Mar 23, 2012

Global Woman edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild

Global Woman edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild

Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy is a collection of essays about the commodification of what is traditionally thought of as “women’s work” and the low pay and low status associated with these professions. The essays cover a wide range of subtopics within these general themes, such as the lives of the children of transnational families in the Philippines; the experiences of paid caregivers of disabled people; the wider social impact of the commodification of domestic labour; sex trafficking and modern day slavery; the concept of filial piety, cross generational relationships, and domestic work in Taiwan; female migration and notions of masculinity in Sri Lanka; the complexity of the relationships between nannies, the children they care for, and their employers; etc.

The focus of Global Woman truly is global: the contributors are from all around the world, and the essays are about more than jus women from the Global South or East coming to the US or Europe to work low-paid care jobs (though naturally this is covered too). Global Woman suggests that there is a trend of families from economically privileged countries subcontracting devalued care work to immigrant women from the developing world, but more than anything else I was hoping the contributors would write about this in a way that a) respected the agency of migrant women; and b), didn’t demonise immigration per se. I’m happy to report that for the most part I wasn’t disappointed.

Global Woman is a book of questions rather than of clear-cut answers, but I thought that Arlie Russell Hochschild’s essay, “Love and Gold”, got to the heart of the matter:
And now here’s the rub: the value of the labor of raising a child – always low relative to the value of other kinds of labor – has, under the impact of globalization, sunk lower still. Children matter to their parents immeasurably, of course, but the labor of raising them does not earn much credit in the eyes of the world. When middle-class housewives raised children as an unpaid, full-time role, the work was dignified by its aura of middle-classness. That was the one upside to the otherwise confining cult of middle-class, nineteenth- and early-twentieth century American womanhood. But when the unpaid work of raising a child became the paid work of child-care workers, its low market value revealed the abidingly low value of caring work generally – and further lowered it.

The low value placed on caring work results neither from an absence of need for it nor from the simplicity or ease of doing it. Rather, the declining value of child care results from a cultural politics of inequality. It can be compared with the declining value of basic food crops relative to manufactured goods on the international market. Though clearly more necessary to life, crops such as wheat and rice fetch low and declining prices, while manufactured goods are more highly valued. Just as the market price of primary produce keeps the Third World low in the community of nations, so the low market value of care keeps the status of women who do it – and, ultimately, of all women – low.
The inequality at the root of this problem would be challenged through a more equitable division of labour in the home, to start with. We need care work to cease to be devalued and fully transferred to less powerful parties, be they women in traditional domestic arrangements or low-paid workers in economically privileged families. This isn’t to say that there’s something inherently wrong with hiring domestic help – only with perceiving care work as being at the very bottom of an imaginary hierarchy of merit, and paying (and in many cases, treating) those who do it accordingly.

Gender essentialism plays a crucial role in the devaluation of care work: these jobs are seen as “unskilled” for women because care work is perceived as what they’re “naturally” supposed to be doing anyway. This problem is further aggravated by racist assumptions about the more “caring”, “warmer” or “submissive” nature of women from developing nations. As Lynn May Rivas writes in her essay,
Women and members of certain ethnic groups are often thought to be natural “caregivers”. Not surprisingly, the consumers I interviewed claimed that workers who were mothers or who came from foreign countries (bearing, as Ron asserted, “old world values”) made the best caregivers. One consumer, Janet, offered that “foreign people stick around longer, and, unfortunately, they take better care”. Another, Sue, averred that immigrants “just care a lot more and have much more of a helping attitude than, let's say, an American”. George, a self-described consumer advocate, agreed, noting that “some feel the best workers are illegal immigrants.”
And Bridget Anderson adds:
Racial stereotypes play a role both in the abuse of domestic workers and in the selection of migrant workers over local citizens in the first place. Certainly, such stereotypes help manufacture a sense of difference between the female employer and her domestic worker: “other” women are presumed suited to such service work, and these others are so alien that some employers actually fear that the migrant’s bodies will contaminate their homes. Workers are typically required to wash their clothes separately from those of the family, and they are given their own cutlery and plates.
One of my favourite essays in Global Woman was “Blowups and other Unhappy Endings” by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, which focuses on the often complex power dynamics between employer and employee in domestic work. These are often even more difficult when the care of children or vulnerable adults is involved. Hondagneu-Sotelo says:
The complexity of domestic-employment arrangements begins with the very nature of the work involved. Providing daily care for children or the elderly is a personal and idiosyncratic affair. Not only that, but as political analyst Deborah Stone has noted, care work is inherently relational, whether it consists in routine bodily care, such as bathing and feeding or in emotional attachment, affiliation, and intimate knowledge. Parents who hire nannies and housekeepers want employees who will really “care about” and show preference for their children; yet such personal engagement remains antithetical to how we normally think about employment. In fact, it can be hard for employers to acknowledge that the domestic employee has her own family life and is in fact tenderly caring for and cooing over the employer’s children because she needs the cash.

Nannies do form genuine bonds of affection with some of the children in their care, but this does not obviate their need for a living wage and decent working conditions. Moreover, the nannies who open their hearts to the children they care for often express bewilderment, hurt, and rage with the children’s parents then treat
them with little regard.
This essay (and others in the book) includes horrific stories about the severe personal cost this kind of emotional investment can have. Nannies seem to be simultaneously expected to genuinely care about the children they look after and resented for doing so. Furthermore, it’s incredibly easy for a conflict, a misunderstanding, or simple jealousy on the parents’ part to completely shut them out of the lives of children they have brought up since birth but have no socially recognised bond with.

I also found Michele Gamburd’s essay “Breadwinner No More” particularly fascinating: the essay tells the story of Lal, a Sri-Lankan man whose emigrant wife became the breadwinner in the family. Left behind in Sri-Lanka, Lal ended up taking on a traditionally feminine domestic role, but found that this shift had to be carefully negotiated to avoid a severe social cost. The essay was incredibly interesting, and strongly reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel The Home-Maker. Here’s an excerpt:
Lal’s calm, slow, joking manner made him a hard target for teasing. He was the only male recipient of government aid who waited in line with the women to collect food at the local cooperative store. When the villagers mocked his feminine behavior, Lal regaled them with humorous stories about his finicky taste in groceries; those who attempted to laugh at him found themselves instead laughing with him about the dead gecko in the rice bag and the dried fish so smelly it must have been fertilizer. He met comments on his domesticity with exaggerated stories about the latest crisis in the kitchen, the rough quality of a new soap, and the price of beans. These complaints were uniformly within his domestic role, not about it. He created an ambiguous self-image as something between a simpleton with no understanding of his failure to fulfil a man’s proper role and a freethinker, impervious to criticism, who held a singularly different set of values. That opacity, along with his nonstop wit, allowed Lal to carve out a unique space for himself as a man whose sole job was women’s work. The good-humoured probing of the Graama Seevaka and the Justice of the Peace indexed at once the community’s awareness of Lal’s unusual behaviour and its baffled but amused acceptance.
I’ll leave you with a few other interesting bits:
We are all dependent on others to varying degrees. A language that denies this fact fuels a system that obscures the ways in which other people care for us. Words such as independence, self-reliance, and self-made help create, and are created by, a dynamic within which people are ignored and devalued. Joan Tronto reminds us that by “not noticing how pervasive and central care is to human life, those who are in positions of power and privilege can continue to ignore and degrade the activities of care and those who give care”.

Independence is perhaps the most fundamental of our cultural myths; it supports the organization of our society and justifies the distribution of goods, real and ideal. The labels independent and dependant, rather than reflect empirical reality, are used to justify inequality.
(From “Invisible Labors” by Lynn May Rivas)

The dominant East Asian model of three-generation cohabitation has been praised by policy makers and academics as a time-honoured solution to elder care. This romanticized image of family unity obscures intergenerational power struggles. A family-based model of elder care also exacerbates class inequalities among the elderly: the poorer the elderly are, the more dependent they are on their children. Migrant care workers only present a solution to relatively privileged households, which outsource elder care to low-wage migrant women, who hen leave their own families to care for others.
(From “Among Women” by Pei-Chia Lan)
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. This sounds really interesting! Definitely something that I would be interested in reading. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! :)

  2. Barbara Ehrenreich does so many good things. I find it a shame that her books seem to be read only by "the converted" - i.e., she exposes a great deal that I wish would get wider exposure. So interesting the bits about caregiving being perceived as "natural" to women and then getting redefined as natural only to certain ethnic groups (i.e., disempowered ones). Did you ever read the fiction book "Substitute Me" by Lori Tharps about a white liberal yuppie couple hiring a black nanny? It explores conflicts in race and class very nicely, and actually I thought it was an enjoyable read beyond all that.

  3. Oh, wow! This book does sound incredible, and as someone who used to care for a child that was not my own in my home, it would be interesting to see how the experience is similar and different than the things I experienced. I really need to read this one, and the wonderful excerpts that you shared just heightens my resolve to pick this one up when I can. Terrific review today!

  4. This sounds like a very important book. It does seem that the people who can afford this type of help always want to dehumanize them.

  5. This sounds similar to the way teachers are treated sometimes. It's not on the same scale, of course, but I think the current attitude towards teachers stems from the same principle.

  6. I admit I am really not a huge fan of Ehrenreich, based solely on my experience of reading her book Nickel and Dimed and thinking that she was a really whiny and completely illogical person. BUT I am willing to see that perhaps I judged too harshly too quickly and should give her another chance. It seems like a lot of the books she writes tackle very important subjects, particularly from the woman's point of view, and I'd be interested to see if her earlier books, in particular, are not so bitter in tone.

  7. Wonderful review, Ana! This looks like an awesome book! After seeing it on your 'Currently Reading' list, I was looking forward to reading your thoughts on it. This book seems to cover the issues related to today's global care-giving woman in quite detail and seems to give comprehensive coverage to all the issues involved. The only issue I have with it - after reading your review - is that it doesn't seem to cover the point of view of the care-giving women themselves. What compels a woman to travel thousands of kilometres / miles to another country, stay there as an illegal immigrant, and take care of a family and their children there? Why should one take that kind of risk? Are the money and working conditions really that good there? If they are, then isn't she better off than when she was before? I read an article in the newspaper recently. It talked about how, because the situation at home is loaded against women (women have to cook, clean, take care of children, in addition to having a career), women outsource this work to maids thus passing on the unfair situation to someone else. I found that point of view quite interesting - that one inequality leads to another and there is a domino effect. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  8. Okay, I swear I commented yesterday. :/ Anyway, I'm glad I already have this book (I think due to your mentioning it sometime in the past, I might add), or I'd have to go out and buy it. I didn't realize though, until reading your review that it covered such a broad array of topics.

  9. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, it sounds like a really interesting one.

  10. This definitely sounds like a very thought provoking book. I'm always interested in a book that provides a broader perspective on a problem, and this sounds like it definitely does.

  11. I have this book on my wish list. I am not sure when I will get around to it because it is not the type of book my library buys, but someday!

  12. I don't know if you'd like it, but Just Like Family is an interesting read on the subject of nannies. It covered (in perhaps more detail) the situations of five women; professional nannies, immigrants, student nannies, etc. I was amazed at a lot of things - the attitudes of employers, the broad-based service they expected (or which the nannies expected to give), salaries and benefits - both the good and the bad. Not maybe the best book on the subject for many reasons but still very interesting to me. You always read such intriguing books, Ana - don't know how you find the time!

  13. This sounds like a great book to read. It makes me think of one of the shorts in the film Paris Je T'aime - the short with Catalina Sandino Moreno who plays a nanny in Paris. You see her place her own baby in a daycare before sunrise, and then she takes a long public transportation journey to her job, to take care of someone else's child.

  14. Allison L: You're most welcome!

    Jill: Yes, I've really enjoyed everything of hers I've read to date. I haven't read Substitute Me, but I'll definitely look got it - your recommendations are always so great.

    Zibilee: I'm sure that that experience would add a lot to your perspective on this. I'd love to see you review this one!

    Kathy: Hopefully not everyone, but yes, sadly it happens rather a lot :\ You'd hope people would be more considerate than that out of their own initiative, but the low status of the profession and the legal disenfranchisement of many of these women are probably the things that have to be tackled first if it's to stop.

    Tasha: I never made the link between the feminisation of the teaching profession and the way it has been losing social status, but I think you might be on to something.

    Aarti: Ehrenreich edited the book but she didn't write it - she does have an essay in it, but it's actually quite short compared to everyone else's. So if it helps, I think it's perfectly possible that you'd enjoy this even if you don't get along with her writing.

    Vishy: That's actually an excellent point; thank you for bringing it up! The book is pretty academic in tone, and many of the essays are based on the contributor's doctorate research, which included long interviews with women in these professions themselves. There are quotes from the interviews spread throughout the book, so we do get access to these women's voices, but of course that's not the same as an entire book written by someone who has had these experiences. I think there's room for both the kind of academic/sociological analysis offered here and for stories told in the first person, but sadly you don't seem to find much of the latter. Also, I think that point about the domino effect is a great one, and it's actually similar to what Arlie Russell Hochschild says in her piece. As long as we think of this kind of work as something lowly that needs to be passed to someone less powerful rather than divided equally, the problem isn't going to end.

  15. Debi: Maybe it was the other way around and I got it because YOU mentioned getting it? That does happen you know :P

    Amy: I kept thinking of you as I read it - it's a very Amy book, I think!

    Megan: Yes, it really does!

    Kelly: I hope they get it sometime! I'd been covering it for ages too, but then just gave up and added it to my Christmas list last year.

    Mumsy: Thank you for the recommendation! It does sound like something I'd find interesting. And I've been kind of binging on non-fiction lately exactly because I have the time and energy while I'm not working and know that will probably not be the case later :P

    Christy: Oh yes, I remember that! I hadn't made the connection because it's been ages since I saw the film, but it's a great example of this kind of experience.

  16. This sounds like an incredible read. That passage you quoted - "Moreover, the nannies who open their hearts to the children they care for often express bewilderment, hurt, and rage with the children’s parents then treat them with little regard" - really struck home. I worked as a preschool teacher for 4.5 years and cared about my students and my classroom as a whole so much. Looking back on it now, after reading that quote, I realize that that is exactly one of the reasons working for the place I did hurt so bad. Because no matter how much I loved my students, no matter how much time and effort I poured into my classroom, most of the time I wasn't treated with the respect I deserved. None of us were. That's not to say that no one appreciated or valued me, because many people did and I will be forever grateful to them for that. But the company itself did not.

    Thanks, Ana. I am definitely going to read this.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.