Poverty sucks

Poverty sucks.

Unequivocally and undeniably, it sucks to be a lesser link in the economic food chain. Does it suck worse for women than for men? Perhaps. But not necessarily for reasons endlessly hammered out by old-school feminism or soapbox sociology.

Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, a collection of essays edited by best-selling authors and well-respected social critics Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, unintentionally reveals one of the least recognized handicaps women face in their attempts to achieve economic advancement: other women.

Settle down now. There’s no real gender conspiracy going on here, just a faint reflection of the way women, in spite of successes in their own lives, sometimes fail to support one another effectively.

In fact, if there is a central weakness in Global Woman—beyond its self-congratulatory academic tone and overtly subjective man-bashing—it is the subtle criticism of women who want something better.

With the best intentions, Rhacel Salazar Parrenas’ essay “The Care Crisis in the Philippines” attempts to globalize threadbare debates over wage-earning women in its claim that the Philippine media pathologize the children and vilify “migrant women as bad mothers.” However, it is hard to miss the subtextual guilt extended in the author’s somewhat parochial investigation of the “emotional insecurity” and hardships Philippine children experience when their mothers work abroad.

In “Maid to Order,” Ehrenreich herself casts an uneasy shadow over middle-class women who pay for domestic services, questioning the ethics of those who might unapologetically purchase “rugs woven by child-slaves in India, or coffee picked by ruined peasants in Guatemala,” but hesitate to admit to dinner guests that their homes “double as sweatshops during the day.” It seems that working women have enough responsibilities without adding moral decline, child slavery and international economics to the list.

Even empowerment seems to run amok in Denise Brennan’s essay “Selling Sex for Visas: Sex Tourism as Stepping Stone to International Migration for Dominican Women.” An anthropology professor at Georgetown University, Brennan objects to media depictions of international sex workers as victims because “it theoretically confuses social agency and identity with social context.” Excuse me? Outside of academia, who believes that “poor single mothers” in the Dominican Republic are using sexual tourism as an economic “advancement strategy”?

Still, the collection’s strengths more than make up for its weaknesses. Hung Cam Thai offers a fascinating discussion of inverted trans-global marriages in his essay “Clashing Dreams: Highly Educated Overseas Brides and Low-wage U.S. Husbands.” In a nearly perfect counterpoint to Brennan, Thai describes the “double marriage squeeze” in professional women with little marital potential in Vietnam seeking increased gender equity by marrying blue-collar Vietnamese men with limited marital potential in America and who are in turn seeking wives with old-world values American women don’t seem to possess.

Lynn May Rivas’ essay “Invisible Labors: Caring for the Independent Person” is reason enough to read this book. Her observation that “American individualism stresses personal independence and autonomy in all aspects” defines the essence of domestic support and its need for invisibility. Rivas’ premise is that invisibility is easily applicable to gardeners, housekeepers and others “whose job it is to be invisible and [whom] are valued for their invisibility.” More importantly, the essay examines a sense of independence that can be achieved only through paid care as opposed to dependence on care provided by families and friends.

On the one hand, paid care places a dollar value on labors of love. On the other hand, in real life, it’s much easier to fire a “caregiver” than your mother-in-law.