A Woman’s Work is Never Done;
An Analysis of Domestic work, Race, Class and Gender
January 4, 2002
American University, Washington DC.
Dr. Dr. Esther Chow
and Dr. Gay Young
|home||list of theses|
Sociologists study the idea of gender as something that people practice, or “do” as well as something that people “are.” This means that all people are socialized into institutions and roles based on gender and how they portray their gender. In regards to this, the gendered division of labor is blatantly apparent in this country particularly when we study housework and its division into what is “male” and “female” work. This is especially important because males and females are socialized to understand their own gendered concepts of work. It is a fact that women’s work in the United States is used by the patriarchal regime, meaning, a male dominated system of institutions; and yet it is unrecognized as beneficial and the patriarchy’s refusal to grant women’s work its due appreciation keeps it trivial and unimportant to most of the rest of the world. It seems that instead, the patriarchal system has worked to divide women, and to accentuate the division of race and class. When studying women’s work, it is easy to begin to see this division of women into categories of race and class within the larger category of gender.
The concept of the “double day,” which means that working women work far more hours for less money than males because of their responsibility to the household, is one that is especially prevalent among lower class women of color. I think that studying their roles as paid domestics, or maids, is very important because of this enforced “double day” concept. The research I have done deals with Latina women who work as domestics, and how they fit into the patriarchal paradigm of labor in the United States. This has led me to a couple of questions: Is unpaid work that domestics do as valuable as the work they get paid for? And how do race and class shape women’s work experiences? By value I mean the concept of associating something of worth, like money, with work. Value can also be defined socially in terms of assigning social status to work. I think the latter question is especially interesting when learning about domestic women and their female employers, both of whom are oppressed and devalued, but many upper class female employers are in privileged situations and therefore have the means to avoid the stigma of this oppression. I am particularly interested in studying Latina immigrant women and their relationships to gendered work, and their reasons for choosing to participate in this kind of paid labor. The study will be an analysis of Latina women who work either as independent domestics, women who live in their employers homes, and women who do paid care work, to see how they perceive the work that they do, compared to how they perceive the concept of “work” in general. In other words, when do they feel work becomes valuable? Research tells us that women’s work is always devalued unless there is a monetary gain associated with it. Do women who work as maids, domestics and/or nannies feel that their work is important and valued? And is the same work they do when it is unpaid in their own homes as valuable as the paid work they do? Through a series of interviews, and personal narratives, I hope to gain and understanding about Latina work from the women I talk to about their experiences working in this field. Some of the literature I have used focuses mainly on Mexican or Chicana women, but I would like to use a slightly broader population encompassing women who fit into the category of Latina, which I understand as meaning those who either emigrated from Latin America, or were born in the United States but are of Latin American descent. From this research and data collection I hope to find information about a couple of things. First, I am really interested in women and labor and housework is an important gender ideology for both. Secondly, I hope to understand more about the intersection of class and race and gender and the affects that a gender regime has on them. Since women have always been the ones responsible for maintaining homes (because a gendered society divides labor that way,) class and race almost force women to fight against each other for power within this male dominated society. Upper class white women, for example, often don’t understand their privilege and take their social position for granted. They are able to give the “dirty” work of running a household, such as dishes and cleaning and laundry to someone who is less privileged than they are; thus perpetuating the idea of dominance in the United States; only with women using women and not men using women. If a white upper class woman can afford to hire a lower class immigrant to clean her house, than she is able to engage in activities she wants to engage in, and not be truly responsible for the housework. The interesting part of this is that many Latina women CHOSE this type of work, instead of other fast food, or factory jobs. And there are several reasons for this. It allows them the ability to be undocumented and work without a visa, they often don’t have to learn English, and their employers and working hours are often flexible enough to allow for them to maintain their own households. Not only that, but many see it as empowering to be able to pick and chose their own employers, because the maids that are in high demand won’t have any problem securing work, thus allowing them to leave abusive and negligent employers.
II. Literature Review
The history of Latino immigration, particularly from Mexico to the United States is an interesting one, and it helps set the stage for a bigger topic; immigrant women and their role in labor in the U.S. It is important to understand why women immigrate to the United States, and how that affects their roles within their family and their communities. Much of the research on basic Latino immigration is gendered; it typically talks about the male experience as laborers and farm workers, and assumes that the researcher can generalize the same information about early female immigration as well. Although this paper will primarily provide information about women and their work as domestics, it is important to lay down a general history of Latino immigration.
Juan Garcia in his book, Mexicans in the Midwest discusses Mexican immigration as a response to the post Civil War industrialization of the United States which helped the U.S. country grow into a united and unified country after being torn apart by the Civil War. This growth included expanding and strengthening the railroad systems and underground water and sewage systems which enabled Americans to live comfortable lives. This post war expansion enabled cities, especially newer cities in the Mid-west and elsewhere, to begin to grow into huge urban centers and create a whole new job market and structure. Garcia says that “although the urban-industrial complexes drew rural White and Black Americans from the East and Midwest into cities, the number attracted proved insufficient to meet expanding labor needs” (Garcia 1996: 4). Meanwhile, the U.S. saw an influx of Mexican immigrants meeting with the demanding shortage in manual labor which made it easy for these newcomers to find jobs. Most of these immigrants were young bachelors, or solteros from the Central Plateau of Mexico where a “large population and severe depression in 1907… forced Mexicans from their homes in search of relief” (Garcia 1996: 5). The new expanding railroads and underground water systems allowed immigrants, many of whom were faced with major language barriers, to make money to send back to their families in Mexico.
The arrival of Mexican women to the United States led to essential contributions in the economic survival of the working class family. Women who came to the United States from Mexico were usually young and single and had the capability to make money to send home to support brothers/sisters, and parents. Some literature suggests that these women were “sent” by their families to the States, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, “patriarchal rules of authority often worked against the migration of sons and daughters” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 190). Despite this, their arrival led to “the development of more stable communities and the creation of a more diverse social environment” (Garcia 1996: 83). However, their vital contributions, like those of all women, were unappreciated, and unrewarded. Mexican women faced discrimination, poverty and insecurity in the workplace.
In the early part of the 20th century, urban male Mexican immigrants did back breaking work in railroad yards, meat packing plants, and textile factories, and the women often had to take on domestic work to supplement their families’s income (Garcia 1996: 91). Garcia discusses the benefits and problems for these early Mexican immigrants in the United States job market. He says “jobs not only increased women’s opportunities to socialize with others of their own age, they also provided a measure of independence” (Garcia 1996: 94).
All women need the opportunity to make their own money, but the idea of being poor, Mexican and Spanish speaking made it that much more important for financial freedom. Jobs allowed these women opportunities to learn English and become “Americanized” which many men saw as a disadvantage. One woman was quoted as saying “‘Mexican men don’t like the freedom of women, it is all right for Americans but not for the Mexicans. They don’t want their wives to work’” (Garcia 1996: 94). Many men agreed with this statement saying that it was in fact acceptable for American women to work, and even for some Mexican women if they had been born in the U.S., but they disapproved of their women in Mexico working. Though this was the attitude in the early part of the century, many families didn’t have a choice about who worked, and in many cases, everyone in the household had to provide some income. According to a study completed by Sociologist Steven Zahniser the duration of stay in the United States for Mexican women depended largely on marital status and family. He says:
The migration decisions of married individuals may be influenced by their desire to spend time with their spouses. Also, a spouse’s labor power increases the economic resources available to the household, making it less necessary for the head of the household to migrate (Zahniser 1999: 111).
These are two of the things that determine length of stay or permanent migration to the States.
Feminist scholarship shows that gender- “that is, the social and cultural ideals, practices, and displays of masculinity and femininity- organizes and shapes our opportunities and life chances” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 2). It affects both men and women, and is as important to understanding women’s migration as it is to understanding men’s migration. In the same context, patriarchy can be defined as “a fluid and shifting set of social relations where men oppress women, in which different men exercise varying degrees of power and control, and in which women collaborate to resist in diverse ways” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 3). Historically, labor and income in the U.S. have been both gendered, and confined within patriarchal institutions. If we consider gender “as a social construct which establishes, reproduces, and consolidates the differences between men and women, then we are referring to historically constructed nuances and to the spaces in which this takes place” (Hart 1994: 72). In terms of labor, women are not as willing to make demands on employers, or request things that they need when they are working with men, and gender differentiations regarding tasks that men and women do become more evident. For many women, immigration seems to offer the chance to be financially independent in a country “where there is less resistance to women working outside the household for wages” (Pedraza 1991: 309). It is interesting to understand that gender is not only part of the decision to immigrate, it is also part of the reluctance to return to the native country. It becomes very hard for women to consider leaving “the gains that migration and employment have brought them” (Pedraza 1991: 309).
“Throughout the history of the United States, women have constituted a significant share of the immigrants who have settled within the country’s expanding boarders” (Varnez 1999: 2). Immigration has been an empowerment tool for women who move their families across the boarder. Though these women will still remain poor, living conditions and money making opportunities in the United States are often better than they were in Central America. Youyun Zahng in her study of women’s participation in the globalized labor market argues “the entry of women ‘into the international labor markets is one of the most impressive responses to the deterioration of options in their national labor markets’” (Portillo 1999: 2). The presence of immigrant women working illegally in very low status jobs affirms degrees of stratification in the labor market. There are jobs in the U.S. for women to immigrate to.
During the 1960s The United States began generating many low-income jobs centered in urban areas. This development of jobs brought many of those in the periphery out of rural areas and into the cities to claim these opportunities. In the decades to follow, many informal-sector occupations grew- paid domestic work and child care- and recruited mostly female immigrant workers. In her book Gendered Transitions, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo argues that:
An objective labor demand for immigrant women, one that that is solicitous of workers with particular configurations of class, gender, ethnicity and legal status, partially explains the increased participation of Mexican women in undocumented immigration and settlement (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 187).
As economic problems in Latin America got worse, permanent settlement in the United States became an increasingly viable option for Latino men and women. But settlement wasn’t always the same experience for both genders. Historically and in present day, women remain housewives, and men remain breadwinners, and it is easy to see how gender relations shape their migration experiences. Household gender relations determine things like resource allocation, and how the “opportunities and constraints imposed by macro-structural factors translate into different migration patterns” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 188). While both men and women have different migration experiences, the historical and social contexts in which migration occurs affect women in the same culture in different ways. Many times women immigrate because they have no choice; their husbands have made the decision without consulting them, and they are forced to leave their families, friends, and social support networks. Sometimes they immigrate to find some financial independence away from ruling males in their households. No matter what the reason, the female migration experience is different from male.
Recent patterns of immigration show that migration networks, which are networks used by a people who immigrate to any new place, have begun to make it easier for Mexicans and their families to come to the United States. These groups help to ensure assimilation and job placement. They are defined as “any socioeconomic link between the origin and destination of a prospective migrant that facilitates migration between the two points” (Zahniser 1999: 9). When immigrant populations have matured and grown in an established area, newly arrived immigrants depend on established family and friends to help them get settled. Most Mexican migration networks, for example, consist of family members or acquaintances from the same vicinity in Mexico, and are often in the form of social clubs consisting of people called paisanos (Zahniser 1999: 9). In other words, immigrants “over the past two decades have created informal networks that facilitate the arrival of new people who, once in the country have a relative or friend who gives them lodging and helps them find work” (Uchitelle 1999: 3). These networks serve several functions: 1) they help lower the costs of immigration. Friends and family “often provide the migrant with an initial place to stay in the United States for little or no cost” (Zahniser 1999: 10). 2) Friends and family members associated with the networks may also share in transportation costs between the U.S. and Mexico making crossing the boarder the only real obstacle. 3) These networks can also do small favors for the newcomer, such as give rides, provide childcare, and loan small amounts of money. For immigrants, especially women who come with limited resources, this can often be a blessing (Zahniser 1999: 10). Presently, in the United States, the economy is booming, and yet this nation continues to thrive on cheap labor to keep it wealthy. Much of this labor comes from women and immigrants, many of whom are illegally in this country. With the language barrier disadvantaging them and the fear that the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) will catch them, many Latina women will take whatever work they can find, including domestic work. (Uchitelle 1999: 1).
It is important to know that migration networks are not equally available to men and women. They are, like most everything else in society, gendered. Male centered networks operate to support males, while their wives are shut out and therefore, rely on each other for support. According to Hondagneu-Sotelo, women have played a vital role in the efforts to build networks among Mexican immigrants that are female centered (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 202). She also claims that as more women and families settle, the immigrant community begins to be more self-reliant. This is largely due to “women’s ability to mobilize various resources, and also to the cross-generational and neighborhood ties that emanate from varied family members” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 203). Women’s participation in self-reliant migrant networks leads to involvement in church and neighborhood groups and helps to solidify settlement in a couple of ways. First, these activities are aimed at improving the conditions of life in the United States. These are the types of activities that represent an investment of time towards permanent settlement. Second, the process of female participation in these organizations widens the women’s circle of acquaintances and help to construct a sense of social solidarity which is essential to social integration (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994: 203). There is a connection between these migration networks and the labor market for immigrants. For women who participate in domestic work, it is easy to find employers through friends and family who are already doing similar work.
In the United States, Latino immigrants provide cheap labor; women often work as domestics, cleaning houses and hotels while men work as laborers and construction workers. According to Sociologist Luis Lora, “ ‘women are most vulnerable in the globalization process because, unlike men, they are not as demanding in their wages or working conditions’” (Portillo 1999: 2). Lora continues to say “ ‘for poor women, the most important thing is to have an income, especially if they are the head of the family, are poor and lack specific training for the labor market’” (Portillo 1999: 3). She also argues that many men would prefer unemployment instead of working in adverse conditions, but most women do not have a choice; it is more important that they ensure the welfare of their families. In other words, Lora says “‘when women obtain work……….. they don’t ask about the work conditions, they accept the job as if it were a blessing’” (Portillo 1999: 3).
Mary Romero’s book, Maid in the U.S.A is an interesting study of the lives and work of Mexican immigrant women who work as domestics in the United States. The book analyzes the relationships between upper class white women and the Latina immigrants they hire to clean their houses. She studies the hierarchy of power that exists, not only between men and women, but between women of different races and class backgrounds. Romero talks about how many United States employers of domestics refused to consider their domestics as “one of the family” yet did not acknowledge their own role as employer. “Hiring a domestic was likely to be presented within the context of charity and good works; it was considered a matter of helping ‘these Mexican women’ rather than recognized as a work issue” (Romero 1992: 4). Romero begins her discussion with a description of the images of housework that women are expected to perform, and the segregated gender roles that enable this expectation. She argues that “in the traditional Norman Rockwell image, smiling mother’s wearing aprons place delicious meals on the dining room table, husbands carry trash to the curb once a week, and sons cheerfully mow the lawn while daughters bake cookies” (Romero 1992: 17). Despite this cheerful image of household work, most chores are dull and unappealing to those required to do them. Most women are not enthusiastic about ironing the clothes or scrubbing toilets, and yet, the sexual division of labor that is upheld and enforced in this country makes these chores the responsibility of females in the home. According to theorists Ann Oakley and Nora Glazer, the housewife has always been the one responsible for house work regardless of if she performs the work or not. This is because “social responsibility has not been shifted from her shoulders” (Romero 1992: 19).
Lately, the trivial nature of housework has been challenged and overcome and more and more the work to maintain households is becoming legitimate; especially when it is done by white middle class women (Romero 1992: 17).
Hiring domestics to lift the burden of housework from middle class women is not a new thing. The cult of domesticity arose in the early 19th century among middle class women because “the availability of domestic servants allotted time for the development of the arts of baking and needlework” (Pedraza 1991: 319). Time became more abundant and social class became more apparent because of changing attitudes about the allocation of work between the mistress and the maid. It is well known that women have always relied on each other for help with caring for children and doing chores, but “from the 1820s on, ‘domestic servants’ that required supervision replaced the ‘help’- a change that was facilitated by the increasing number of poor immigrant women coming to America” (Pedraza 1991: 319). This has been a trend in the work of women; all women are responsible for the same work, but those closer to the top of the hierarchy dominate those at the bottom. Faye Duddley explains that “middle class women elevated their status by supervising the work of servant and shifted the roles of ‘authority and activity, rather than passivity and isolation’” (Romero 1992: 54). Changes in the structure and makeup of both the hiring class and the servant class made way for brand new social relationships to emerge. Romero explains that there was a big difference between being a ‘lady’ and being a housewife. While ladies were responsible for maintaining a household, they were not required to actually participate in the keeping of it; they mostly delegated and oversaw work.
There has been an interesting chain of events taking place in the U.S. in recent years. As white middle class women have more control over household income, and more responsibilities outside of the home, there has risen a need for many to bring outsiders in to perform the basic chores to keep the household running. With the influx of Latina immigrants, white female heads of household seek low-income workers to do chores in their homes. While the responsibility to keep the home maintained still remains that of the mistress of the house, she is now able to utilize cheap domestic laborers to take some of the burden away from her. This enables immigrant women who lack resources and accessibility to gain employment. According to Romero, “housework overdetermines women’s lives in the home, but, perhaps more importantly, the outside labor market exploits the social ideology and role expectations of women and reproduces the structure in a gendered work force” (Romero 1992: 19).
Sociological studies of gender stratification confirm that housework is defined as “symbolic of women’s oppression, and many feminists argue that the shared experiences of the role of housewife unite[d] all women” (Romero 1992: 19). Many women receive minimal help from their families, who are made to do chores and help out, but are not responsible for the home functioning as an solidified unit. When assistance is received, “it tends to be sex-segregated by task; typically husbands do minor repairs, daughters wash the dishes, and sons carry out the trash” (Romero 1992: 19). Therefore, housework has become fused with sex roles, and the adult women carry most of the burden of maintaining the home. Men’s participation in housework is almost always secondary to their jobs and careers, and some sociologists argue that the situation may be worsening as the advancement of technology has replaced the need for masculine labor like building furniture and chopping wood. Therefore “women’s work is extended through ‘do-it-yourself’ kits which have shifted certain tasks previously considered ‘men’s work’ to the housewife” (Romero 1992: 20). When asked, many housewives describe their labor as monotonous, socially isolating, and lacking satisfaction and creativity, and this may be the reason that housewives are often seen as uninteresting and unimportant people. According to Romero, studies have shown that an overwhelming number of modern women “resent both the drudgery of housework and the responsibility allocated to them on the basis of their sex” (Romero 1992: 20). This is the reason that many women would rather work long hours outside of the home rather then stay home and do housework.
Female Latina immigrants are often unable to find high paid jobs in the U.S. for a variety of reasons and “domestic service [is] packaged as the most rewarding occupation for Mexican women and the ideal training ground for learning middle-class ideas of motherhood and womanhood” (Romero 1992: 88). Most Latina immigrants are at a disadvantage because they are not exposed to much of the same kind of education that the United States has to offer. They face language barriers, and cultural differences that keep them out of the white collar labor force, and keep them in low paying jobs. Given their limited options, many of them choose to be domestics or house keepers for middle and upper class families. These jobs entail cleaning and cooking in homes other than their own, for small amounts of money, and they often work long days and juggle multiple employers. While most women in the labor force work what are called “double days,” domestics work these doubles doing the same kinds of work. The term “double day” refers to the idea that women work full days at a job outside of the home, and then come home and maintain the household, making sure things are clean, and food is made, and the members of the family are clean and taken care of. Thus an eight hour quickly turns into a sixteen hour day based upon society’s pressure on women’s roles. Romero claims that “on average, domestics work 2 or more hours per day longer than other working women, and many work seven days a week” (Romero 1992: 63). Thus for domestics, the differences in types of work don’t differ, the reward structure does. The work they are required to do in their own homes isn’t paid, and they don’t often get to choose to do it. Thus “the essence of the double day is the social necessity for women to contribute to both economic and homemaking activities” (Romero 1992: 18).
There are many advantages to domestic work for immigrant women. The most important of these is hour flexibility as most of them are also responsible for their own households as well. The paid domestic work often allows them the flexibility necessary to maintain both household and work the double day. When asked, many of these women emphasized “that domestic service allowed them to arrange their own hours, and they could easily add or drop an employer to lengthen or shorten the workweek [sic]” (Romero 1992: 40). This enables them to arrange hours to care for sick children, attend PTA meetings, or take children to appointments. Since culturally, Mexican women are obligated to the family, and are responsible for household work, domestic labor outside of the home seems to allow them the means to make money and maintain their family. In many cases, women are allowed to bring children with them when they are cleaning houses. Being from a socio-economic position that makes day care virtually unattainable, the freedom to keep small children with them while they work is very important (Romero 1992: 40). Provisions for this flexibility obviously have to be made with the employer, but with many homes needing domestics to clean them, and the limited availability of workers, most employers are happy to help out (Romero 1992: 41). It is also important to realize that taking days off from factories and restaurants jeopardizes employment, but domestic work enables women, especially those with families, to pick their own schedules. They are able to add or drop employers to facilitate their own needs and still ensure employment. For example, they may have a load of ten houses a week to clean; or they may have three. This type of flexibility allows women the “option of quitting unreasonable employers and replacing them with others less demanding” (Romero 1992: 63). By maintaining their own schedules, many domestics can decide how many houses to visit on any given day. Having the power to quit and leave the housewife with no help is a useful strategy in retaining autonomy and improving working conditions. This leads not only to financial freedom, it also is empowering for women who culturally are not empowered by their own society.
Another advantage to domestic labor is that it requires little or no training. Workers don’t need to know how to speak English, and they participate in work that they already engage in at home. This makes it a very attractive option to immigrant women who need to support their families, but do not have the resources to get training (Romero 1992: 41). Working as a domestic is not the most prestigious work, but it offers many women disadvantaged by the United States an opportunity to earn money and support themselves financially. It is a paradox , though, that while these women are the freest in terms of time constraints and obligations, they are exploited not only by their labor, but by their own gender. In terms of freedom, they are, within limits, able to spend the time they need with children, teachers, principles, and even other members of their communities. Many of their peers are obligated by their factories and restaurants to work long hours in bad conditions, and they clearly don’t have the advantages that domestic women have.
One of the most interesting parts of domestic labor to study is the power struggle between the female head of the middle class household and her Latina domestic worker. As Romero points out, middle and upper class housewives have a very prestigious position; they stay at home because they can and want to. Immigrant women work because they HAVE to, and their roles as housewives are considered unskilled and low status in society (Romeo 1992: 28). Their work in their OWN homes becomes second to that of their employers homes, making the class difference between the employer and employee very obvious. Therein lies the dichotomy; the work that these women are responsible for is essentially the same, but the social level of class and race enables the white middle class woman to be in a position of authority and power (Romeo 1992: 28). Although “both class of women-employees and employers- are devalued because they engage in reproductive labor, by hiring a domestic, a middle class woman is freed to pursue her own occupation, that is, employment that earns a salary much higher then the amount she pays the worker” (Romero 1992: 30). In other words, women who can afford to hire others to do their housework gain freedom and independence from the constraints of the “double day.”
In the early part of the century, the rise of the middle class enabled aristocratic women to hire domestic help. The hierarchy of control in upper class homes developed into a one-to-one relationship between mistress and maid. In other words “most domestics were not maids-of-all-work, which translated into working alone on the job” (Romeo 1992: 55). This led to severe isolation, and feelings of invisibility and loneliness and homemakers began to think of themselves as supervisors. This is an empowerment tool for the female heads of households; they are in control of the work without really having to do it. Faye Dudden explains “‘supervision permitted both middle-class and affluent women to forge an accommodation between the work ethic and leisure, to enjoy a measure of luxury and self-indulgent while retaining the moral authority essential to true womanhood’” (Romero 1992: 55).
Today, this role of supervisor still enables middle and upper class women to be empowered and dominate their domestic workers. It leaves the drudgery of cleaning and laundry to a servant so that the housewife can be free to pursue interests outside of the house. In the 1960s a book was published titled Your Maid from Mexico, and it acted sort of like a hand book for both employers and employees to learn how to treat their relationship. The oppressions of Latina female domestics in this book are obvious;
…you girls who work in homes can soon become more valuable to your employers than girls who work in offices, stores, or factories, because our homes and families are the closest to our hearts. Remember as you learn new skills day by day, you are not only learning how to become a better wife and mother yourself, but you are also learning to support yourself and your family in a worthwhile career in case you must be the breadwinner (Romero 1992: 88).
The authors also adopted language that reinforced racial hierarchies. Employers who are white are called women or ladies, but Mexican employees are referred to as “girls.” This, of course, reiterates the mistress/maid relationship and it illustrates how racial domination is maintained every day. Essentially, Latina domestics are instructed to be invisible. Romero discusses chapters in the book Your Maid from Mexico in great detail, and she is particularly disgusted with the section on cleanliness. The book implies so much racism by telling maids when they should wash their hands, and how, and what kinds of deodorants and sanitary napkins to use (Romero 1992: 89). She says “Your Maid from Mexico is a distillation of a century of management techniques used by Anglo housewives to manipulate Mexican domestic workers” (Romero 1992: 89). Domestic service must be looked at as productive capital in which race and gender dominations exist. The book gives further instructions:
By taking our place in the home and doing many of our jobs, you can give us free hours to do the things we enjoy- playing golf, sewing, playing the piano, attending club meetings, or working at a job we like (Romero 1992: 95).
Across the board, all women have been denied the same channels of upward mobility, and their lives are situated around sexism. But not all women experience sexism equally. Romero argues “sexism multiplies the effects of racism; the burden falls disproportionately on women of color” (Romero 1992: 94). The history of domestic service shows how middle-class women try to escape their own socially imposed sexism by working to escape the drudgery of house work and home making. Certainly women of color, just like white women, have been given the responsibility of homemaking activities and therefore all are victims of sexism, but class and race politics have also kept them from establishing other interests based on gender.
In the 1950s and 1960s feminists defined household labor as being central to women’s oppression and domination regardless of race or class status. Some feminists argued that the shared experiences of housework actually worked to unite all women, and the burden of this responsibility was to many feminists “the first obstacle to liberation” (Romero 1992: 97). Feminine progress to self-actualization involved the freedom from this drudgery. Romero states that “domestic service reveals the contradiction in a feminism that pushed for women’s involvement outside the home, yet failed to make men take responsibility for household labor” (Romero 1992: 98). This all comes back to the idea of the double day, and working middle and upper class women could escape the syndrome by hiring poor women to perform child care and housekeeping services; and this was considered progress by many. The problem lies in the fact that the progress happened not by lessening the burden of housework on women, just by shifting it to another location. The system of gender domination still places the responsibility of housework on women, but middle and upper class women have the financial freedom to escape it. This still means that though that it is women who are concerned with the drudgery of housework, but there is an obvious class dichotomy as well. If we accept that house work is central to the oppression of women, then as feminists Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave have pointed out, “ ‘every time the housewife or working woman buys freedom for herself as a domestic, that very same freedom is denied to the domestic, for the maid must go home and do her own housework’” (Romero 1992: 98). Columnist Viva from the Village Voice explains the complacency with which modern women accept domestic service as a solution to the burden of being a “superwoman.” She says:
Should it occur to you that nursing a baby, supporting one or two more other children, continuing your career, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and otherwise single-handedly maintain a family are incompatible activities, I will save you hours of anguish by saying definitively that a cleaning woman is the first form of help with which to start (Romero 1992: 98).
The most exploitative form of domestic service is manifested in systems of gender, social class and racial domination. In other words, middle class white women “liberate” themselves by “exploiting women of color- particularly immigrants- in the underground economy, for long hours at relatively low wages, with no benefits” (Romero 1992: 98). The same hierarchy of gender domination between men and women also exists in the domination of white women to immigrant women. Thus Latina immigrant women not only feel domination from the patriarchal institutions in power in this country, they also feel it from white women who exploit their labor. It is in essence the “master-servant” relationship that men have held over women for years. Romero states, “under the influence of community norms and values, middle-class women employers negotiate an informal labor contract with working class women in the privacy of their own homes” (Romero 1992: 99). Therefore, the hardships, isolation and exploitation felt by female household workers are directly controlled by their female employers. While mentioned earlier, there are many advantages to domestic work for Latina immigrant women, they are still exploited by their own gender.
So the question remains; why do white middle class women hire those of a lower class and different race as domestics? On the surface, the answer seems simple. White middle class women hire those available in the job market to relieve them of the responsibility of house hold labor, and those available in the job market happen to be unskilled, women of color. Underneath this simple answer however, the situation is much more complex. People who have studied the history of domestic labor assert that “in the past, employers hired domestics not only to labor in their homes by doing household chores, but also to provide personal service and status” (Romero 1992: 99). According to an article entitled “Liberated Women Liberating Domestics”:
Maids are cost efficient, they assist single parents; allow free women to relax or pursue personal interests; they help the working person; maids are essential to make up for skills a housewife might be deficient in, such as sewing; maids give a household status; domestic work provides jobs for those who might otherwise be unemployed(Romero 1992: 100).
To have a housekeeper or domestic who relieves a female of the drudgery of housework implies status and wealth in a home. It means that a family is able to spend extra money to alleviate the drudgery of physical labor on the woman who doesn’t want to do it.
Women are trapped in undervalued roles by the patriarchy, but, the hiring of domestics fulfills needs within some homes and also works to structure housework: tasks that many leisure class women feel are too demeaning for them to do they pass off to someone else. On the surface, the idea of hiring someone to perform another’s physical labor seems straightforward, but it is actually complicated by the idea that those in a lower class position are hired to take away work that is considered demeaning from someone else. Romero argues that as employers, “housewives decide what aspects of their physical labor they no longer want to perform, and in doing so they determine the employee’s work” (Romero 1992: 100). This act of hiring another woman to do the housewife’s duties can be seen as an empowerment tool for upper class women who are hindered by their socially constructed role. Since upper class women are in the position to hire domestics, they are also in a position to structure the domestic’s physical labor: “some employers choose to include tasks they feel are demeaning, others add new tasks and methods of housekeeping that they themselves never engage in, and still others are more interested in having their status affirmed and enhanced then in having their floors scrubbed” (Romero 1992: 100). In an effort to escape the drudgery of their housewife duties, employers often do not acknowledge work boundaries. Many see work they don’t want to do as the responsibility of their domestic which confuses the line between employee and servant. Even in situations where the worker’s tasks were agreed upon, “employees frequently reported that employers requested additional duties” (Romero 1992: 101). Without specific work boundaries and duties, domestics are taken advantage of, and forced to “serve” rather than just work.
Paid domestic labor structures housework in a very interesting way. Most housewives would define the work that their housecleaners do as different from their own housekeeping. For example “in their own homes most housewives would never consider moving furniture to vacuum beneath it, cleaning the refrigerator or oven every week, or scrubbing the floors on their hands and knees” (Romero 1992: 102). However, when the housework becomes another woman’s paid responsibility, the activity becomes refined to include that kind of thoroughness. According to Romero, one of the most common requests made to migrant domestic women was to scrub floors on their hands and knees rather than simply mopping, reiterating the “slave” or “lower class” persona.
People in high class positions in society often need reassurance of their socially ascribed status and wealth, and the ability of upper class women in society to hire domestics does just that. Housework is not glamorous, nor does it produce any amount of prestige in this culture, so if women are able to escape the drudgery of cleaning their houses, they will probably do it. Immigrant women, especially those from Central and South America provide the perfect escape for housewives to engage in other activities outside of the home. Many immigrant women are willing to work in low income, low status jobs, many require little or no training, and they enable their employers to feel empowered and in supervisory positions. Much of the research done in this area supports the claim that women thrive off of empowerment, and the use of domestics enables women who many times feel trapped themselves to become employers of those of a lower class status. It produces a really interesting relationship between women; gender becomes more and more divided along socio-economic status lines. This division is made more apparent by the omnipresent patriarchal system in the United States. The work becomes subservient in many cases, as employers require their domestics to do work that they themselves never participate in. So although women in general are required to participate in housework, the presence of a patriarchal system of domination forces a division of labor within the female gender along racial and class status lines.
The example Mary Romero uses is upper class housewives forcing their domestics to scrub floors on their hands and knees, leading to a “master/servant” relationship. The work then is exploitative as upper class employers take advantage of immigrant women who work for them. For those women who become domestics, the work offers them many advantages that other low income jobs do not; the most important of them being job flexibility. When raising a family, it is vitally important for women to be able to support their household, and maintain it at the same time. For immigrant domestic women, labor is used as an empowerment tool since it allows job flexibility and affords many women the choice to decide whom the work for and when they work. This is an advantage most workers do not have. In a society that disadvantages them with a language barrier, class and race consciousness, and a lack of their familiar cultural identity, they are able to use the labor market to find empowerment in the midst of their exploitation
Before I began my data collection, I received approval for this research from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at American University. Since there was some chance that I would be dealing with illegal or undocumented immigrants, it has been important to prove that confidentiality will be kept, and that those I interview have consented to talk to me. Some of the interviews were conducted with women who spoke English and others were conducted with the use of a translator.
Tapping into a population in which I do not belong, in this case, Latina immigrants, has been a really interesting challenge for me as a researcher. Robert Merton, in his work “Insiders/Outsiders” discusses the problems with trying to gain the trust and consent of a population that the researcher is not a part of. With language and cultural barriers, and the threat of employer or INS discovery, I had difficulties finding women to interview for my study. Those who I did find, were very cooperative, and were fascinating women, each with very different stories to tell. They are from many different South and Central American countries, and have varied educational levels. Some are currently employed and others are seeking employment. Most have families to support and work long and hard for the money they make.
I began my search for interview candidates by asking other Sociologists who have done similar work for contacts they might have had. I discovered early that trying to do research and collect data within a population of people that I am an outsider to, is not an easy task. As mentioned earlier, Robert Merton’s article “Insiders/Outsiders” suggests that every person is an insider to some groups and an outsider to others, and that it is hard to become accepted in a group that one is “outside” of. I found this to be true, as a White sociologist trying to tap in to a Latina population. Not only is the language barrier something I had to contend with, I also found that many of the women I initially approached were suspicious of me. I felt as if they were wondering what I could possibly want to talk to them about. The most effective way I was able to find women who were willing to talk to me was to contact organizations or agencies that helped Latina and Latino immigrants.
I was advised by a one of my fellow graduate cohorts, who has done work with Latina immigrants, to contact an organization called Casa de Maryland; a non-profit agency located in Silver Spring Maryland. Casa de Maryland works with both male and female Latino people to help them learn English, and find jobs. Their primary goal is to train, educate and employ Latinos in the Washington DC metropolitan area. When I contacted Casa, I spoke to a woman named Michelle who does employment outreach specifically for the women’s program. She conducts weekly employment meetings which I was invited to attend, and she suggested that I make fliers explaining my research to distribute at the meeting. The women at Casa did most of the leg work for me. They identified potential interview candidates, called them, and scheduled interviews. It is with the help of Casa that this project was able to be finished. Through Michelle and several other staff members at Casa de Maryland, I was able to interview five women about their current and past experiences working as maids, housekeepers, nannies, and other domestic workers.
Through many phone calls to larger umbrella agencies, I was advised to contact an organization called Shirlington Education and Employment Center (SEEC) located in Arlington, Virginia. This particular organization works with male and female Latino day laborers to help them secure temporary employment. Yolanda, the Employment Specialist, was able to provide seven women who fit my description and wanted to be interviewed. She was very excited to have me come and interview the women because she said she realized how important this kind of research is. She did all of the leg work for me and devised a calendar of the scheduled appointments she was able to come up with.
I conducted interviews both in English with English-speaking women and with the use of translators for those women who didn’t speak English. The translators were staff members who worked at Casa and at SEEC and were chosen because the participants felt comfortable sharing information with them. I paid each woman ten dollars for her time, and I tape recorded each interview as well as took field notes, so that I would ensure accurate data. Many of the interviews were conducted in Michelle’s office at Casa de Maryland and in the conference room at SEEC in Arlington. It was best to use a “neutral” area away from the place of employment, and private homes, in order to ensure comfort and confidentiality for all involved. I devised an interview guide full of questions that I used to ask the employee in order to obtain information pertaining to my research questions (See Appendix 2). The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and an hour which allowed enough time for supplemental questions from either of us. The interview guide used probing questions dealing with types of work that domestics do; why they chose to do domestic work; what kinds of relationships they have with their employers; and how this work compares to work they do in their own homes. I also did participant observation research at the weekly meetings I attended. Both the interviews and the participant observation field notes provide rich data about the lives and work of Latina women in the Washington DC metropolitan area. After the interviews were over, I asked each woman if she knew of anyone else who she thought might want to talk to me. Some of the women said they did not know anyone, and some of the women provided me with other names and phone numbers. This is called snowball sampling; it is the idea that once a researcher is “in,” they might be able to use that connection to find others to participate in the study.
Michelle from Casa de Maryland also suggested that I contact Johary, a staff member who works with a cleaning co-operative which places abused domestics into homes for employment. After a few weeks of “phone tag,” Johary was able to help me with some contacts. I also talked to a woman named Sylvia who works as a legal assistant for Casa de Maryland, and who heads the cooperative that deals with domestics who have been abused by their employers. The legal office deals with complaints against employees, Visas and green cards, and other legal matters. Sylvia was very helpful.
IV. Data Analysis
There are several themes or common characteristics in the data of this research. One of the interesting, but subtle and unmentioned nuances that came out of this study was seeing the power of race and class affect gender roles. Although I am not sure that the data I collected answered my empirical questions completely, it did give me a very good understanding of the roles of Latina women immigrants and their ties to domestic work. The women that I talked to are either currently working or have in the past worked in the homes of White women as maids and nannies. I do not think that many of the women who I interviewed realize the intricacies of the race/ class hierarchy they are a part of. I hypothesized that the stigma associated with cleaning another woman’s home; especially if that woman is white is difficult to deal with, especially when the housecleaner goes home at the end of the day and performs the same work for their own demanding family. There is no one to help clean the domestic worker’s home, especially if her family refuses to help. It seems that this kind of work, when done by non-white women, keeps them lower on the status ladder. All of the women I talked to did not mention this though, they were all just happy to be employed and have an income. Almost all of the women I talked to indicated one of their biggest challenges was trying to find the energy to maintain their own homes after cleaning someone else’s all day. Not only that, many of the women have come to the realization that their work is taken for granted and that even though they spend their time and energy cleaning, the houses the work in will not stay clean.
One of the other interesting ideas that my research uncovered is domestic work as an empowerment tool, or domestic work as oppressive. For some women, domestic work is empowering because it allows them the opportunities to makes money while also choosing their employers, working hours, and salary. For other women, domestic work is oppressive because less than ideal working situations lead to a lack of freedom and mobility. There is also a social stigma associated with doing housework, as mentioned in the literature review above. This empowerment versus oppressive concept flows very subtly throughout the research findings.
One of the constant themes in this research is that women immigrate to the United States, whether with their families or alone, in search of better opportunities. Because Central and South America have seen much war and poverty, many women come to the U.S. to flee devastation. Esther, for example, said that she immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1985 to flee war and her husband’s enlistment in the army. She still has family in El Salvador, but her children and her husband, all of whom are U.S. citizens, all live here. Juan Garcia is noted in the literature review to have argued that men and women immigrate in search of new opportunities both educationally and economically. I have gathered from my research that these women immigrated here with the idea that they would have no problems finding work, but what has happened is that they struggle to maintain constant employment. Gloria is an example of this. She emigrated from Honduras, and has not been able to maintain permanent employment in the U.S. Gloria said that her “dream was to learn English” which is part of why she chose to come to this country. Her husband was here and he was working, so she decided to join him perhaps thinking she would fulfill that dream and easily obtain employment. Another woman, Maria, from Argentina, decided to immigrate because she said that her spirit was too free to remain in a country where women’s options were to get married and have children. She wanted to seek opportunity in a country with a stable economy, and job possibilities for women. She said that there are many independent women in Buenos Aires, but in the small towns, like the one she came from, “women don’t have many opportunities, and there isn’t much money.” The current politics, started by the Perons in the 1930’s, works to help rich people get richer and the poor people stay poor. Although Eva Perone worked to distribute money among the poor people on Argentina, her politics didn’t instill a sense of empowerment or ability to earn money, and so they didn’t learn the value of saving. As a result, the distribution of wealth never really changed, and the economy of the country works to keep people who are without resources in that position. Maria is sad for her people, but is grateful to be living in the United States.
Anna, Juanita, Nora, Sandra, Blanca and Gloria all had the same answer to the question of why they decided to leave their homes. They knew that there were more opportunities in the U.S. Juanita said, “There are more opportunities for everyone to work.” Even though these women are poor and have difficult times finding work, they are overall very happy with their decision to immigrate. Many of them, like Sandra, could have had better jobs in their home countries, yet chose to come to the United States. Sandra has a Bachelor’s degree from the University in Guatemala in interior design, but like many immigrants, her degree is useless in this country. Instead, she does childcare in her home, and has held several cooking and domestic jobs. Overall, Sandra is very happy with her decision to immigrate to the U.S. This is a concept which I feel warrants further research to understand why women like Sandra would rather be poor and unemployed in the United States instead of staying in Central America where they can likely obtain steady work.
Silvia immigrated to the United States from Guatemala at age 20. Her then husband had already moved to this country, and sent for Silvia and her small children to come and meet him. According to Juan Garcia’s book, this is fairly typical; the male will come first, and then the wife, mother, or sister and children will come once the male is settled. Silvia and her husband have since divorced, which left Silvia alone to raise her children, and do all of the work in both the public and private spheres.
Consistent with the literature in the above sections, most of the women I interviewed immigrated to friends or family; a migration network to get them settled. Women like Anna, Blanca, Laura, and Maria all found their jobs initially through friends or family members who were doing similar work. Even if they came with their husbands, they still almost always had friends or family members to help them out. For example, Laura’s first job was working in the home of her husband’s Aunt. Gloria also had an aunt employed as a domestic who helped her network and find women to work for. Blanca had an Aunt and cousins who worked as maids and were able to secure employment for her when she came. Many of the women were also able to use organizations like Casa de Maryland and SEEC to help them locate employment and act as a migration network. These resources are people and places with similar culture and language who help Latina immigrants get settled.
Characteristics of Work:
The majority of the participants in this study see the work that they do as empowering; either because it allows them to be employed, or because it allows them to be in control of their work. While the literature shows that women who work as domestics are low in status compared to their employers, none of the women I interviewed indicated this. They may assume their work is valuable because it is paid, or they may think they their work is unimportant because society believes that women’s work is trivial. Several women indicated that they choose the prices they charge their employers, and many of them set prices per house/job, not per hour. Silvia sees her employment in domestic work as a way to empower herself. As Mary Romero argues, many women chose to do domestic work because it offers them flexibility that many other jobs wouldn’t allow. Silvia said that she is able to take her daughter to work with her, and is able to schedule her hours around her older son’s school schedule. When she began doing domestic work, she was paid by the hour, as are many women in this field, but as she gained confidence, she began setting her own salary by declaring how much she would charge to clean an entire house. She said that this is when she no longer saw the women she worked for as her employers, instead “they were customers.” I was very interested in hearing Silvia talk about her experiences and how they were empowering to her. Although she still carries the burden of the “double day” she has been able to control her working environment and conditions so that she isn’t abused or exploited by her customers. Silvia is currently nannying most of the time, but she continues to clean houses because it stabilizes her salary. Since she is able to decide how much she will make for an entire job, it helps to even out the low paid hourly work of childcare. After work, Silvia picks up her son from school, and once they get home, she cooks dinner and cleans the house and tends to her own children. She is obviously caught in the double day cycle that Romero has researched. She works all day cleaning other people’s home, and yet there is no one to help her clean her own. She said that it is often very disheartening work because if she cleans a house more than once a week, it isn’t unusual to see all of her hard-work go unnoticed.
Most of the women interviewed participated in similar tasks; they vacuumed, made beds, dusted and cleaned, and washed dishes. Some, like Silvia and Anna, have been required to do laundry and ironing even though Anna says “I hate ironing.” When they are employed, the women generally work full time, and clean several houses a week. Silvia and I discussed how labor intensive domestic work is; it usually requires a lot of lifting and carrying of things up and down stairs, bending and using rigorous movements to scrub and dust. Sandra, Clara, Anna, Silvia, Juanita, Celeste, and Laura have all participated in care work. Laura took care of an elderly woman, but the others all nannied or babysat children and babies. They all indicated that they really liked working in childcare, some because they liked the babies and some because it allowed them to work from their homes and also care for their own children. Clara ran daycare in her home which allowed her to “get paid, and take care of my kids.” Since raising children is something that most of these women do anyway, getting paid to baby-sit or nanny allows them to tap into their existing skills. Juanita likes babysitting because she likes to play with the babies. Sandra made it clear that American women do not know how to care for children like Latino women because “American women work and don’t stay with them constantly.” This statement shows one of the differences between the American women who employ Latinas, and the Latinas who do the work; many American women are able and willing to work outside of the home, and Latina women learn that they should stay at home with their families. Sandra likes childcare the best because “it is like working with angels.” Sandra was able to obtain a license to do daycare, but she found that it was very unstable work. Since she never knew how many children she would have, it was hard to calculate a regular salary.
Celeste said that she works 5 days a week from 6:30am until 5:00pm in her employer’s home. She cooks and cleans and takes care of the children. Although she was working for her employer before the children were born, child care has now become a responsibility she has had to accept. At then end of the day, she arrives at her own home and she does all the housecleaning and cooking for her own family with no one to help her cook and clean. The money that she makes gets sent back to Costa Rica where her family lives in order to help support them.
Laura used to work in the home of her husband’s aunt in return for a place for her and her spouse to live. She was not typical of live-in maids because she did not receive a stipend and because her husband lived in the employers home as well. The Aunt was an elderly woman who needed constant care and daily medication. Laura was not only responsible for elder care work, but she also cooked and cleaned, bathed her elderly employer, and kept her and her husband’s personal living area clean. This is an example of not only domestic work that women are responsible for, but the care work of family members which women always do. As a result, Laura worked and lived in her employers home 7 days a week, with no personal time, and her compensation was a place for her and her husband to live. When asked if she liked the work she did, she said “I didn’t mind taking care of the woman, but doing constant housework made me very tired.”
A few of the women I talked to had husbands at home who helped them out with daily housekeeping and child care. This is rare, since the majority of the women were either unmarried or had spouses that did absolutely nothing in terms of helping them maintain a household. Anna indicated that her husband helped with the laundry and vacuuming, and said that when she had meetings at her son’s school, her husband would cook dinner for her. It would appear in this situation that Anna’s busy schedule is both recognized and appreciated by her husband. Blanca also has a husband who helps her out, he prepares basic meals when she is working and helps watch the children. This is an indication that he has some value for his wife’s autonomy. Most of the women interviewed had opposite situations; husbands who expected to not help out with daily work in the home.
Some women, on the other hand, have husbands who do not help them. I was not able to get a complete amount of data from a woman named Esther because her English was not very good, and she seemed reluctant to offer much information. What I did get was consistent of all the literature and research; Esther, as a female, is responsible for daily upkeep of her own home, and for providing services in other women’s homes. The labor she provides outside of her home is paid, and therefore valued, but the work she does in her own home is probably viewed as her responsibility as a female and is therefore not as valued. Even though her husband brings home most of the income from construction work, Esther provides extra money for the family. He provides no help to Esther in their home in terms of cooking or cleaning. Esther is truly burdened by Romero’s “double day” syndrome.
Silvia is a single mother and therefore doesn’t have a husband who helps her with daily household maintenance. Silvia immigrated to the United States from Guatemala with a husband she has since divorced. She was educated in Guatemala and was studying to be a teacher when she came to the U.S. Since she didn’t speak much English, and she had an aunt who worked as a domestic, she decided to try it too. Once she began cleaning houses, she also took some nannying jobs, which allowed her to care for her own children as well as make some extra money. As a single mother, Silvia is soley responsible for both generating income, and maintaining a home. She mentioned that her children help her with some things, but it doesn’t take much of the burden off of her.
Some of the women I interviewed are not married and don’t have as much of the burden of household maintenance. Maria, like Laura is an example of a live-in domestic. Maria, however, works 5 days a week, usually about 40 hours and has the weekends and holidays off. She gets a weekly stipend, and free room and board. Maria’s situation is almost ideal because she not only has a free place to live, but also, the woman who she lives with is sponsoring her to get her green card. For many immigrants, this is a really important benefit of employment. Maria is responsible for cleaning and laundry as well as helping to prepare meals and provide companionship for the woman she lives with. Although Maria works a standard workweek, she says that she lacks some freedom to come and go as she pleases. She is allowed to have her boyfriend over when she wants, but if she wants to go out, she must make sure that her employer’s needs are taken care of. I also gathered that her employer does not want the house unattended, so if she is not home, she expects Maria to be. She also indicated that when her employer invites company over, she stays home in order to help with the preparation and the cleaning up.
Most women indicated that they had good relationships with their employers. Maria said that she and her employer have a very good relationship; she felt that she was able to talk to her employer about personal issues. In fact, Maria differs from many domestics because she and her employer often take turns cooking dinner and they eat their meals together. In this sense, Maria does not fit into the same category of live-in maid that Mary Romero discusses in her research, because Maria seems to be an actual member of the household. Not just the hired help. Silvia on the other hand, often feels like the work she does is unappreciated and goes unnoticed. This may be her motivation to use her work as an empowerment tool. She told me a story of a family she cleaned for; the husband was an architect and had built a huge glass table. Every Tuesday and Thursday when Silvia went to clean this house, there were newspapers spread all over the table, and dirty dishes and greasy fingerprints all over the tabletop. All of her time and energy spent cleaning the table a few days before were completely taken for granted because the table never stayed clean. Herein lies an interesting point; many times families who have maids grew up in households with maids and learned that they didn’t have to clean up after themselves because there would always be someone to clean the house for them.
Mobility and Challenges:
There are many challenges facing Latina immigrants and attainment of employment. One of the most difficult issues facing many of these women is the language barrier they face in the United States. Since many of them do not have thorough education, they have not had the advantage to learn English until recently. Esther is a good example of this. I had a hard time communicating with her since her English and my Spanish are not very strong. I was able to get some data from her, but it became obvious in the interview that her inability to speak fluent English is a barrier that keeps her from gaining permanent employment. Although Esther did indicate that both of her sons are learning English in school and will hopefully be able to get good jobs. Juanita, Blanca, Gloria and Nora all had basic English skills. I was able to communicate with them enough to get data, but I can understand why for them, language is a major barrier keeping them from attaining employment. Some women, like Maria, have had the opportunity to take classes through organizations like Casa de Maryland and have stronger language skills. For women like Maria, becoming bi-lingual is actually an advantage because they are able to communicate with both populations. Sandra, and Silvia are also bi-lingual women. Sandra learned English in Honduras at the University and Silvia learned it through classes she took at her church.
Without English skills, immigrants are not able to get a drivers license and therefore must always rely on public transportation. For Esther, Gloria, and Celeste and Blanca, the bus system is their mainstay for transportation to and from work. For example, in order to be at her employer’s home by 6:30am, Celeste must leave her house around 4am because she takes public transportation across town. Maria and Silvia have been fortunate enough to get their drivers licenses and both have had employers who provided them with vehicles. One of the families Silvia nannied for even paid for her to get her drivers license and bought her a car so that she could take their children places they needed to go. Anna also has a vehicle, but she relies heavily on her husband to take her to and from work. Clara’s husband usually takes his wife to the METRO train, and then she takes the train to her cleaning job. Nora indicated that she had a car which helped her be able to work many different jobs and have several employers at the same time. These women have access to employment opportunities that women without vehicle do not have. Juanita has a driver’s license and a car, but still has a hard time maintaining permanent employment.
Another theme or pattern that seemed consistent with this study is women’s want and need for independence. This can be conceptualized in several ways. For example, Maria says that she likes her job because she likes making money, and she lives in a very nice house with a very nice woman, but she dislikes the lack of freedom that she has on a daily basis. Since she doesn’t have complete freedom to come and go and she pleases, she has decided that she is ready for a change. She said, “Once I get my citizenship, I will do something else.” For other women, freedom and independence are defined by employment and income. I heard a thought once saying, “dependence is not empowering.” Many of these women are dependent based on their financial status, but become independent by choosing the work that they do and the amount they get paid. The example above about Silvia who “calls the shots” and decides her salary can be a manifestation of this independence. For many of these women, housework is the only skill they have, and their ability to market and commodify that may give them a sense of independence. This is my perception, although I don’t think the women I interviewed realize this nuance. Silvia calling her employers “customers” empowers her and therefore allows her independence.
Juanita and Anna also decide their salaries. The amount they charge depends on the kind of work that they do. For example, Anna said that she charges by the hour for babysitting, but she charges per size of the house for cleaning. This ability to decide what their skills are worth allows for some amount of independence within their employment situation.
It seems that one of the common hardships for most of these women is trying to juggle and balance multiple households. Most of them work a “double day,” meaning, they go to work early in the morning cleaning or caring for children, and then when they leave work, many of them do the same thing in their own homes. Since most of the examples of this were mentioned in earlier sections of this analysis, I am basically going to emphasis the idea that women who are involved in this kind of work do not have the advantage of hiring someone to clean their homes. I am sure the few women who get help from their husbands have some relief, but the idea of managing more than one household, one for income and one for survival, seems exhausting. Yet, all of these women seemed happy to be employed. Romero argues that since white middle class women in the United States have more control over household resources, they have become more able to hire outsiders to relieve them of household work. So while it produces work for women like Maria, Clara, Blanca, Gloria, Juanita, Sandra, Celeste, Laura, Silvia, Nora, Anna and Esther, it also gives them the difficult tasks of juggling multiple households.
I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing women who do this work is the idea that they use valuable time and energy cleaning houses that will just get dirty again. It is a never ending job. I refer back to the Silvia’s story about the large glass table that never stayed clean, and I realize how disheartening domestic work must be. It reiterates the idea that upper class women want to escape the drudgery and seemingly humiliating work of cleaning if they have the opportunity to hire someone else to do it for them. As a result, based on race and class situation, the women who are often hired to do the work are Latina immigrants who need employment.
Not many of the women I interviewed mentioned much about where they thought they would be in the future. This may mean that work is so unstable that they can’t really think about it, or it may mean that they are content doing the work they are doing. The exception to this is Maria. Maria’s employment as a live-in maid affords her the ability to save money, and get her green card, which are two very important steps to financial independence. Maria has no husband and no children, even though in Argentina, she would have been married. She says she will get married “someday,” but more immediately in her future, She said that she was interested in helping the Latino population in the Washington DC area because so many people who immigrate to the U.S. have problems getting settled and having a support network. Maria was the president of the Women’s Cleaning Cooperative at Casa de Maryland, and envisions herself working there someday and helping women like herself find employment.
V. Conclusion and Recommendation
Women’s work is never done. It is valued only when it is paid, yet is essential to daily life in society. The jobs and roles that women have are very closely tied to the intersection of class, race and gender, making women’s labor a very complex issue. This study has explored this in relation to Latina immigrants who work as maids, domestics and nannies in and around the Washington DC Metropolitan area. Even though it wasn’t one of my original questions, my research has helped to prove, among other things, the idea that privilege is not earned, but it is acquired based on class status and race.
As a White social scientist, I have often studied the concept of privilege and have realized my own blindness to where I fit in the hierarchy of women in this country. When I was trying to become a part of the population that I wanted to interview, this became very apparent; I was the White and educated female who wanted to talk to maids about the work that they do. It is almost like I wanted to take advantage of them too, for my own benefit. Feminist methodology however, emphasizes the importance of giving back to the community that one takes from. By this I mean, I will use the information I acquired in these interviews for my research, and in turn I hope to spend time volunteering at Casa de Maryland and at the Shirlington Education and Employment Center so that I can assist the Latina population in their assimilation process.
So why is this research important? My first answer to that question is that upon initial review of current literature, I found nothing about the huge and diverse population of Latina domestics in the Mid-Atlantic region. I wanted to do this research to add another area of the United States to the already existing research on domestic women. The other, primary reason that this research is important is that it gives a voice to domestic women and lets their rich, interesting stories be heard. In the same way, it gives a voice to women in general about perceptions of work in this society. It is apparent that work is valued when there is money associated with it. Therefore, women’s unpaid labor in their homes may have value to their families, or to themselves, but not to society at large.
My hope is that this research can be used in a pro-active way first to understand women’s work and next to understand the point at which race, class and gender meet. The concept of placing value on work is not a new one, but the idea that money is the measurement used to place value changes society’s perspective of when work becomes important. Karl Marx talked about how capitalism leads to alienation from our own labor, and that money drives a market economy which forces our production to be measured as a commodity. On a micro scale, this means that labor, especially women’s paid labor, has become commodified in the public sphere, yet remains unappreciated in the private sphere. I hope that the production of research about women and the work that they do, will educate and empower us to change this ideology.
Garcia, Juan R. Mexicans in the Midwest 1900-1932. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson, Arizona
Hart, John Mason. Border Crossings, Mexican and Mexican-American Workers. Scholarly Resources Inc.
Willmington DE. 1998.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. Gendered Transitions; Mexican Experiences of Immigration. University of
California Press, Los Angeles, CA. 1994.
Pedraza, Silvia. “Women and Migration: The Social Consequences of Gender.” Annual Review of
Sociology. 1991. Volume 17, Pg. 303-325.
Portillo, Zoraida. “LABOR: Migration of Women is a Survival Strategy.” Interpress Service. July 5, 1999.
Global Information Network.
Romero, Mary. Maid in the U.S.A. Routledge, Chapman and Hall. London. 1992.
Uchitelle, Louis. “As Labor Pool Shrinks, a New Supply is Tapped.” The New York Times.
December 20, 1999.
Vernez, Georges. Immigrant Women in the U.S. Workforce. Lexington Books. Maryland. 1999.
Zahniser, Steven S. Mexican Migration to the United States. Garland Publishing Inc. New York, 1999.
I am a graduate student at American University in Washington DC and I am doing research on women and work. Specifically, I am studying Latina women who are employed as house cleaners or domestics. This study is really important to me because I am very interested in analyzing women’s issues primarily dealing with paid and unpaid labor. Your participation in this study is strictly voluntary. I have gained consent from my University to proceed with my research, and now I am asking for your consent to be interviewed. All information and data collected will be kept strictly confidential. Would you like to participate?
Before we begin, do you have any questions for me?
It would be helpful for me to know a little bit about you. What is your name?
- Did you immigrate here or were you born in the U.S.?
- When did you come?
- Was there someone here helping you get settled?
- How old were you when you came?
Can you tell me a little about your immigration experience?
-How did you get here?
-Why did you decide to leave your home?
- Was there someone here who was waiting for you? A migration network of some kind?
- Marital Status
-Do you have a husband living with you? What is his job? How many hours a
week does he work?
-How many children do you have?
-Highest educational level
- What is the last school you attended? Where?
1. How did you become involved in this kind of work?
(did you have someone who you knew doing it help you find the work?)
Please describe what kind of work you do
- From morning to evening, what is a typical day?
2. What hours do you work? and what is a typical workweek?
- Do you get to rest and relax when you get home from work and what housework do you usually do when you get home from work?
3. Do you have friends or family who do this kind of work too?
- How often do you socialize (get together) with other women?
- Do you hang out with other women who clean houses?
- Through church or in a social setting
- How often do you get to see extended family or friends?
4. Why do you choose to do this kind of work?
-as opposed to other types of jobs?
5. Do you have a spouse who helps out at home?
- Does he clean/ cook/ take care of the children?
- what kind of work does he do and how much money does he make?
- Who takes care of your children while you are at work?
- Did you continue to work immediately after your children were born or where you able
to take time off?
6. How did you find houses to clean and employers to work for?
-Can you tell me a little bit about your relationships with your employers?
-How often do you see him/her?
- Do you communicate with the employee about personal issues?
7. Are you treated well by your employers?
- Is your employee someone who can help you with personal and/or professional problems?
- Do your employers let you take time off or have vacations?
8. How do you get to work?
-What kind of transportation is necessary?
- Do you have a vehicle?
- Do you have problems getting to and from work on a daily basis?
9. What does domestic service offer you in terms of benefits?
- Why do you do this type of work?
- Do you have health insurance/ retirement/ vacation?
- Do you set your own salary? Give me an example of how much you would charge for your services?
- Do you spend the money you make on things for yourself?
10. What specific tasks do you perform in your employer’s homes?
-How do those differ from the work that you might do in your own home?
What tasks do you consider appropriate for work in an employers home?
- what tasks do you consider inappropriate?
- who chooses what work you will do? You or the employer?
11. What other jobs have you held? Tell me about them.
Is what you’re doing now better than those other jobs?
12. What do you like the most about your job?
- What do you dislike the most about it?
- Are you happy with your job? Do you feel satisfied doing the work that you are doing? Are you satisfied with your employers/ money/ commute/ overall situation in general?
|home||list of theses|