Global Feminism: This Flat World Still Has Borders

February 9, 2007   

We know the World is Flat. Those of us taking part in the Web 2.0 movement are getting awards for flattening it.

But beyond the flow of money and information, how flat is the word?

Last night I went to an interesting event called "Feminism Across Borders: Labor, Families, and Globalization" at The Brandeis House, on the Upper East Side. The Brandeis House is the NYC home for Brandeis alumni, and they have a few great programs every month.

It was a very interesting discussion and even more interesting debate afterward. Nadia Kim, Assistant Professor in Women's and Gender Studies & Sociology (my old department) and Harleen Singh, Assistant Professor in Women's and Gender Studies & South Asian Literature, brought up a lot of issues, but the talk seemed to center on phenomena of immigrant mothers working as caretakers in the homes of upwardly mobile American Women, leaving their families behind in their home-country.

The idea here was very interesting: as American Women continue to leave the home for the workplace, globalization becomes a feminized issues, and feminism becomes a globalized issue; domestic burdens and child-rearing responsibilities are transfered to immigrant/migrant women who themselves are global and have left behind families across a border they are likely unable to cross again.

To rephrase, the central theme I found in this discussion and debate was despite globalization, familial burden remains a woman's issue. If an American woman decides to work and leave her kids with a nanny, that women bears the social burden and stigma of abandoning her children, despite the fact that she will likely retain many of "her" domestic "responsibilities" [not sure which word the rhetorical quotation-marks should be around].

Additionally, if the woman hires "domestic help", in many parts of our country that "helper" will be from another country and illegally residing in ours. This means these women will goes years without seeing their families, again forming a stigma and "cost" of abandoning her family (i.e. her children may feel resentment towards her act of survival, as illustrated in one of the story lines in the award winning movie, Babel). This effect is less felt in areas like the Mid-West, where "help" (or "the help", as many say) tends to be local, and instead of going years without seeing family they just [and I say "just" facetiously here] miss familial holiday or birthdays celebrations while "replacing" richer homemakers/mothers.

The Men, well, according to the speakers, statistically we haven't increased our share of child-rearing or domestic responsibilities through this global process, and that's what makes it distinctly an issue of feminism before classism [its interesting that my spell-check doesn't accept the word "classism"].

I don't have to tell you (the speakers did last night), this issue is incredibly complex. That's social science for you. But it's good to hear all these issues and ideas to better understand what's going on around us. For instance, what was going on around us last night:

Nearly as complex as the science were the dynamics in the crowd. You should know that Brandeis' history in issues of social justice, including feminism, is richer than nearly any college. We were founded specifically to address social justice, and students have always been most passionate about this issue and more passionate about this issue than any other on campus, starting from the University's conception in 1948 until now.

Those of you who know about feminism also know that feminism, like any theory-driven movement, has gone through waves. So, in a room full of feminists from every decade of Brandeis' existence (one woman had Eleanor Roosevelt as her professor when she was a professor and on Brandeis' Board of Trustees), there were views, opinions, and approaches to feminism that were extraordinarily diverse. One young woman got completely pounced on by the Old Guard when she declared her objective was to graduate from law school and soon-thereafter take on full-time child-bearing and rearing, stating "it's okay to just want to be a mom."

Why do I mention this? Well, it's a timely matter to consider, seeing that Harvard has just, and finally, appointed its first woman President -- signaling one less glass ceiling broken. The women in the room who had fought so hard to break these ceilings in big law firms were horrified to hear younger woman saying they had no interest, and saw no benefit for other women, to follow them through the broken glass.

For those of you interested in reading more about feminism and professional life, I really recommend Sarah Tavel's other posts about the subject. These are issues we can't ignore and which should be discussed (and often are not in the tech circle of bloggers). What are your thoughts?

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