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Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers: Their Common Element

            In Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s collection of essay’s Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, several scholars address the issues of modern domestic workers. While some may wonder what nannies, maids, and sex workers actually have in common, many global feminists find that their connection is obvious.  In “Love and Gold” by Hochschild and “Maid to Order” by Ehrenreich, the authors address the issues of migration as they relate to the housekeepers and nannies who care for the children of middle and upper class (and mostly white) women. Denise Brennan considers the complexities of women’s agency in “Among Women: Sex Tourism as a Stepping-stone to International Migration.” Hung Cam Thai’s “Clashing Dreams: Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-Wage U.S. Husbands” poignantly describes the difficulties feminists and other progressive women face in Vietnam when they want to pursue career goals in lieu of the traditional position of domestic wife and mother.  In all of these investigations, women are found using migration and international relationships as an avenue to escape the oppressive nature of their own cultures and economies.

            It should be of no surprise to social scientists that women are using international migration in the current global world.  When faced with adversity, we only have a few options.  We can run, fight, or give in.  For centuries, women have accepted the status quo or given in to their surroundings for lack of other reasonable options.  However, in this modern era, women hear stories and see examples of small and large victories that cause them to reevaluate their options.  In the countries of origin considered in the previously mentioned articles, fighting the system was not a realistic choice for most of the women who desired an alternative lifestyle.  In light of these factors, migration is a logical result.  Since little can be done to change the culture in their own countries, at least in their lifetimes, women hope to use international work or connections to pull them from poverty, violence, and solitude.

            While nannies, maids, and sex workers have located a way to escape difficult conditions, they are often conflicted over this way out.  While working in another country may provide a way to earn money for themselves or their families, many women quickly realize that this kind of work is grueling and degrading. In the case of sex workers, their work often causes them serious threat of disease and death.  In addition to usually receiving poor wages and treatment, such as the exploited housekeepers described in “Maid to Order,” women workers are saddened by long separations from their children and other family members. In “Love and Gold,” Hochschild describes the “care drain” that results in the First World’s consumption of Third World love. (29) In most cases, women who find the need to work in foreign countries are often compelled by the needs of their own children.  Mothers who long to care for their children must often look after, snuggle, and play with others’ children to provide basic living for their families at home. 

While the terms of First World and Third World are general (and can appear monolithic), they explain how the development of some countries results in the underdevelopment of many others in spite of the apparent opportunities for migrant workers.  While families in the United States, Europe, and other places are enjoying the incomes of working mothers, this often leaves a void in the areas of home and child care.  Migrant workers must leave their own families to handle the family matters of others, often resulting in the loss of their presence and contributions to their children. (Further study is needed to determine how the children of migrant mothers fare in the global exchange, but indications reveal that their status is not good.) In this way, families from wealthier countries ensure that less advantaged families feel the deficit of care instead of their own.

            Unfortunately, separation from families and children and exploitive nature of migrant work are not the only issues troubling global women.  For example, Brennan explores the limited success of sex tourism workers in “Selling Sex for Visas.” Brennan explains that while Dominican women are objectified by the sex industry, “sex workers often see the men, too, as readily exploitable – potential dupes, walking visas, means by which the women might leave the island, and poverty, behind.” (156) Despite the potential that these men hold, however, few of the women are able to actually marry foreign men.  And when they do, they find that the new conditions of living with these men who have already commodified them are often not much better than those they left. While Dominican women engaged in sex tourism hope to find a more egalitarian style of partnership with men, the men they are exposed to are often seeking submissive and subservient women. While the efforts of the women are noble, the pay-offs are limited in terms of income they actually earn and opportunities to leave their country.

            While many Dominican women use marriage as an attempt to facilitate migration, Hung Cam Thai discusses a group of women who use migration to find marriage in “Clashing Dreams.” Because highly educated women in Vietnam are often regarded as unfeminine or too old to many, they must seek marriage partners outside their country of origin.  While they could be viewed as more eligible marriage partners, persistent patriarchy and paternalism make them undesirable.  As a result, Thai investigates the compromising that these educated women must do in order to marry, retain some autonomy, and please their families.  Because Vietnamese men do not value their assets, they are forced to look to countries where men will find them acceptable.  In the United States and other places, these men may find educated women more suitable than their male counterparts in Vietnam, but they often do not earn enough money to help much in supporting a family or the financial goals of their potential educated spouses.  Thai revealed that in most cases, the educated women were forced to accept more submissive positions within the family if they wanted to marry a Vietnamese man at all.   

            All of the situations point to more than a global trend of women using migration to answer issues in their country of origin.  Nannies and maids seek domestic work to alleviate the strain of social and economic conditions at home; sex workers are affected by the same problems. It appears that even educated women cannot break through the powers of sexism – and, in fact, their educations may be socially harmful although financially beneficial. These push factors, however, are compounded by strong pull factors in the First World countries.  The care drain described by Hochschild is noticeable in occupations that fulfill the roles traditionally held by women in First World nations.  Because more women in these areas are working outside the home and outsourcing jobs such as housekeeping and child care, others are needed to take care of these continuing obligations.  In addition, men are experiencing less domestic, sexual, and emotional servitude as women in these countries continue to adopt feminist ways.  As a result, they too look for others to fill the vacancies.  What is at the root of this drain?  Is feminism to blame?  Should globalization be evaluated for its role? How should we proceed from here?

            While these questions are complex, some of the answers are actually quite simple.  It seems that the same old culprits are mostly men. Although women are often the people hiring housekeepers and nannies, they often feel that they must do this because they do not have enough support from their partners or their children’s fathers.  If more men would participate fully in the maintenance of their homes and the rearing of children, many of these duties would not be so burdensome. While globalism and feminism have played parts in the trend toward female migration and continued exploitation, these are indirect roles.  Although feminists are not directly involved in the misuse of migrant women’s labor, they can participate in problem solving. 

            First and foremost, feminists can respond to these trends by becoming aware of them.  Women who use international and minority workers as domestic laborers should be very careful of how their money is being spent.  We can make sure we understand how women are paid, particularly if using a corporate cleaning or child care service.  In light of Ehrenreich’s “Maid to Order,” feminists may also want to boycott certain companies who keep most of the money for themselves and pay domestic employees poor wages.  Ultimately, Hochschild articulates what we must do.  Considering the factors aggravating and feeding the trends discussed in Global Woman, “we need to value care as our most precious resource, and to notice where it comes from and ends up.”  She concludes that, “For these days, the personal is global.” (30)


Full Citation: Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie R. Hochschild, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York 2003).

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