionality of choices fighting sexism, poverty, racism, classism, ecological harm, and other destructive forces, I try to be aware of the bullshit I'm complicit in, and make a reasonable choice.

Thank you for reminding me of more bullshit that I am complicit in. That may sound sarcastic but I am being sincere. It's important to remember one's privilege, of course.

I don't habitually hire cleaners, although I have hired cleaning services in the past and probably will do so again in the future. I go for worker-owned cooperatives that use less toxic chemicals, I pay well and I tip well.

As I see it, it's not going to fight kyriarchy for me, a woman of color, to simply abstain from hiring the services of other people, often women of color, to do some of this labor. (That seems obvious to me but I'm happy to expand on that if people want.) So what positive action would the original poster & commenter suggest?

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...