Nowhere Woman

Nowhere Woman

Global Woman : Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy
edited by Arlie Russell Hochschild
and Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2003, 336 pp cloth $26
Owl Books, 2004 288 pp paper $15

The most lurid news story to come out of Berkeley, California, in the past few years was the tale of two teenage sisters brought to town from their home in rural India by a wealthy, middle-aged Berkeley landlord, also of Indian origin, to provide him with cheap labor and forced sex. The story broke on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, after the girls had fallen unconscious from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the landlord’s apartments. The younger sister, aged fifteen, survived. Her seventeen-year-old sibling died. “If it can happen here,” said American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Jayashri Srikantiah, “it can happen anywhere.”

In fact, it is happening everywhere. Not just sex slavery, but the larger phenomenon that sex slavery exemplifies in the extreme: activities formerly undertaken by first world women in their homes for free-keeping house, caring for dependents, having sex with a man-are increasingly being performed by third world women for a price, with unsettling effects on both servants and those they serve. This change, profound and vast, involves tens of millions of people. Yet it has remained largely hidden from the public, reported only intermittently by the mainstream media, and then usually as a horror story such as the one sketched above, in which third world female migrants appear as isolated victims.

Telling the real story in the name of feminist solidarity is the stated aim of Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, a collection of sixteen essays by fifteen authors, including the volume’s editors, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild. The “essential first step,” say the editors in their Introduction, is “to bring the world’s most invisible women into the light” and to show that they are “strivers as well as victims, wives and mothers as well as workers-sisters, in other words, with whom we in the First World may someday define a common agenda.” The way to make that demonstration, say Ehrenreich and Hochschild, is to approach third world female migrants as participants in “the new economy,” a.k.a. globalization.

Such an approach further challenges popular perception. The women featured in advertisements for the new economy, familiar to American television viewers and magazine readers, are neither nannies nor maids, and certainly not “sex workers,” but stylish executives wielding credit cards and cell phones as they take in the view from a luxury hotel room or run to catch a plane or taxi. In the very different reality disclosed in this book, globalization also involves the movement o...