I have been reading Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (eds) Global Women: Nannies Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy (2003) in order to prepare for a class on ‘the global economy of care’.
Ann Oakley’s Housewife (1974) continues to be one of the few pieces of sociological research that all ‘A’ Level students seem to know and remember. But why do teachers and examiners not do more to encourage students to reflect on how changes in households, gender values and the economy might require a rethink of the shape and significance of the domestic division of labour?
Housewife’s achievements were to make the effort of cleaning and caring visible and to denaturalize the housewife role. But in recent times the basic question of how the work gets done in households is rarely asked. Barbara Ehrenreich has a depressingly simple and convincing explanation as to why this is.
"Housework, as you may recall from the feminist theories of the 1960s and 1970s, was supposed to be the great equalizer of women. Whatever else women did – jobs, school, child care – we also did housework, and if there were some women who hired others to do it for them, they seemed too privileged and rare to include in the theoretical calculus.”(p86)Since that time it has become commonplace for middle class households to buy the labour of other women as domestic workers and child carers. A new generation of professional woman (including Ehrenreich reminds us feminist academics) routinely employ cleaners and nannies. Can it be any coincidence that ‘the politics of housework’ has dropped down the feminist agenda?
If we compare middle class households today with their counterparts in the 1960s, we discover important continuities and changes. The previous rigid division of labour and caring between men and women has merely softened at the edges. The slack created by women’s occupational progress has been taken up largely by other lower status (waged) women. Thus gender inequalities persist, cross-cut by class and ethnic differences. As its title suggests, Ehrenreich and Hochschild’s collection emphasises the global dimensions of this shift, epitomized by the increasingly common pattern of women leaving their own children to migrate to the West to work as nannies and other kinds of carers.
The Philippines is an important node in the new global economy of care. It is estimated that between a third and a half of the population are maintained by remittances sent home from abroad by (mainly female) migrant workers. As Rhacel Salazar Parreñas suggests “care is now the country’s primary export” (p41). Women who migrate to work as carers play a crucial role in maintaining the economic well-being of their extended families and the nation as a whole but, despite this, they as the frequent target of the media and other moral entrepreneurs who place them at the centre of a moral panic about a crisis of parenting in the Philippines. Parreñas argues that this panic ignores the effort migrant workers place on caring at distance.
The global economy of care involves then flows of people, wages and emotions. Children in the West often benefit from the deep attachment of isolated migrants displaced from their own families. There is a deep ambivalence felt by the women involved whether they be employers or employees. Paid carers must adjust to values of family and child-rearing very different from those at ‘home’. Many middle class women seem to find it hard to respect or adequately reward domestic workers from different class and ethnic locations. It is no surprise therefore that stories of employer-employee relations are frequently about what Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo terms ‘Blowups and Other Unhappy Endings’.
For all the changes and tensions evident in the contemporary micro politics of cleaning and caring, there appears to have relatively little shift in expectations of men either in the West or in countries like the Philippines. Expectations of what full-time professional and managerial work involves have, if anything, heightened. Also of concern is the message to younger people in households serviced by the new domestic employees. Ehrenreich argues that this message is that dark skinned, female migrants are worth less and have nothing better to do than service the ‘overclass’.
“There is another lesson that the servant economy teaches its beneficiaries and, most troublingly, the children among them. To be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housekeeping has the same consequence-abolishing effect: you blast the villain into a mist of blood droplets and move right along; you drop the socks knowing that they will eventually levitate, laundered and folded, back to their normal dwelling place. The result is a kind of virtual existence, in which the trail of litter that follows you seems to evaporate all by itself.”(p102)