Sunday, January 12, 2003

Diana B. Henriques

A poor woman's work is never fun

There are many tempting reasons to pick up "Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy" (Metropolitan Books, $26) besides the obvious ones in the subtitle.

The editors are Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote "Nickel and Dimed," the extraordinary look at minimum-wage life in America, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose best-selling book on housework, "The Second Shift," added a new phrase to the feminist vocabulary. The contributors include Susan Cheever, the author of several moving memoirs including "Home Before Dark," and Bridget Anderson, a labor activist and the author of "Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labor."

Some of the issues the book promises to tackle — child care, housework, tending to an aging population at a time of declining birth rates — are central to lives of working women. The overarching theme, the causes and consequences of a gender tilt in global migration patterns, is important and provocative. And some problems discussed, like sexual slavery in Thailand, are violations of human dignity that cry out for global redress. It is disappointing, then, to find that such a worthy effort has been so badly disfigured by anger, polemics, sloppy logic and paper-thin research stretched well beyond its tensile strength.

A few of the essays must be immediately exempted from that assessment. Although he deals with a horror that has been widely described elsewhere, Kevin Bales, a sociology professor at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London, provides a stirring, solid picture of the economic forces and personal catastrophes that constitute the prostitution industry in Thailand. And Hung Cam Thai, who is earning his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, blends sturdy demographic evidence and sensitive interviews to produce a thoughtful look at the marriage and migration patterns among Vietnamese living outside their native country.

Elsewhere in the volume, however, one finds cosmic generalizations based on "evidence" that even a sympathetic reader finds unconvincing. A cardinal rule of social research is that the plural of anecdote is not "data." But without anecdote — no doubt carefully collected, but nevertheless glaringly limited to the personal circumstances described — this volume would offer almost no original data.

The personal anecdotes that spill off every page of "Global Woman" are heartbreaking, infuriating, dramatic and occasionally hilarious. Some could provide years' worth of fodder for the writers of thrillers, soap operas and sitcoms. For example, Denise Brennan, assistant anthropology professor at Georgetown University, examines the impact of "sex tourism" on the lives of young women in the Dominican Republic. What do we learn? That prostitution is a very poor way of finding a good husband. We learn this largely by following the adventures of Carmen, Elena and Nanci, who coach one another in love-letter techniques, ply the local fax machine in their efforts to turn previous customers into future spouses and dream of getting visas that will lift them off their home island into a life of secure married luxury in Europe.

"The exits from poverty are rarely as permanent as the sex workers hope; relationships sour, and subsequently, an extended family's only lifeline from poverty disintegrates," Ms. Brennan concludes. "For every promise of marriage a tourist keeps, there are many more stories of disappointment." Then she writes, "Dominican women's attempts to take advantage of these 'walking visas' call attention, however, to the savviness and resourcefulness of the so-called powerless."

In another essay that examines the impact of female migration from Sri Lanka on the lives of the men left at home, Michele Gamburd, assistant anthropology professor at Portland State University in Oregon, offers us another trio of individuals who are, well, highly individual. One man whose wife works abroad as a domestic servant drinks up most of her repatriated profits, ostensibly because he feels emasculated by his wife's breadwinner role but possibly because the wife and the ambient society tolerate rampant alcohol abuse.

Another man was more dutiful; while his wife worked for a family in Qatar, he worked as a security guard at a local hotel. Together, over a dozen years, they raised their family's standard of living. But for child care and housekeeping help, they relied heavily on a whimsical, witty uncle named Lal, who "was the source of some astonishment and amusement in the village," Ms. Gamburd tells us. "When 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." Watch for the movie at a theater near you, with Robin Williams in the starring role.

But fascinating as these personal anecdotes are, they do not persuasively support the book's organizing thesis, outlined with blast-furnace ferocity in the introduction. That thesis is that first-world lifestyles "are made possible by a global transfer of the services associated with a wife's traditional role — child care, homemaking and sex — from poor countries to rich ones."

"To generalize and perhaps oversimplify: in an earlier phase of imperialism, northern countries extracted natural resources and agricultural products — rubber, metals and sugar, for example — from lands they conquered and colonized," the authors continue. "Today, while still relying on third-world countries for agricultural and industrial labor, the wealthy countries also seek to extract something harder to measure and quantify, something that can look very much like love." Well, there's no "perhaps" about the oversimplification, at least.

Somehow, though never convincingly explained, the process of globalization and the emergence of a new economy are supposed to be responsible for this transfer of tender loving care from poor countries to rich. But explicitly or by suggestion, most essays actually place the blame for the problems of the world's women elsewhere: on the arrogance, sexual appetites and general laziness of the world's men. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ms. Ehrenreich's contribution, an essay called "Maid to Order." Her hostility toward women who hire other women to clean their homes is rooted in her membership in what she calls the "post-Friedan cohort" of feminists. "When we talked about housework, we were really talking, yet again, about power," she recalls. "To make a mess that another person will have to deal with — the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack — is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms." When women lost the battle to have men share equally in the work of sustaining a home, she asserts, this "microdefeat of feminism in the household opened a new door for women, only this time it was the servants' entrance." Unfortunately, much of this angry blame game ignores complexities that surround the need for and the supply of domestic labor. Also largely ignored is the long history of labor migration and the role of domestic service in social mobility.

The whole effort needs more of the subtlety and compassion found in Ms. Cheever's essay, "The Nanny Dilemma."Nannies who leave their families and native countries to go to work, and the women who hire them to care for their own children, are acting on the same impulse, Ms. Cheever observes. "They have chosen to give their children less mothering so that they can make more money, and so have we." That sort of reasoning could prompt constructive conversations about the cost of these personal decisions for families and societies; too often, the other essays seem capable of provoking only strident arguments and futile finger-pointing.

Women work, and they have always worked. Society and public policy could address the consequences of that reality, but the possibilities are barely mentioned. And for all the professed feminism scattered throughout, the assumption underlying much of this argumentation seems to be that the world would be a better place if women would simply stay home and care for their own children, do their own housework and tend to their own aging parents without relying on less fortunate women to help.

Even if one amends that to include enlightened men in the domestic do-it-yourself team, one nevertheless walks away from this book muttering, "Right — one more thing for working women to feel guilty about." Forget about "having it all." Now we're supposed to do it all, too — with a working husband's help, if possible, but if not, alone.

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Created: January 21, 2003
Last modified: January 21, 2003
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