Current Challenges to Feminism: Theory and Practice

Those “chore wars” have obviously come to an end, the gender tensions these produced finally resolved, and not because properly enlightened men are picking up their proportionate share. Menial duties traditionally assigned to women and housewives have been turned over to Third World domestic workers, dramatizing racial/ethnic, national, and class differences in the most blatant, awkward, discomfiting ways. But perhaps for those writing at present the old “sisterhood is powerful” slogan looms too distant now for this situation to cause even the slightest embarrassment. Suffice it to say that one hears of no attempt to invoke that rallying cry these days. Why or how personal interactions with subjects so profoundly set apart by class, race, and nationality have managed to escape examination is somewhat perplexing as well; this baffles, particularly in view of the fact that “intersectionality” is a reigning paradigm in women’s studies. Of course in this approach gender, race, and class are conceptualized as intersecting identities, all equal in impact, rather than as a set of social relations where class exerts a determining power.

“Like part of the family”

Instead of probing the immensely complex dynamics of class, race and nation in mistress/housemaid relationships, feminists conducting research about domestic workers mainly recount what employers tell them, that they treat their maids “like part of the family.” Or they invent concepts that, intentional or not, obscure the glaring status disparity in the relationship (forgetting that status is always relational), notions like “personalism” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001), presumably a variety of maternal benevolence that is extended by the fair-minded to her “Other.” Or they emphasize domestic workers’ “agency,” revealed in the manifold ways subordinates by sheer necessity learn to manipulate and resist the authority of their superiors—simple survival mechanisms, in other words (Constable, 1997). Few deign to recall aforementioned materialist perspectives on household labor. (Similar conceptual tools are applied to sex work, earlier known by the name of prostitution, now presented in terms of “desire” or “emotional labor.”) Among these few are Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich & Hochshild, 2002), who writes that feminists ought to feel a “special angst” about how a privileged woman’s safe haven easily transmutes into a sweatshop the minute a hired domestic worker of color steps in, the former’s magnanimity notwithstanding. Another feminist, Bridget Anderson (2000), argues that domestic work is not labor just like any other. She asserts without equivocation that what is involved in the transaction is not the sale of the domestic worker’s labor but her personhood, her very self. But these are minority voices.

Let us now turn to Filipino and Filipino-American feminists writing about this same subject, or the topic of migrant workers generally. How does their approach differ from that of Western researchers? from the productivist framework that I sketched in the beginning? As I previously remarked, the connection of migrant labor to the mode of production has either been made tenuous or extinguished entirely. In fact, it has become obligatory to preface one’s argument by denouncing any account that smacks of “the economy.” It is definitely not academically smart today to refer to poverty as a motivation for seeking employment opportunities overseas; desire for adventure and independence, perhaps, or maybe the need to escape patriarchal domination or domestic violence.

Never mind that a staggering 3,000 Filipinos leave the country each day (70% of these female), the majority landing jobs as domestic workers; or that it is their remittances (totalling over $12 billion this year) that enable the government’s debt servicing to international financial institutions. Rather, the trend is to go for “nuance and complexity”; this is shorthand for a concentrated focus on cultural factors in the micropolitics of everyday life in a way that I would have enormously welcomed in the past, except that this time the mode of production has been scrubbed out of the picture. This is not to deny that terms like capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism are necessarily avoided, but these are discursively formulated and culturalized as well, amounting, in effect, to mere rhetorical flourishes. When they are not, they serve only as backdrop for the real story, which is that of individuals and their personal relations.

An example should serve here. A study of the children of Filipinas working abroad explores husbands’ responses to their wives’ prolonged absence and concludes that, contrary to the researcher’s expectations, men have refused to pick up the slack of childcare (Parrenas 2005). They are thus unable to maneuver any substantive “gender border-crossing” that might cause a revision of traditional sex roles. Again, this line of attack would have been tremendously useful in the past when there was a firm understanding of the influence of systemic forces, but current abstention from “economics” leads nowhere near any project for radical societal transformation. Had the author deployed a macro framework with a concrete analysis of global capitalism, she might have arrived at the conclusion that no disruption in gender roles of any consequence can occur without the requisite structural and institutional changes.

Spontaneous individual acts

By today’s reckoning, “resistance” has become reduced to everyday spontaneous individual acts not involving much political deliberation. To repeat, the simple survival strategies of migrant workers have been elevated to the category of “agency,” ostensibly to demonstrate their empowerment and to dispel the slightest suggestion that the oppressed may be passive victims. (Let us hope that President Gloria Arroyo’s recent proclamation of Filipinos’ “supermaid” status does not serve to amplify this tendency.) To go even further, their very identity as transnational border-crossers is shown to always already exemplify opposition. For aren’t picking and choosing which facets of the old culture to retain and the new one to accept, already performative acts of hybridity, and therefore in themselves acts of defiance? And how are notions of oppositionality arrived at? First, by positing that “inbetweenness” or transnational subjects’ location in the interstitial spaces of nations and cultures inevitably produces transgression as they must navigate across literal and metaphorical sites and negotiate their multiple, fluctuating identities (read: displaced from home, migrant laborers wind up summoning all the coping devices they can muster to keep body and soul together in an estranged, alienating, and exploitative milieu). Second, by radically readjusting the viewing lens to zero in and focus wholly on the personal or private, magnifying the import of individual actions and interpersonal connections while obfuscating disturbing political landscapes.

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