The book Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hothschild is a series of essays that explore the subject of female migration at the beginning of the 21st century. The work contains eight essays covering a range of topics, which are related to each other by a common thread. The subjects include migrant maids, prostitution as a means of gaining access to legal migration, overseas brides, and the role of global cities in female migration. The common thread to these essays is the migration of lower-wage women around the world, and the patterns than such migration takes at present. The authors and editors of this project tie these essays together under the umbrella argument that one form of modern globalization has women in the wealthier nations turning over "women's work" to women from the underdeveloped world. They note that fewer families around the world rely on a single male breadwinner, and this is one means by which women can enter the workforce.
One of the key drivers of this migration pattern is strictly economic. There are work opportunities in foreign countries, and that creates the opportunity for women to emigrate, thereby creating the opportunity for a permanent move to a wealthier country, and in some cases a country where women have a higher social standing. Whereas migration patterns have traditionally emphasized male movements around the world, the authors and editors of Global Woman are chronicling the patterns of female migration that have emerged in recent years.
This pattern of migration comes embedded with a number of problems, however, and these problems are much discussed in Global Woman. For example, most of the roles these women fill are indoor and private, creating substantial opportunity for abuse. Additionally, social structures are uprooted by this pattern of migration. The migrant women leave behind their families and their own children. Moreover, they leave behind the social structures where they might help one another, especially if they work in the countries with a high level of individualism.
For the most part, the essays focus on a narrative of the challenges and problems that these female migrants face. There is also an underlying theme that care and nurturing is something that is being imported into wealthy nations. The idea behind this is that as wealthy women enter the workforce, they "assimilate to the competitive culture of male work" and this leaves demand for caring and nurturing -- be it from nannies, hospital workers or sex workers -- unfilled. The shifts in gender roles and in the work and social structures of wealthier nations have created a market for female migration. The authors analogize this with the plunder of natural resources. Indeed, they note that some of the women are either not migrated voluntarily, or not under conditions of their choosing, or are not allowed freedom of movement once they arrive in their new positions.
For the most part, Global Woman is effective in painting a picture of the reality faced by a segment of the population. There is a sense that this segment's voice is seldom heard, and that is probably accurate. The stories are interesting to read, and they are told well. Most readers are more likely to have romanticized versions of these stories, if they are aware of them at all, and it is worth considering that things in the real world are quite different.
There is also a significant focus on the human aspects of the story. By using eight essays to paint a picture using individual stories, the editors are able to discuss the human dimensions to this migration. This method of narrative mirrors Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which contains a similar set of stories to highlight a general theme. The women in Global Woman struggle not only with the abuses that they might face (they don't all face abuses), but also must contend with the effects that their choices have on their lives and the lives of their children. There are tradeoffs for these women, leaving some for example to substitute the love of children in their care for the love of their own children. They often make tremendous sacrifices that might even be unappreciated at home, but they are at least understood. There is usually hope that in the end things will be better for their decision. The idea of the female migrating globally to be the breadwinner might be somewhat novel, but ultimately this is an old story of human migration in search of long-term betterment.
Another theme that is covered in the book is that of gender roles. There is a story about an Indian woman who leaves for work in the Middle East, and how men took on many of her roles as mother and caregiver in her absence. This represented a challenge for the people of the village, adjusting to these new roles, with a woman as breadwinner and man as caregiver. The authors perhaps spent too much time discussing the fact that gender roles changing was a challenge. This is old news. It would have been better to move forward a bit more, and talk about how such changes are going to transform societies. There is an undercurrent throughout the book that feels like the authors and editors believe there are such things as gender roles and that these roles are important and valuable. The show their age a bit with that, and frankly understanding the human stories works better when such artificial constructs are removed from the discussion. A man cooking dinner is not a mind-blowing scenario, seriously.
This is where the choice of narrative structure falls down a bit. Using individual anecdotes to distill global truths is more challenging than the authors want it to be. Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed uses a similar narrative structure. However, the authors here want to spoonfeed conclusions to the audience, rather than letting the audience find its own conclusions. Individual situations are not always readily adaptable to large-scale lessons, at least without glossing over some of the critical nuance. Global lessons should be understood on global terms. To extrapolate global lessons from individual anecdotes smacks of cherry-picking at best and of simply making up conclusions at worst. The book's structure might not be capable to delivering on its ambitious mandate.
For its strengths, there are some weak spots in the book. Some of them are relatively superficial, such as the insistence on calling wealthy countries "north" and "west" and poor countries "south." When one looks at a map, this is just plain silly. Australia is neither north or west -- a nanny from Indonesia travels south and east to get there. The authors completely ignore the Middle East in favor of lazy generalizations about some mythical "West" that is treated as a singular unit with no real complexity or nuance. The rush to generalize may serve to make the points clear and easy, but in doing so creates falsehoods and overgeneralizations that serve to oversimplify the issue.
This is not a simple issue. The authors readily admit from the outset that much of this migration is driven by economics -- women move to wealthier countries to earn higher wages than they otherwise could. There might be a preference to do this at home, or for better working conditions, but the migration is not involuntary in many cases. If such women are subjected to relatively low wages and abuse, this is also not news in the history of migration. When men were the primary migrants -- and in some societies they still are -- low wages, slavery and abuse were the norm as well. It is simply a matter of people exploiting the most vulnerable in society.
While there is discussion about the changes to the…