Western feminism’s dark secret

The Guardian


This is western feminism’s dirty little secret. Behind the glorious image of the have-it-all woman in the Armani suit, with a Gucci briefcase on one arm and a baby tucked under the other, too often lies a tale of the oppression of another woman. This is a book to tear at the heart and wrench with guilt many women who already feel they are juggling their lives on a knife-edge. Their own deep anxieties about their children and their high-pressured lives are all too often passed on to the women who work for them, making them exceptionally bad employers.

In America this is a story of the mass importation of a precious new raw material — care and love — from the third world. Take one typical case: Rowena Bautista left a village in the Philippines to work as a domestic in Washington DC — one of about 8,00,000 legal household workers (plus armies of illegals). In her basement room she has photos of four children, two of her own whom she has left behind and two of her American charges to whom she has to some extent transferred her love and care.

She left her own children in the care of their grandmother five years ago when the youngest, Clinton, was only three: she could find no work to provide for them. The children’s grandmother is herself so hard-pressed that she works as a teacher from 7am to 9pm each day, so Rowena has hired a local woman to cook, clean and care for the family in her long absence. (That woman leaves her own child in the care of a very elderly grandmother.) Rowena hasn’t managed to get home to the Philippines for the last two Christmases, but the family relies on the money she sends.

Rowena calls the American child she tends “my baby”. She says: “I give Noa what I can’t give my own children.” Last time she saw her own son, he turned away from her, asking resentfully: “Why did you come back?” The distress and damage done to such abandoned children is well-documented in this collection of research. A series of essays edited by two of the great American writers on work, it exposes a deeply shocking underworld of globally exploited women.

Chapter after chapter reveals how women’s traditional roles, rejected by western women, are now being filled by wickedly treated other mothers. Their love is bought, they give everything to their charges and yet are often sacked on whim. Imported cleaners, cooks, old-age nannies and housemaids are joined by mail-order brides for men who like the submissive “old-fashioned” values from the east. And there are sex-workers and sex-slaves, some who knew what they were in for, others who were tricked or kidnapped. Horror stories abound, including child sex tourism. This is a most brutal example of the force of globalisation, draining even love away from poor countries. It is the final depredation, exploiting the last resources the third world has left to sell — motherhood and sex.

In the “chore wars” of 1970s feminism, men won. They took on almost no extra housework or childcare. Enter then the cleaning lady restoring tranquility and order to the home. Marriage-guidance counsellors now recommend them as an alternative to squabbling.

In the US, this is a race as well as a class issue: maids are mainly black, reinforcing rich kids’ views that black means servant: a little white girl in a supermarket trolley passing a little black girl exclaims: “Oh, look Mommy, a baby maid!”

The mistress-maid relationship is fraught, and Ehrenreich describes how an “overclass” has become deskilled in any domestic knowledge, unable to cook or clean, with children who would “suffocate in their own detritus” without someone to pick up after them. She twists the knife: “Someone else will have to finish the job.”