Book review - Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, And Sex Workers In the New Economy

 GLOBAL WOMAN: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy


Edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild

Metropolitan Books, 2003, 328 pages, $26.00

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The invisible world of the largely non-white, migrant, poor women who nanny and clean for families across the United States is made strikingly visible in social critics Barbara Ehrenreich's and Arlie Russell Hochschild's Global Woman. This is not just an extraordinary read, but a jarring read. Very few of us readers could be those nannies, maids, or sex workers. Indeed, for most of us readers, they are “the other.” But we could—dare we admit it?—be their employers. And that is part of what makes reading this book so thought-provoking. What exactly is the reader's own role in this underworld that underpins the new economy?

Ehrenreich is a prolific writer with a knack for turning difficult topics into popular reading. Case in point is her recent bestseller Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, for which she went “undercover” as a blue-color worker to demonstrate how and why today's working class cannot possibly get by. Her co-editor Arlie Russell Hochschild is a similarly distinguished thinker and writer (author of bestseller The Second Shift, as well as the most recent The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes on Home and Life).

In Global Woman, they have woven together nannies, maids, and sex workers to document the feminization of the new economy. Their joint effort builds on their own individual work but brings in new and exciting dimensions from 13 collaborators--, who include the well-known author Susan Cheever, academic Saskia Sassen, Free the Slaves director Kevin Bales, and Joy Zarembka, who writes movingly of the powerlessness of foreign domestic workers imported to work in the U.S. for employees of agencies like the World Bank.

I am likely to be forever haunted by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo's chilling “Blowups and Other Unhappy Endings.” Hondagneu-Sotelo's series of stories on how the unequal power relations between employer and employee merge with faulty cross-cultural communication to take nannies and maids from seemingly secure jobs to nothing with one wrong sentence.

And what of the children of these nannies whom we expect to love our children as they love their own? Here again, Global Woman enters a largely hitherto invisible world. Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, for example, skillfully digs into the “care crisis” that she finds among Filipino children left behind for years at a time when their mothers travel thousands of miles for jobs.

The essays also remind us of the World Bank and IMF-imposed development models that force governments around the world to tighten their belts and lead Filipino schoolteachers to decide they would be better off as domestics in Hong Kong. These same policies convince engineers and lawyers from Vietnam to become mail-order brides of less-educated Americans—as Hung Cam Thai expands upon in a chapter on “Clashing Dreams: Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-wage U.S. Husbands.” These unforgettable topics are typically left below the surface in exposés of mail-order brides and mail-order sex.

Together, these essays offer a sobering counter to the popular notion that the “new economy” will replace physical labor with “intellectual labor”—not so for the millions of women who inhabit the pages of this book. And, it is part of the unfinished business of feminism that we are able to use these invisible women to further the myth that today's Western woman can successfully juggle work and family to “have it all” without any changes in social policy.

I loved this book and simultaneously am haunted by it. As someone who lived for many years in Southeast Asia and as the mother of a six-year old, I have met many women like those who are the nannies, maids and sex-workers in Global Woman. I can tell you of a woman in the Philippines who went overseas to work as a nanny in order to pay for the healthcare that her own very sickly young daughter needed. In her absence, her daughter died. And I can tell you of a woman from El Salvador whom many children (including my own son) in my neighborhood adore, but who bears a deep dark secret: her own two daughters, now grown, long ago stopped speaking to her after cursing her for abandoning them in El Salvador.

I even have a file filled with such disturbing stories for a book I had once thought of writing about the women who cared for and educated my son and his friends. But, kudos to Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochshild and their collaborators: I do not need to write that book anymore.

So too are Ehrenreich and Hochschild to be applauded, not only for their wonderful essays in this book, but also for mov-ing beyond a focus on their own best-selling work. In what seems a conscious, political act, Ehrenreich and Hochschild have chosen to use their names and reputation to give voice to their other co-authors, who in turn join them in choosing to serve as transmission belts to make the “other” both visible and haunting.

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