Caribbean Feminisms: From the Page to our Lives, Across Borders and Communities

Edwidge-Danticat-and-Victoria-Brown-signing-books-700x467

Victoria Brown and Edwidge Danticat at Barnard College

In hosting a series of events that featured conversations between Caribbean woman writers, the Barnard Center for Research on Women sought to centralize the importance of developing a transnational feminist dialogue. This year, the debut event for the BCRW’s Caribbean Feminisms on the Page series featured a conversation between Edwidge Danticat and Victoria Brown.
wind is spirit (1) bird hill

The concluding salon in the sequence was a discussion about The Wind is Spirit: The Life, Love, and Legacy of Audre Lorde and The Star Side of Bird Hill between their respective authors, Gloria Joseph and Naomi Jackson.

The writings of Victoria Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Audre Lorde, and Naomi Jackson, are all formed within a framework of Caribbean feminism. As Black women with ties to the Caribbean, the authors’ literary projects have been informed by a transnational feminist effort that welds U.S.- based Black feminism, anti-imperial dialogues, and the liberation efforts of Caribbean women at home and in the diaspora. To suture the rifts and fragments of their narratives, Caribbean women make use of a feminist impulse that constantly questions state violence and structural domination. The works of these authors reveal the resistant forms of everyday knowledge-making and activism practiced by Caribben women.

In Edwidge Danticat’s work, specifically in her memoir, Brother I’m Dying, these dialogues are depicted as emerging from deeply personal interactions with state power and governance that threaten to rupture the familial structure. In depicting the instability and precarity experienced by a family caught in the links of migration, detention, and displacement, Danticat reveals a disruption of familial space by threats of forceful state governance. Naomi Jackson’s coming of age novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, delves into an equally complex family narrative with similar concerns around transplantation, displacement, and the mobility of the fractured West Indian family and body. Offering deeply intimate accounts of Black girlhood and its complexities, the narratives fit within a contentious structural conflict between imperialist governance and Caribbean feminisms. This type of governance is rooted in efforts to gain control over Caribbean livelihoods to serve the needs of Euro-American economic and political expansion and is tied to state practices of border control. 

The works of Victoria Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Audre Lorde, and Naomi Jackson consider home as a mobile and precarious site. This precarity is informed by the shifting migratory patterns produced by border delineations that have segmented the Caribbean body, and arguably all migrant bodies, warping its sense of belonging and cultural allegiance.

Audre and Linda

In Zami, Audre Lorde describes her own sense of longing for a home she only knew through her West Indian mother. Lorde forges a link between her relationship to her mother and her relationship to Grenada, establishing a maternal kinship that exceeds time and place, extending the notion of communal networks among women beyond borders. Lorde posits not only gender identity and sexuality as unstable categories, but also the very notion of home.

Once home was a far way off, a place I had never been to but knew well out of my mother’s mouth. She breathed exuded hummed the fruit smell of Noel’s Hill morning fresh and noon hot, and I spun visions of sapadilla and mango as a net over my Harlem tenement cot in the snoring darkness rank with nightmare sweat. Made bearable because it was not all. This now, here, was a space, some temporary abode, never to be considered forever nor totally binding nor defining, no matter how much it commanded in energy and attention. For if we lived correctly and with frugality, looked both ways before crossing the street, then someday we would arrive back in the sweet place, back home.

In examining practices of border delineation, Brown and Danticat consider Caribbean feminism a form of resistance to their resulting influence in producing displaced and stateless subjects. In order to critically consider notions of empire, spatial organization of bodies, and national allegiances, Caribbean feminisms demand attention to the gendered contours of statelessness and displacement. Understanding regional and transnational political dynamics as interactive allow insight into the practices by which Caribbean women’s subjectivities are formed.

During a “Caribbean Feminisms on the Page” conversation between Edwidge Danticat and Victoria Brown, a question arose about whether there is a feminist movement in the Caribbean that mobilizes scholarly, intellectual engagements. Demanding attention to visibility, class inequality, and various structural challenges that eclipse efforts of resistance to imperial governance mobilized by Caribbean women, Danticat offered insight into the gendered dimensions of the Dominican-Haitian border relations. In the context of border conflict, Haitian women’s bodies are caught in the juncture of dominance and subjugation enforced by paramilitary state practices and border policing. The livelihoods of Haitian women are undermined through displacement while their subjectivity and sovereignty are constrained within structural power relations. Any attempt at understanding contemporary struggles against xenophobic and anti-Black border policies must be grounded in a differential study of Haitian and Dominican histories as they connect with practices of U.S. imperialism, colonial relations, and insurgent movements and practices of resistance.

Caribbean feminisms are informed by historical narratives of struggle, resistance, and survival against imperial and colonial domination. They operate as part of a mobile and global dialogue and are rooted intimacy of the home setting. Audre Lorde centers her self-actualization and instinct for creating communal bonds with other women in the home-place she refers to as Carriacou, her mother’s place of origin. She describes these lessons in Zami in recounting the narratives of her kinfolk:

Women who survived the absence of their sea-faring men easily, because they came to love each other, past the men’s returning. Madivine. Friending. Zami. How Carriacou women love each other is legend in Grenada, and so is their strength and their beauty.

Created by the labor and collective engagements of Caribbean women, Caribbean feminisms are inextricably linked to traditions forged within the context of slavery. In her dialogue with Gloria Joseph as part of the “Caribbean Feminisms on the Page” series, Naomi Jackson emphasizes the imprint of slavery and its legacy in the context of Barbadian communities. Caribbean feminisms have been mobilized across time and space to give form to complex narratives and subjectivities, and have been integral to resistance efforts and radical engagements for change in the livelihoods of Caribbean women.

These efforts and narratives converge when we consider women’s labor activism in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic. Black women’s bodies in their racialized constitutions are inextricably linked to state power and expansion and Black womanhood is anchored to the concept of nation-building. Strategies of empire-expansion deploy women’s bodies within their racialized hierarchies to sustain complex capitalistic economic and political structures. This is revealed in the historical practice of using Black women’s bodies as tools of labor production and reproduction in the United States and in the Caribbean.

One StruggleOngoing issues concerning wage disparity, statelessness and displacement, state violence and carceral practices against Black bodies must be viewed through the critical lens of Caribbean feminism. The condition of Haitian workers in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, where imperial forces operate to sustain capitalist economies, must be viewed as inextricably linked.

By generating feminist discourse concerning Caribbean womanhood, nationhood, and history, Danticat, Brown, and Jackson are effectively mobilizing resistance and forging transnational links of solidarity between feminist narratives. The Feminisms on the Page series has provided a forum in which we have grappled with the tools and narratives offered within Caribbean feminist frameworks

We must continue to go further; from the page to the streets, across borders and communities, we must devote creative efforts and generate activist engagements that centralize narratives of resistance and forge links of solidarity between our liberation strategies. 

We can draw from the narratives offered by our foremothers, Caribbean woman-storytellers, healers, and activists like Audre Lorde to carry out our investments in collective liberation.

Audre

 

Related:

“Next Steps in the Struggle for Citizenship in the Dominican Republic”

“Home is Where the Heart Cannot be: the oppression of Haitians in the Dominican Republic” 

“Digital Translations of Quisqueya” 

Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies: The Conference

Amber Hollibaugh’s project Queer Survival Economies took the form of a conference “Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies” on January 23rd and 24th. Queer Survival Economies (QSE) is a project that aims to organize poor and working class people around economic justice and immigration issues, particularly problems that impact LGBTQ+ people. The project works with various organizational partners and includes conferences, training curriculum, network building, and the development of a story bank of LGBTQ+ poor and low-income people’s experiences. Through research, training, and education, QSE wants to expand local and national economic and immigration policies to include LGBTQ+ people.

I approached the conference not only as a BCRW research assistant, but as a queer Indian woman, unaware of what to expect. My past experience with the queer community has been frustratingly whitewashed and (cis) male, full of successful coming out stories that failed to transcend intersectional boundaries of race, culture, age, gender, polysexuality, religion, class, (dis)ability, and colonialism. I was hesitant to enter the conference room, unsure of who would occupy it, but found myself happily surprised at the amount of diversity in the room. As a young Desi queer, representations of myself in the media have been literally nonexistent, but to my delight, I spotted Alok from Darkmatter, the trans Desi slam poetry duo.

Gender, Sexuality, HIV and Reproductive Justice panel with Reina Gossett, Cara Page, and Terry Boggis. Photo by @MargotDWeiss via Twitter.

Gender, Sexuality, HIV and Reproductive Justice panel with Reina Gossett, Cara Page, and Terry Boggis. Photo by @MargotDWeiss via Twitter.

The focus of this conference was on how certain bodies, such as queer bodies and Black and brown bodies, are seen as dangerous and disruptive to the social order. Panelists at “Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies” discussed the impacts of the medical-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and capitalism on the LGBTQ+ community. Higher rates of arrest and strip searches exist among LGBTQ+ people of color and queer disabled people, particularly those that are homeless. Because there are disproportionate amounts of homeless queer youth and adults, issues surrounding homelessness are queer issues.

The following are the two panels I attended at the conference.

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Remembering Leslie Feinberg

I remember first encountering an article by Leslie Feinberg in Workers World where zie wrote about the legacy of queer and/or trans activists of color who participated in left, black power, queer, trans liberation, and AIDS activist movements. It was in this article that I learned about Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese American AIDS activist who was born in an internment camp and became radicalized during the Civil Rights revolution, and Ortez Alderson, a black queer radical with roots in an anti-war activism, the gay liberation front and also an ACT UP Chicago and NYC member. I deeply appreciated how Leslie documented and preserved this history of resistance, which is so often obscured by dominant narratives that treat black and queer freedom struggle as separate at best and antagonistic at worst. For Leslie Feinberg, struggles against racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, trans misogyny, police violence, and racism were united and inextricable from one another. In hir 2007 speech at a meeting of hosted Palestinian queer organization ASWAT in Ramallah, Leslie pointed to these connections: “the imperialists—the U.S. to Israelis—use the experiences of women, of gays, of transgenders as pretexts for imperialist war.” Leslie dedicated the proceeds from sales of the Hebrew edition of Stone Butch Blues to ASWAT.

Leslie’s nonfiction work Transgender Warriors, traces trans identities throughout history. Leslie’s writing for Workers World on queer and/or trans of color organizing, trans history, and interviews with Sylvia Rivera worked against historical erasure and disavowal. Hir writing for Workers World highlighted queer and/or trans of color left activism from the 1960s and 70s, figures such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Ortez Alderson, and moments of convergence such as the Black Panther’s Revolutionary Convention in 1970s which Sylvia Rivera, Afeni Shakur, and Huey P. Newton attended. Leslie understood that opening up genealogies of queer and trans of color resilience and resistance can counter historical erasure and invisibility. Leslie often marched with and was also arrested with Sylvia Rivera during direct actions. In Transgender Warriors, Leslie describes being at a Palestine solidarity rally in the early 1970s and seeing signs protesting the massacre at Attica prison as well as the Vietnam war: “One banner particularly haunted me: it read ‘Stop the War Against Black America,’ which made me realize it wasn’t just distant wars that needed opposing.” Leslie saw the connection between domestic racialized warfare in America and U.S. warfare abroad.

Towards the end of hir life, Leslie worked in solidarity with CeCe McDonald, writing and visiting her in prion and getting arrested in protest of the white supremacist, anti-queer, and anti-trans violence she faced as well as of the violence of the state’s incarceration of McDonald. Arguing that zie’s Jewish, trans, working class, and lesbian identities as well as white privilege demanded that zie speak out against oppression and violences, Leslie stated “CeCe McDonald survived a fascist hate crime; now she’s sentenced as she struggles to survive an ongoing state hate crime…As a white, working-class, Jewish, transgender lesbian revolutionary I will not be silent as this injustice continues!” Feinberg dedicated the 20th anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues to CeCe McDonald and made a call for supporters to send in photos of solidarity, to create an archive and multimedia show of support to free CeCe, all our siblings, and ourselves.

Che Gossett is the Community Archivist and Student Coordinator at BCRW. They have also written about Leslie and hir lifetime’s work here.

Rubbing Salt into the Wound: Added Injury to the 19th Century Irish Immigrant Experience

The 19th century was an unforgiving period for Irish immigrants living in the United States. They faced persecution, poor job prospects, and unfavorable living conditions. Because Irish immigrants often came to industrial cities from rural, uneducated areas, they were only able to work low-skill jobs, which usually involved manual labor. The nature of these jobs caused them to suffer severe injuries, dramatically lowering their employability and furthering their ostracization. Meredith Linn, Assistant Professor of Urban Studies, is interested in investigating the link between the persecution, labor, and injuries that these immigrants experienced. On April 2, in a lunchtime lecture titled “Gender, Labor, Healing: Irish Immigrant Experiences in 19th Century NYC,” Linn shared her research examining common injuries among 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City, and described how these lead to increased discrimination. Furthermore, she discussed how the types of injuries and their consequences varied as a result of the gendered division of labor. Linn’s research works to gain a better understanding of how xenophobia, gender inequality, and socioeconomic difference led to the injuries that pushed Irish immigrants further into the margins.

“Little Ireland,” Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Little Ireland,” Photo by Diane Griffiths, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

There are many records that indicate that 19th century Irish immigrant workers in New York City were at a especially high risk of facing injury. According to Linn, “historians have long noted that rates of injury among Irish immigrants were much higher than their native [American] counterparts.” Hospital records from 1845 to 1952 show that although the Irish made up 30 percent of NYC’s population, they accounted for over 60 percent of injured patients in the hospitals. The dangerous careers Irish held most likely played a big role in this disproportion. As Linn stated, “about 85 percent of Irish men … were employed in jobs that would have employed hard manual labor … literally back breaking labor.”  This ‘back breaking’ labor put the Irish at a high risk of injury and as a consequence, limited their ability to find employment.

Not only did these injuries physically disable Irish immigrants, but also they resulted in social injury. Linn argued that the immigrant’s physical injuries caused them to become further stereotyped and marginalized. The back injuries Irish men sustained from manual labor exacerbated the idea that not being able to stand up straight meant that Irish men were not fully human. This physical and social discrimination was also detrimental to the immigrant’s mental health; by 1908, Irish made up the most common nationality in mental hospitals. Irish women were at an especially high risk of mental illness. Since the type of labor differed according to gender, Irish women experienced their own set of physical injuries and repercussions in addition to their greater disposition to psychological injury. For example, because of the domestic nature of their work, Irish women often worked near open flames like stoves, which by design were hazardous, and as a result they were susceptible to burns. Since an injury such as a burn would mark a woman as further from the feminine ideal, it would be more difficult for her to get work outside of her home.

“Irish Immigrant," Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

“Irish Immigrant,” Photo by Thunderchild7, flickr.com (Creative Commons)

Even without these work-related injuries, Irish women were judged for other aspects of their physical appearance, such as their weight. Irish women were thought of as having thicker bones, giving them a larger appearance, which contrasted the idealized slim female body. As a result, Irish women’s bodies were constantly under scrutiny. The necessity of work exacerbated this scrutiny: the more they labored, the more they inured themselves, “again modifying their bodies and setting them a part from the norm.” Potential unemployment was not only damaging to women; often Irish men could not make enough to support the family by themselves. Furthermore, some households lacked any sort of male figure, due to the male deserting the family, leaving to look for work, or dying of disease. This created an even greater necessity for Irish women to work, and as a consequence, to alter their physical appearance to find employment.

"Duffy's Cut," Photo by parabat4868

“Duffy’s Cut,” Photo by parabat4868, flicker.com (Creative Commons)

Although discrimination against Irish immigrants took place mostly during the 19th century, Linn said that much of their experience is still relevant today. Many immigrants in the United States, even in relatively progressive areas such as New York City, face marginalization and discrimination similar to the Irish immigrants. While today Irish immigrants have blended in with mainstream society, newer immigrant groups are now the recipients of poor employment prospects and healthcare. Linn described how, like with 19th century Irish immigrants, society judges new immigrants by their appearances. Like Irish immigrants, they have been categorized and placed in boxes, therefore limiting their employment opportunities. Linn shared a quote from the 19th century that she said represents the common view of Irish laborers: “Irish means to us a class of human beings whose house is their work, and their men dig the railroads.” Similar jobs can now be seen with immigrants working as domestic workers or in physically demanding fields such as construction. Linn’s lecture, which looked at the gendered division of labor, the relationship between discrimination and employment, and the conditions which lead to further marginalization, was both an intriguing look to the past and a necessary examination of the present.

Emily is a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in Sociology and is a BCRW Research Assistant.

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Examining the History and Representation of Domestic Workers

On April 16, BCRW, along with the Barnard Forum on Migration, will host Historical Perspectives on Domestic Worker Organizing. The conversation-style event will feature Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, and Premilla Nadasen, Visiting Associate Professor in History at Barnard. Hutchison and Nadasen will look at the changing labor relations of domestic service over the course of the 20th century, and will focus especially on the political, economic, and social aspects that characterize the lives of domestic workers. Drawing upon their research, they will investigate the history of domestic workers in the United States and in Chile, looking at their migration, family life, and political activity over time.

Last month, at the “Domestic Work and Politics of Black Freedom” lecture hosted by Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women Gender and Sexuality (IRWGS), Premilla Nadasen spoke about the history of African American women in domestic work. She claims that movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Help reinforce the stereotype of African American domestic workers as “loyal protectors of white families.” Nadasen stressed that instead, African American domestic workers should be recognized for their activism, which “help[s] us rethink the connection between the intimate and the political … domestic work is a form of intimate labor that took place in the ostensibly private space of the home, and it became the site of both racial and gendered difference, but also a sight for the politics of black freedom.” Continue reading

Fair Labor Standards Act Helps Improve Lives of Home Health Aides

A predominately female and minority workforce has finally gained protection under federal labor laws that has been ensured to other factions of the workforce for decades. The Obama Administration announced in September that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which won’t take effect until January 1, 2015, will now entitle most direct care workers (health workers, personal care aides and certified nursing assistants) to federal minimum wage and over time pay protection.

FLSA is far from new – in 1974 it was expanded to include domestic workers who provided “care and fellowship” to the elderly and disabled in their homes. Unfortunately, “care and fellowship” was left to the interpretation of employers. Many home care workers who worked 12-hour days feeding, bathing, clothing, and providing medical care to their clients were denied their basic rights due to the ambiguity of what “care and fellowship” actually means. The home health industry includes nearly 2.5 million workers – making it one of the largest occupations in the US.

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The Wild, Wild West

When I offer the introduction: “I’m from North Dakota,” the usual answer is a snarky/incredulous, “People live there?” Well, I am standing before you, and I wasn’t exactly raised by buffalo, although that would be fun. I understand the reaction, and I don’t begrudge the occasional comparison to Siberia, because, in the scheme of the lives of hundreds of millions of American citizens, a state as under-populated as ND just sort of fades in with the rest of the Mid West in the rolling recesses of America’s mind. But the nation is starting to take notice of my scrappy little home state. Why? OIL. And we’ve got lots of it. North Dakota is changing at a booming rate, thanks to its vast shale oil fields, effecting major socio-economic changes in communities that have been static or in decline for decades; many of these changes are acutely affecting the lives of women in North Dakota.

Landscape photo of green field and blue sky

Here’s some background information on the ND oil boom: on February 3, North Dakota made the cover of New York Times Magazine and boasted the (intended-to-be-ironic) heading “The Luckiest Place on Earth.” The article “North Dakota Went Boom” depicts the rapid growth of the state’s population and oil industry in western ND, which climbed from the country’s 9th oil producer to its second, behind only Texas. ND is even projected to pass them, and soon. Eat your heart out, Texas. The influx in oil production began about 7 years ago, fueled by technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing (known scathingly as “fracking” on the East coast) that made it easier and cheaper to extract oil from the rocks.

Most of the oil comes from the Bakken Formation, also known as the Williston Basin. Oil towns in the area have been rocked by the population growth. Williston, ND, a hub of oil production, has grown from a steady, if not slightly declining, 12,000 people, to a bloated 20,000 in the last four years. Much of the growth is attributed to incoming single, able-bodied young men who flock to the high paying jobs in the oil fields. As the New York Times summed it up: Oil Towns Where Men are Many, and Women are Hounded. The article cites that in 2011, the census data showed 58% of North Dakotans ages 18-35 were men. And in the areas most affected by the oil boom, the disparity in gender ratios becomes even more obvious: there were more than 1.6 men for every 1 woman, and that’s only data for those who have reported a permanent residence, which many of the short-term oil labor and construction workers have not. As an aside, strippers often make more money on an average night in Williston than they would in Las Vegas. As women become fewer and farther between, the objectification of women has skyrocketed.

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Women in the Labor Movement: Campus Activism

UNION-WOMEN-AJCWith any history of activism, there is a history of oppression to go with it.

In recent years, Columbia University has been the site of a series of ongoing labor disputes–disputes so outrageous, in fact, that the situation called for some old- fashioned grassroots organizing. Last fall, I helped start a student activist group, Student-Worker Solidarity (SWS), when the Barnard College desk attendants and clerical workers fought a long battle to secure a fair work contract with an increasingly corporate administration. This semester, SWS is spearheading a campaign to support the Faculty House dining hall workers, mostly immigrants and people of color who have seen little-to-no wage increases in the past decade, are systematically laid off during academic breaks, and are the victims of wage theft. As one shop leader declared to the crowd at our last rally, “we are slave laborers…we have been sitting on the back of the bus for too long. We demand to come forward.”

The most impressive aspect of my experience with SWS, other than seeing the power that my peers have to organize, has been seeing the workers of our University organize themselves. Yet as a feminist and a member of the BCRW, I couldn’t help but notice that at our initial general body meetings and at the first speak-outs we organized, white male student voices were heard through the megaphone far more than were the voices  of my female classmates. The BCRW, of course, through its focus on domestic workers in a recent issue of the Scholar & the Feminist and its panel at the 40th Anniversary Conference featuring the seminal organizer Ai-jen Poo, has been a longtime supporter of turning up the volume of women’s voices in the labor movement. And at a panel discussion last fall, Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, spoke to the gender discrimination female workers at Columbia once faced. In an effort not to backpedal on those gains, concerned women in SWS instated a “progressive” manner in which a facilitator at a meeting could call on members; we actively encouraged women to move to the forefront at public events; and we held a feminist caucus to discuss the gender dynamics in our group.

I can easily say that my education outside the classroom has infinitely surpassed the knowledge I’ve acquired within an academic setting. And from my brief experience in organizing, I believe it’s absolutely crucial that my female peers continually assert ourselves not only within the gleaming gates of our women’s college, but on the soapbox and at the megaphone as well. I’m happy to report that through our constant efforts, we’ve successfully achieved that.

La lucha continúa.

‘Post-Civil Rights Era’ Gender Discrimination

As a volunteer for BCRW this summer, Dana Freshley explored BCRW’s publications. In this post, she summarizes some of the central issues in BCRW’s second New Feminist Solutions report.

two professors in academic regalia walk on a university campusBCRW’s New Feminist Solutions report, Women, Work, and the Academy explains that gender discrimination did not disappear with the civil rights movement. The many protests in the 1960s and the passage of the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education did move mountains, but now gender discrimination exists in a different form – it’s in everyday interactions, according to Alison Wylie, feminist scholar at the University of Washington.

Daily decisions made in the workplace, no matter how small, contribute to the overall problem of gender discrimination. Although there have been dramatic increases to the amount of women in academia, women are still the minority in leadership positions. In this New Feminist Solutions report (PDF), Wylie says, “women continue to be under-represented at senior levels of the professoriate, especially in graduate training institutions; they continue to be disproportionally employed in part-time and non-tenure-stream positions; and they continue to be under compensated relative to their male counterparts.” Several universities have tried to address this problem with targeted hiring, but some argue that these efforts leave many women in academia wondering if they attained certain prizes or positions just because of their gender.

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Domestic Workers Rights Are Women’s Rights

This post originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine blog, and is re-posted here with the author’s permission.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) has a big decision to make for the cause of women’s rights.  On his desk at the moment is a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that recently passed both houses of the California legislature.  The bill only needs Gov. Brown’s signature to become law; if he doesn’t sign it before September 30, it automatically becomes law.

The Bill of Rights–Assembly Bill 889 [PDF]–guarantees domestic workers overtime pay and lunch and rest breaks, and assures live-in workers that will be allowed sufficient sleep in adequate conditions. The Bill covers nannies, housekeepers and caregivers employed by private agencies, as well as those hired by individual families.

Protesters at a rally for domestic workers rights

The provisions of the bill are hardly radical. They are rights that many of us wouldn’t think twice about.  Of course, people deserve the right to eat lunch and should have the right to a full night’s rest. Why are we even talking about this?

Because these basic rights are routinely denied to household workers.

Domestic work, an occupation historically made up of African American and immigrant women, was excluded from the labor protections afforded to most workers in the 1930s: Social Security, unemployment, a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Although they now have access to Social security and minimum wage, domestic workers are still a vulnerable workforce.

Today, there are overwhelmingly poor immigrant women of color who engage in the devalued work of cooking, cleaning and caring that enables households to function.  Many don’t think of that as “real” work. Moreover, domestics work in the privacy of the home, are sometimes undocumented, aren’t always aware of their rights and are subject to the whims of their employers.  It is particularly difficult for household workers to organize because they are isolated from each other, and it is very easy for employers to replace them if they express even an ounce of dissatisfaction.

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