Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Atlantic | March 2004 | How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement | Flanagan

This is yet another wallow in liberal guilt about what is supposed to be the Original Sin of feminism: shifting the burden of domestic work to poor women, immigrant women and women of color. It rehearses the stock confession of the aging Yuppie (if that isn't an oxymoron): I hired a nanny, but I knew what I was doing, am ashamed of myself, and do all I can to be nice to my nanny to make up for it.

What is uniquely bad about domestic work is that, for the most part, it hasn't been captured by the capitalist net. Women who hire nannies, "housekeepers" and cleaning women don't regard what they're doing as an impersonal market transaction. They construe it as part of an archaic quasi-feudal arrangement of patronage and servility and, if they are right-thinking liberals, exascerbate the feudal character of the arrangement by striving to be good patrons.

We don't worry about hiring gardeners to mow the lawn or plumbers to unstop our toilets or dentists to fix our teeth. We don't feel that we have to make up for the arrangement by establishing personal, quasi-familial relationships with them. We don't take an interest in our plumbers personal lives or give our dentists cast off clothing or assume that we're doing gardeners a favor by chatting with them.

But domestic servants are another matter. Women assume that domestic work is inherently degrading, that it essentially involves a personal relationship of patronage and servility in a way that gardening, plumbing and dentistry don't, and that it has to be sweetened with compensation beyond monetary payment. Yet ironically what makes domestic work humiliating is precisely the fact that senoras and servants don't construe their arrangement as an impersonal market transaction.

Child care and cleaning are bad jobs, though not nearly so bad as most jobs women can get--data entry, waitressing or cashiering. But they aren't degrading unless we make them so--as we do when we attempt make up for the arrangement by being nice and taking an interest. We know that we're not doing the dentists, stockbrokers or lawyers whose services we buy a favor by taking a personal interest in their lives or making conversation with them: we know that if we do we're prying and wasting their time. It is the assumption of privilege that blinds us to the fact that when we do the same with nannies and maids we're not doing them a favor either, and that by treating them differently from other workers whose services we buy we perpetuate the system of patronage and servility.

There is no practical way of eliminating shit work. The best we can do is see to it everyone has a fair opportunity to avoid it and that those who can't avoid it are fairly treated and decently paid. As for us good liberal feminists, the best we can do is recognize that nannies are on a par with gardeners, plumbers and dentists, providing services for a fee, and that well-meaning attempts to sweeten the bitter pill are insulting, patronizing and burdensome to the women who do these jobs.

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