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mechthild hart
Real Bodies, Place-Bound Work and Transnational Homemaking
A Feminist Project

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.

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 life capacity.

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 sexual desires.

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 razor-sharp edge.

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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