by Sushila Patil and Moses Seenarine
Historical Development of Domestic Work
All “civilizations” were built on the backs of domestic laborers, who more often than not, were enslaved or indentured, for example, the female Dasi, or slave, in South Asia. Radical feminists like Gerda Lerner have argued that the capture, enslavement and domestication of women preceded the domestication of animals, and were the first commodity exchanged by men. Over time, the exploitation of domestic workers contributed to class formation and class stratification which continues into the modern era. As societies became more hierarchical, there even developed a hierarchy of domestic workers, from housewife, butler, and nanny, to maid, cook, baby-sitter, cleaning ‘lady’ and servant.
There is also a historical link between the development of patriarchy and domestic work, related to the social construction of gender roles. The sexual division of labor grew out of an essentialist view of both women and men, based on physical characteristics and reproductive roles. As domestic labor came to be solely defined as “women’s work,” the unequal division of labor led to freeing men from household production and reproduction of family labor, and by the same token, to reinforcement of male control, for example over female sexuality and mobility by confining women to the home.
The subordination of women and their labor then became institutionalized through marriage and domestic work. Ironically, women with class privileges have always used domestic workers to empower and free themselves from their social burden.
Empowerment on the Backs of Other Women
The 90s woman is celebrated by the modern feminist movement as having finally “arrived” as they go off to compete with “the boys” and support upwardly mobile lifestyles. However, beneath their success stories are multiple levels of oppression of poor women, primarily minority and women of color.
Their unbridled accumulation of wealth are concealed behind sanctified goals of having a career, family and raising children, which are all used to justify the internal colonization of poor women.
Behind these middle class women’s perpetual “problem” of finding “good help” lies their complicity in perpetuating the unequal gender division of labor, the feminization of household work, and the reproduction of unegalitarian societies based on patriarchal norms and values. These issues go for the most part unexamined, even by many so-called “feminists” who employ domestic workers themselves.
Unquestioned also are the many benefits career track women have gained which they then deny to domestic workers. Middle class women who are engaged in non-traditional forms of employment can take for granted paid vacations, holidays, sick leave, maternity leave, healthcare, and additional benefits. While these gains came as the result of important struggles, and are to be applauded, it is seldom acknowledged that they accrue only to a minority of women, mainly those with existing class privileges.
Exploiting Immigrant Workers
Many middle class women chose to bring overseas workers to countries such as the US, on tourist visas with the false promise of sponsoring them and allowing them to become legal residents. When the visa expires, the worker becomes more vulnerable to their control and exploitation and are unable to freely leave and return. Sometimes, not seeing their families ever again, only in pictures. These women in essence become indentured workers who are forced to provide free labor until the alleged cost of travel or other expenses are remunerated. Immigrant and non-immigrant women alike, often find themselves working in isolation and their safety is constantly threatened due to lack of privacy and possession of their own space. Many scarcely know what is outside the lair of the employer’s home and are controlled completely by being forbidden to make and receive phone calls or letters.
By treating poor women as expendable or becoming increasingly controlling and exploitative, employers create unhealthy conditions for the growth of their children. Girls are especially vulnerable to this form of negative socialization, learning at an early stage that being female implies being subservient. Further, as a consequence of regulating childcare to other women, employers often grow resentful over the attachment that develops between worker and child, and punish them both for their own shortcomings.
For example, one domestic worker relates that her employer actually encourage his four-year old son to beat and kick her, which the child refused to do. Often, the children are the first to protest because they are the ones who suffer the most, as their parents seldom have any time for them and they are treated with care and affection by domestic workers. Also, parents put their children at risk in order to have additional household tasks done, even when they are informed by domestic workers that it may not be in the best interests of the child to leave them unattended.
Perpetuating Sexual Abuse
Ironically, privileged women create widespread opportunities for the sexual exploitation of poor women by husbands, sons and male relatives, and then stigmatize them as being promiscuous home-breakers. In an attempt to save their marriage and relationship, these women typically demonize sexually abused workers for betraying “their trust,” thereby allowing men to escape blame despite the fact that they are the ones engaging in forms of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, or rape, with women who are forced to negotiate their own survival given the circumstances. This issue presents a major dilemma for middle class women seeking “good” female help, when instead they should be seeking “good” male help, or husbands willing to share domestic production.
To illustrate, domestic workers often say, “we’re either too young (for the female boss) or too old (for the male boss).” While a young woman or child may be more easily exploited, they are not preferred by the women who hire them as they pose a risk to their own sexuality, the security of their marriage and their husbands’ fidelity. Alternatively, a domestic worker who is older and more experienced may be preferred by female employers, but is undesirable to husbands who will constantly find fault with them as part of a strategy to force their wives to hire more sexually attractive workers.
Finding Good Solutions
The main goal of feminism ought to be the liberation of all women. As long as women’s empowerment is individualized and limited to the middle and upper classes, patriarchy will prevail and the vast majority of women will continue to remain oppressed. Women, and men, need to critically examine the social construction of gender roles in their families to ensure fairness and equality for themselves and daughters. Domestic production have to be shared by men and boys, for as long as domestic work is feminized, women will always be devalued.
There must also be a critique of the dominant feminist paradigm which revolves around individualism and self-empowerment, since these are the very foundations of patriarchal capitalism and conservatism. Rather than aiming to become “honorable men,” women need to create new models which are community-based, non-hierarchical and non-patriarchal. The care of children, the elderly and infirm, is a societal problem which demands social solutions, and as long as women are obsessed with individualized solutions by seeking out “good help,” they will continue to fuel the oppression of all women.
Although they may have the lowest status, female domestic workers are arguably the most powerful group of women on earth. Consider what would happen to our class-based societies if there were no domestic workers. The rich would have to wash, cook, serve, and clean themselves, and take care of their own children, leaving them less time for accumulation of wealth. The world’s economy would come to a screeching halt as the main movers and shakers scramble to take care of daily survival tasks. No doubt, upper and middle class women would once again be regulated to domestic production, however their resistance to patriarchy may then be so powerful as to dismantle it. The world as we know it would be drastically changed, becoming more egalitarian and less oppressive.