World's poor pay for west's feminism, says author
Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent, in Edinburgh
Tuesday August 12, 2003
Middle-class families who hire cleaners and nannies so women are free to go out to work are contributing towards a new exploitative "servant economy", a leading American feminist claimed last night.
Barbara Ehrenreich, whose international bestseller Nickel and Dimed tells how she spent a year trying to earn a living from menial jobs in the United States, said the new "servant culture" was destroying families in the developing world and inculcating racism in children in the west.
She told the Edinburgh Book Festival that many of the benefits feminism had brought to middle-class women in the west had been paid for by the enslavement of poor migrant women.
"Imperialism used to extract the gold and other resources, now we are taking love from the poorer countries. Many of these women have to leave their own children behind to come and work as childminders."
Ehrenreich, whose new book, Global Women, examines what she claims is an unrecognised people trade, said: "We women in the rich countries work, so we need someone else to do the work at home and look after our children.
"Our children learn quickly in this servant economy that some people are more worthy than others. New hierarchies emerge. Because increasingly cleaning women are women of colour, so you imprint racism very early." But the main blame lies with men for their failure to properly share the burdens of the home, she argued.
Ehrenreich said no longer having to do your own housework had also "bred a callousness and solipsism in the people it served", and made them complacent in their privilege.
"In this way paid housework is more damaging in some respects than violence in films," she said. It encouraged a thinking that the socks we dropped would be mysteriously tidied away, and by extension that the pollution our factories created would just go away and did not matter.
"The ugly underside of this is that women are also lured here for cleaning or childminding jobs by traffickers and they end up in brothels."
The rise of the new servant economy could be directly traced to the mid-1980s, she said, when women in the west first began to enjoy the fruits of feminism. "At that point that the graph in which men, who had for the previous decade or so been taking on more domestic chores, flattens out. It is because men have not taken up their responsibilities at home that this demand for domestic help exploded.
"You can even see it in the advertising that is used for house cleaning services in America, some even say, 'We will save your marriage!'"
Feminism had badly failed these poor and migrant women, she insisted. "We thought entirely in terms of reforming men, which hasn't worked yet. Even in the west, feminism may have made great gains for middle-class women, but the other 70% who are still doing stereotypical female jobs have not seen much change."
Ehrenreich has been labelled an "intellectual pornographer" by rightwing groups in America, who are furious that Nickel and Dimed has been adopted on to university syllabuses. "They said I was an atheist who has dedicated her life to the destruction of the American family," she claimed.
But the real destruction was in developing countries, many of whose governments actively collude with the trade in domestic servants. "If you look at countries like Sri Lanka or the Philippines that these women have left behind, it has had a calamitous effect. Children are left to be looked after by the men, such that they do, who are mostly unemployed."
She said the governments of poor countries often used the money sent home by migrant women workers as a way to do nothing about poverty.
pasted from The Guardian