Nanny-guilt: Exploitation isn't just women's fault

February 10, 2004|By Susan Reimer

CAITLIN FLANAGAN has twin sons, a husband, an advanced degree, a book contract and - here is the important part - a nanny.

She also has a job writing for The Atlantic magazine, most often about women's issues, and this month she has written the cover story: "Dispatches from the Nanny Wars: How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement."

Flanagan is writing a book about modern motherhood, and this article appears to be a sort of dispatch on "what I have learned so far."

In it, she indicts women, and the women's movement, for the poor pay and treatment of the immigrant women some of us hire to clean our houses and take care of our kids while we are out seeking self-fulfillment in the workplace.

She begins by describing the early, difficult, years of her sons' lives when she endured the depression and tedium of stay-at-home martyrdom, along with the companion feelings of virtuousness and superiority.

But she did it with a nanny.

"[A] majority of my sainted hours ... were spent in the company of a highly capable and very industrious nanny who did all of the hard stuff. There was no need for me to be moping around the apartment all day ..."

But she stayed, she writes, because she was so anxious about establishing her turf. This was her first hint that "the mother-nanny relationship has the potential for being the most morally, legally and emotionally charged one that a middle-class woman will ever have."

That's how she introduces her essay. She then proceeds on a survey of feminist literature on the subject of work and family. She begins by - remember this for later - discussing the marriage contract proposed by activist and author Alix Kates Shulman, an attempt to spell out an equitable division of household chores as the only way to get clueless men to do their share, thereby ending the oppression of women.

There was an easier answer, Flanagan writes: Hire someone to do it.

But there was a hitch in this solution. Domestic help usually meant black women. And not only were they finding better ways to make a living as a result of the civil rights movement, we were loath to rely on them because of all the slavery baggage attendant. And we considered them part of the sisterhood.

Besides, the goal was to get the men to help.

Then, Flanagan writes, what luck! The forces of global capitalism provided "a cheap, easily exploited army of poor and luckless women - fleeing family, war, the worst kind of poverty, leaving behind their children to do it, facing the possibility of rape or death on the expensive and secret journey."

The result, Flanagan writes, was that one of the "noblest tenets of second-wave feminism," the idea that if one sister was oppressed we were all oppressed, "collapsed like a house of cards."

Once again, rich white women were free to employ dark-skinned women to clean their houses and raise their kids.

Well-off white women told themselves that a high tide floats all boats, and their return to work provides work for a whole sub-set of other women, Flanagan writes.

But the truth is, the work these women were hired to do is often ill-paid and without sick leave, paid vacation or health benefits, and it leaves them physically exhausted and without the means to provide for the good care of their own children.

The only answer - if women insist on using their educations to do something more than pick up the same toys every afternoon at 4 - is to grant the same gains of professional-class women to those who make professional lives possible.

That is, to pay these women a healthy wage, including our part of the taxes and theirs so that they are not shorted on pay day. And provide the health care and time-off benefits that professional women demand in their own workplaces.

Flanagan suggests, quite rightly, that middle-class women stop focusing on their own work-life balance and start making sure the lives of the poor women who work for them are in some sort of balance, too.

I couldn't agree more.

But here is where I differ with Flanagan.

Her entire argument about the exploitation of poor women is made with the working mother alone in her cross-hairs. But aside from taking note of Shulman's failed effort to divide chores down the middle, the working father never seems to enter the room.

Even if it is true that women are primarily responsible for finding a suitable substitute for themselves if they decide to work, in what universe do women alone bear the moral fault for what happens next?

He may never ask about it, but that doesn't mean the working father is off the hook when it comes to the decent treatment of the hired help.

This is a different version of an old - but still kicking - argument about whether mom should go back to work at all. Only if she makes enough to cover the cost of getting her out the door, it seems. Unlike dad, she has to justify the expense of her job. Flanagan seems to argue the exploitation of the underclasses is on her tab as well.

I don't buy that. Like Alix Kates Shulman, I am looking for an honest division of the blame.

And, while we're on the subject, what of the landscaping, construction and maintenance industries, not to mention stores like Wal-Mart, all of which rely on plentiful immigrant labor and count on the fact that the workers are too illegal or uneducated or grateful to complain about their treatment?

Flanagan tries to make the case that exploitation of the immigrant domestic worker is a black mark on the soul of the feminist movement. It's much more than that. It's the American way of doing business.

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