of The Gift Economy
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In this paper, I walk on “hope’s edge.” I first focus on what has been “pushing our
little planet closer to hope’s very edge” (LappÈ and LappÈ 2002: 11) by looking at
the way migrant domestic workers or trafficked women are being used, abused,
or used up. The second part of the essay looks at the radical political message that
migrant domestic workers and trafficked women give us. They push our under-
standing of what Genevieve Vaughan (1997) refers to as “gift labour” a bit further
by laying bare its physical, bodily, place- and earth-bound grounding, and how
that can be, must be the grounding for transnational, global political connections.
Their stories tell us that we need to be both place-bound and nomadic.
Real Bodies, Place-Bound Work and
A Feminist Project
For the past three decades my main political interests and concerns have been
with international and sexual divisions of labour around the notion of “subsistence
work.” Because raising children, or motherwork, is primarily oriented towards
sustaining life, it is a prime example of subsistence work. Within Vaughan’s
framework subsistence work is paradigmatic for gift labour. Moreover, and that
is my main emphasis here, it is place-bound work, and it is tied to the physical
necessities, the blood, guts, and gore of real, messy life.
I previously investigated how this place-bound work is inserted in a political
economy of race-class segregation in the inner city of Chicago, where I live (Hart
2002). Here mothers do place-bound work in a confined, sectioned-off space.
The “welfare debate” of the 1990s—culminating in the 1996 Welfare Act in the
U.S.—did not criticize any racial-economic segregations or confinements. Nor
did it criticize the relocation of jobs to cheap labour countries, jobs most inner
city residents held in the steel or car industry.
It did, however, “criticize” by vilifying the place-bound nature of the work “wel-
fare mothers,” also referred to as “welfare queens,” were doing. The government
had to pay for work that made women get stuck in one place. They clearly had
to become mobile, had to get away from their children—or disappear between
the cracks of a punitive welfare system, and of economic realities that offered jobs
only to some, and only for non-living wages.
It is not difficult to see a link between this enforced mobility and the grow-
ing internationalization of domestic and cleaning work. In order for the state to
reduce its expenses, or to receive remittances badly needed to pay back loans to
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank, mothers have to be torn
from their children. The children then become the invisible and never-talked-about
little figures being pushed around in an abysmal or non-existing childcare system,
or being taken care of “back home” in the nether-land of a private household.
At the current stage in the patriarchal-capitalist game trafficking in women and
the movement of migrant women across the globe are part and parcel of the overall
transformation of national economies.1 Motherhood and sexuality are an integral,
logical part of import/export schemes that are typical for this new economy where
poor countries export, or send, and rich (or richer) countries import, or receive.
Mobile motherhood and mobile sex are intricately tied to capital mobility, and
to the extractive nature of a predatory finance capitalism.
There are often tremendous cultural differences and geographical distances be-
tween so-called sending and receiving countries, and all countries have their own
variation of patriarchal cultural practices.2 However, it is the patriarchal-capitalist
underbelly that provides the connective tissue of all—paid or unpaid—versions
of a kind of labour that has always supported a capitalist interior infrastructure
of service and servitude, one that has now simply gone global.
It is only logical that the U.S. military was the institution that introduced orga-
nized prostitution to the Philippines. Here ordinary guns are joined by hard (erect)
penis-guns. We can add to this arsenal of guns the gene gun, and what Vaughan
calls “the phallic-father-money”(1997: 219) of the financial money gamblers. These
guns are all pointed at real, organic, imperfect bodies or organisms. They blast
DNA coated particles into live, not-yet modified organisms, they make bodies
do what is profitable (or pleasurable), penetrate them, and dispose of them once
they are no longer useful, or they simply bomb them out of existence.
Global trafficking in women’s bodies, sex home-delivery to American GIs, and
rapes of live-in “maids to order”(Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001: 92) in the privacy of
individual households are all variations of the same greedy contempt for women’s
sexuality and birthing capacity.
Real life is extracted from real bodies by trading them as disposable sex toys
(that get shipped back once American GI’s infected them), or disposable domestic
workers. Extraction is part and parcel of keeping in check such real life, or real
Profitable capitalist-patriarchal assaults on migrant women’s bodies often result
in death. For instance, as reported by GABRIELA, a U.S.-Philippine women’s
solidarity organization, one coffin per day is sent back to the Philippines with
the body of a woman killed as a domestic or a sex worker.
Foreign domestics are aliens from a different culture, and they are non-citizens
that marks and regulates them as bonded or enslaved labourers. Or they are un-
documented illegals desperate enough to put up with any kind of abuse. Pierette
Hondagneu-Sotelo (2001) lists various agency names in the Los Angeles area,
which she studied: Mama’s Maid to Order, Domestic Darlings, Maid in Heaven,
or Custom Maid for You. She also observed that the name the maids themselves
give to all of them is “Domestic Desperation” ( 92).
In the United States, the worker’s immigrant status provides the most powerful
axis of inequality, especially with respect to live-in domestic workers (Hondag-
neu-Sotelo 2001: 13). The informal privacy of individual, isolated households
deliberately invites keeping desperate undocumented immigrants in slave-like
conditions. Live-in jobs, the typical point of entry for Latina immigrants, are
therefore described as prisons, where te encierras—you lock yourself up (63).
Moreover, the Fair Labour Standards Act (Sec.14(b)(21)) completely exempts
live-in employees from overtime coverage.
There exist some limited protective labour laws. Not surprisingly, those who
“work as personal attendants—for example, baby-sitters, caregivers to young
children, or companions of the elderly and infirm” “are explicitly excluded from
the right to earn minimum wage and overtime pay.” The laws cover “those who
clean and care for material possessions.” If those who do private care work want to
have the same legal rights they must show “that they devote at least 20 percent of
their work time to housekeeping duties”(Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001: 212-13).3
Officers of international money lending institutions such as the IMF or World
Bank directly benefit from cheap, bonded, or enslaved labourers, especially in the
U.S., the most powerful Minority World country. The provisions of special visas
(A-3, G-5, and B-1) allow foreign nationals, diplomats, and IMF or World Bank
officials to import domestic help. The State Department does keep records of the
whereabouts of A-3 and G-5 domestic workers, but “this information is classified as
confidential, for the privacy of the employer.” B-1 is a catch-all business category,
and the State Department keeps no records of domestic helpers imported under
its provisions. It not only allows foreign nationals but also American citizens with
a permanent residence abroad to bring along domestic help when visiting the
United States. The workers suffer some of the most blatant abuses, from having to
sleep outside with the family dog, being sexually harassed, or working for sixteen
hours per day, all week long, for $100 a month. In contrast to A-3 and G-5 visa
holders, workers employed under the auspices of a B-1 visa do not have the legal
right to transfer to another employer which makes the women “live as prisoners
in the homes they clean” (Zarembka 2003: 145-47).
All forms of hyperrelgulation, indentured servitude or enslavement are interwoven
with seemingly endless variations of racialization practices, abetted by an equally
diverse array of immigration policies, government-sponsored labour import or
foreign contract labour programs, national regulatory regimes, and the actions of
placement or employment agencies, brothel owners, or sex traffickers.
The “racialness of alien labour” may be camouflaged by labour importation
or employment schemes by hiding behind terms such as “foreign” (Cheng 2003:
183) or by using the ability or inability to speak English as a code for national
and ethnic-stereotypical preferences. When employment agencies advertise their
“Malibu Mamas” or “Nannies By Design” by listing various important steps in
the screening progress (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001: 93), linguistic criteria are used
to hide, or de-racialize, hiring selections that employ certain cultural or national
stereotypes. An employer may have a racial preference for a Latina applicant
precisely because she does not speak English so she cannot understand what her
employer family is talking about, thus making her presence more invisible (102).
Filipinas may therefore be rejected because they are more educated, and thus more
“uppity.” As reported by Wolfgang Uchatius (2004), formerly unemployed teach-
ers, accountants, or veterinarians may have taken a course at Manila’s Women’s
University on how to fold, tug, or line up the sheets when making a bed in an
Italian household in order to find paid domestic work. Especially in English-speak-
ing countries, their educational background and the fact that they also speak and
thus understand English directly undermines their classification as subordinates
who are incapable of doing anything but physical domestic labour.
Sex-touring and trafficking in women likewise feed off the notion of sex workers’
special proclivities. European companies’ brochure designers, or Internet advertiser
on The World Sex Guide do not see any need to camouflage racialized attributes.
In Germany or the Netherlands, for instance, they become advertising turn-ons
that praise “slim, sunburnt, and sweet” wares because “they love the white man
in an erotic and devoted way,” or as “little slaves” they “give real Thai warmth”
(Bales 2002: 226, 227).
There is an alarming structural continuity between “taking a girl” as easily
“as buying a package of cigarettes” (as advertised by Kanita Kamha Travel in the
Netherlands), and turning the export of cheap prostitutes to Japanese brothels
into a “robust business.” Businessmen who dwell in the stratosphere of pure
financial calculations here join virtual hands with the body handlers by discard-
ing a girl once most of the profit has been drained from her and she is no longer
“cost-effective,” replacing her “with someone fresh” (Bales 2002: 227, 226, 220).
The Internet adds additional stratospheric qualities to the sex industry. As Donna
Hughes (1999) reports, geographic and cultural distances become as “virtual” as
any effective barriers for regulating the global free trade on women and children,
thus greatly benefiting the industry’s growth and profitability.
The free trade in women’s bodies is only part of the worldwide patriarchal script.
The other part includes the patriarchal need to severely monitor and control
women’s sexuality. In the case of foreign domestic workers’ sex life various national
regulatory regimes or allocation systems are set up to fulfill this important func-
tion. A work permit may only be given if the imported domestic worker agrees
not to marry a native-born man (Yeoh, Huang, and Gonzales 1999). She also
has to be, or at least pretend to be, single (Lan 2003), or where she has children
these have to remain in the invisible nether-land of her own private household
back home where other invisible women are taking care of them.
It is rather ironic to see how pimping joins hands with Christian church impera-
tives that women give in to the body’s reproductive power rather than take control
of it. As Ninotchka Rocha from GABRIELA told me in a personal conversation
(May 8, 2004), the children of prostituted women workers in American military
bases are treated as disposables, like their mothers. They grow up in severe pov-
erty and without education or any other social services. When I asked her what
the women can do to protect themselves from becoming pregnant, she said they
are discouraged from doing so because the Catholic Church does not allow any
form of contraception.
As Claudia von Werlhof (2001) points out, at the core of the capitalist-patriarchal
system lies its quasi-religious belief in “the power of money to force all of life into
prostitution,” which “makes our system out to be a kind of Christian pimping”
(34). We are here dealing with a rather dense knot of contradictions which, when
unraveled, illustrate the perverse logic of the capitalist-patriarchal desire to control
or do away with impure female bodies. According to this logic these bodies may
need to be kept in a confined, tightly supervised space where they care for and
clean after the products of higher-ranking female bodies’ reproductive capacity.
The state, the church, or father-husbands may also mandate that women’s bodies
keep reproducing. Where these bodies are prostituted, their reproductive capacity
becomes entirely irrelevant in the overall scheme of control and exploitation, at
least as long as it does not interfere with their primary purpose of serving male
It is now time to look down the other side of hope’s edge.
Instead of joining the capitalist “Stratos dwellers” (Korten 2001) by speculating
on the utopian possibilities of a cybertechnology they created,4 I rather look at
the fate of millions of people all over the globe. Most of humankind neither surfs
the net nor has access to the disembodied experiences of a virtual reality. Women’s
reality of being cut or penetrated is not a simulated version of cybersex, nor is it
that of women who have their breast size reduced or enlarged. Both groups are at
opposite ends of the patriarchal pole that nevertheless unites them. Both groups
live the patriarchal script. How can we then move, I ask, from a (global) culture
that glorifies virtual techno-bodies in corporate cyberspace and extracts the life
out of real, flesh-and-blood bodies who keep moving from place to place, and who
are picking up after the lords of cyberspace, the Stratos dwellers, and after their
children? How can we stay grounded in our physical, bodily, place-bound reality
and reach across vast geographical and cultural distances? Where is our anchor?
As an “alien resident” in the United States I have been studying various writings
on diaspora living. “Home” is a recurrent motif in these writings. Some writers focus
primarily on the “Big Home” (Magat 1999) and describe the anguish of national
relocations or displacements, of living in exile or in a diaspora, of transnational
migrations. There are, of course, also analyses of the “Little Home.” They address
the presumably mundane tasks and experiences associated with daily living in a
small place and space. As many if not most women know experiences in the Little
Home are fully embedded in problematic normative assumptions and larger social
power relations. Some writers such as bell hooks (1990), however, emphasize that
a physical homeplace can also be the only place that provides safety, especially
in a hostile social environment, and how homemaking therefore includes work
that benefits the well-being of an entire community. The collection of essays in
This Bridge We Call Home is exemplary for revealing the many hidden social,
cultural, and political connections between the Big Home and the Little Home
(Anzald™a and Keating 2002).
I believe that replacing “domestic” with “home” can ignite a flare of radical
political sparks. The very word domestic conjures up images of narrowness, small-
ness, docility, or violently enforced captivity. On the other hand, home can link
the smallness of a concrete place with the largeness of a wide open space.
Gloria Anzald™a (2002) writes that “‘home’ is that bridge, the in-between-place
of nepantla, and constant transition, the most unsafe of all spaces” (574). She
refers to the struggles of a traveler in transition to a new way of seeing herself,
and herself in relation to others and to the world. Migrant domestic workers’
experiences speak more directly, and more brutally of home as not only the most
unsafe of all spaces, but also of all places.
Yet these workers are also messengers of an embodied, grounded nepantla. They
are walking hope’s edge. Many Filipina migrant workers, for instance, have shown
that it is possible to develop “transnational bonds” or “transnational family ties”
(ParreÒas 2001). In other words, they live possibilities of transnational homemak-
ing. At the same time, the work of migrant nannies/housekeepers5 also shows us
that hope “isn’t clean or tidy,” that it has an edge, that it is “messy” (LappÈ and
LappÈ 2002: 11) as it is woven into place-bound care work. Walking on hope’s
edge therefore means more than being able to form transnational bonds. As many
nanny/housekeepers have shown they not only take care of the foreign employer’s
children but often also form emotional attachments to the children in their care.
These attachments are certainly enmeshed in the pain, anguish, and longings for
their own children who are far away, and whom they can see only once in a blue
moon. Regardless, however, of the multi-layered complexity of experiencing loss
and attachment the very ability to form strong emotional bonds with a foreign
employer’s children demonstrates that it is nevertheless possible to walk on hope’s
Despites cuts, bruises, and open wounds these women live a life-affirming hope,
thereby touching the very core of the meaning of home: letting the children in
their care be loved, be taken care of, be safe. They therefore also give a message to
global feminism: We can, or should be, place-bound as well as moving, anchored
in the body’s and the land’s multiple needs and gift offerings but also transmi-
gratory, or nomadic. In other words, we can be at home both in our own place
and space, and in the world at large by constructing a nomadic home.6 Such a
transnational homeplace links the recognition and affirmation of a concrete solid
place to the recognition and affirmation of many other concrete solid places in
different social, cultural, and political spaces that together build the foundation
of our world.
Sex workers, maids, and nannies have to navigate between many kinds of vio-
lently imposed norms and expectations regarding servicing employers’ or clients’
needs and desires. However, both care and sex work are inseparable from primary
bodily events, that is, birth and sexuality. At the same time, there are fundamental
differences between cleaning a house, servicing male sexual desires, and taking
care of children’s well-being, whether corresponding norms and expectations are
self-imposed or forced upon the actors. Caring for children is of a different order
than cleaning a house, and whereas sexuality can be experienced as a powerful life
force that may or may not be linked to the creation of new life, celebrating that
life force is nevertheless fundamentally different from the actual, physical giving
of life. Likewise, assuming responsibility for one’s own sexual or a sexual partner’s
well-being is also quite different from assuming responsibility for the care of new
life. Once born a child reminds us daily and nightly of the bodily, messy grounding
of life, of being alive. Care work is not simply about “reproducing” humankind.
It is about sustaining life by making and letting it grow in a way that affirms its
physical, material, bodily grounding.
My claim here is that if we want to not only be critical of neoliberalism
and neo-patriarchy but also eager to advance new ways of understanding,
we must foreground the existence and needs of children both in our theory
and our practice. Regardless where they live and under what circumstances,
children’s need for care is universal. How we greet, carry out, and ultimately
transform this universal need into work that sustains life in general is a ques-
tion that points to larger, all-embracing responsibilities. The African American
migrant women in the United State’s East Bay community made that point
quite clear by considering children as “the freshest link in the web of reciprocal
obligations”(Lemke-Santangelo 1996: 146).7 It is these universal, collective, and
reciprocal obligations that provide the concrete, physical-spiritual foundation
for making connections between people and places that may be separated by
vast geographical, geopolitical, and cultural distances. These connections can be
expanded, translated into reciprocal obligations to safeguard, repair, or rebuild
the conditions of life, that is, our future. In other words, they can become core
elements of planetary homemaking.
Planetary homemaking means creating a life-affirming Big Home that is attentive
to the universal yearning for being grounded, for being safe, for belonging, and
for finding shelter, rest, and physical, psychological, and spiritual nourishment.
It means caring for the foundations of life, for the air we breathe, the water we
drink, and the land on which we grow our food. Safeguarding biodiversity and
the integrity of individual life forms are therefore integral components of making
the world a home for all.
Planetary homemaking is a transnational feminist project. It requires to journey
across intellectual-categorical and experiential divides, and across often vast cultural
and geographic distances. These travels to other places need to be fuelled by the
desire to better understand and change a fragmented and interconnected world.
They need to be based on the knowledge that it is possible to make translocal con-
nections to local, place-bound, life-affirming actions. This desire, this knowledge
anchor nomadic journeying and practical engagements in the shared commonality
of living in a body as well as on and from the earth, the great giver, and in the
willingness to not only take but continuously to give back to her.
Migrant domestic workers are travelers in constant transition. It is not their
desire to cross a political and spiritual life threshold but brutal economic neces-
sity that brought them to a place where their lives are regulated, controlled, and
supervised in bearable or unbearable ways. They do not engage in gift giving
due to political convictions, but due to the fact that living bodies need physi-
cal attention and care. That’s why the workers are messengers of an embodied,
grounded nepantla that speaks of a future where diasporic and place-bound living
are conjoined in dignified, life-affirming ways. In other words, they speak of the
possibility of creating a nomadic home. They teach us that no matter where we
are located, where we are at home collectively and individually, the universal need
for physical, bodily place-bound care work firmly anchors our desire to turn home
into a life threshold, thus enabling us to engage in political nomadic journeying
to other far-away places.
Portions of this article also appear in my article, “Women, Migration, and the Body-
Less Spirit of Capitalist Patriarchy” (Hart 2005b).
Mechthild U. Hart is Professor at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. She
moved from Germany to the United States in 1972, worked in a number of women’s
and community organizations, and has been teaching and mentoring at the School
for New Learning since 1987. She has published several articles, book chapters, and
two books on international and social divisions of labour, with special emphasis on
poverty and motherwork.
The term “patriarchal” certainly deserves some specification. Although I hope that
its meanings unfold in this essay, I also refer the reader to “Women, Migration, and
the Body-Less Spirit of Capitalist Patriarchy” (2005B) where I elaborate on the term
within the context of neoliberalisms and modern Western patriarchal thinking.
Migrant domestic workers have many different cultural and national backgrounds,
and they always experience their own variations of national or cultural stereotyping,
as do, for instance, Indian or Thai women in Singapore (Yeoh, Huang, and Gonzalez,
1999); see also Munira Ismail (1999), who writes about Christian, Muslim, or Hindu
Sri Lankan women in the Middle East. Their stories are unique and they illustrate
the universal fate of being super-exploited.
Laws regarding wages and working hours are also quite different. Some states “man-
date higher hourly wages than does federal law. Others specifically expand the labour
rights of domestic workers. New York, for example, extends overtime protections to
live-in workers. Still other states, among them Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, and
Kansas, exclude domestics from state minimum wage laws and from other protec-
tions” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001: 213-214).
See, for instance, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein (1999).
In Hondagneu-Sotelo’s (2001) writings the term “nanny/housekeeper” is deliberately
used in order to capture the fact that the paid domestic worker is doing the job of
two for the pay of one.
I elaborate on this notion in my article, “The Nomad at Home” (2005a).
In my book,The Poverty of Life-Affirming Work (2002), I elaborate on this point,
especially with respect to mother-activists.
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