The patriarchy of feminism

First-world women’s move into the centre has come with a price

With the crash of feminism’s first wave, women were catalyzed to seek equality in the realms of suffrage and labour. With the swell of the second wave – brought to the attention of many women by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 – women asserted control over their own bodies, bodies that had been bogged down by child-rearing and broom-wielding. As our feminist romance with the workplace blossomed, encouraged by this second wave, it appears that we forgot to educate men on how to pick up the slack as our careers in the public sphere reconfigured the needs inside the home. With many men ill-informed (or simply slacking) in this regard, who, at liberation’s, would fulfill the domestic tasks that were renounced by middle- and upper-class white women?

As domestic labour continues to be regarded as the work of the female body, peripheral women – lower-class women and women of colour – have frequently taken up the mantle of this undervalued, underpaid work – instead of men.

The fact that the brunt of this work has been disproportionately borne by other – outside – women was highlighted by the Philippine Women’s Centre of Quebec and SIKLAB Quebec last Saturday, at their event “Change through the Revolutionary Road Towards Genuine Women’s Liberation!” in celebration of International Women’s Day. According to the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada, at least 100,000 Filipina women have emigrated to Canada since 1992 under the federal government’s Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) – which usually involves much cleaning in addition to care-giving. The event’s feature film, The Nanny Business, documented the plight of Filipino LCP workers, including a few SIKLAB members here in Montreal, after their arrival in Canada.

The LCP is a national program under which migrant labourers – 95 per cent of whom are Filipina women – work as live-in domestic workers in Canada. The LCP requires nannies to complete 24 months of live-in work to be eligible for permanent residency. Upon my arrival at the apartment of one LCP worker – which she rents on weekends seeking solace from the work that is so invasive to her privacy – she is engaged in an incensed, teary-eyed telephone conversation with her employer, delineating the hours she had worked that week. While it is the weekend (long her agreed-upon holiday), her employer, whose scope of authority often commits her to complacency because of her precarious residency status, reproaches her for refusing the request she work that day.

The callous disregard for women’s bodies under the program was illuminated in the documentary by the ordeal of one LCP caregiver, Juana Tejada, who entered Canada in 2003. After being diagnosed with colon cancer while applying for permanent residence in 2006 – hoping to sponsor her family – Tejada was faced with deportation after toiling for three years as a caregiver, because she was deemed a health burden. She died in 2009.

Sheila Neysmith, who researches the program, observes that in annihilating the distinction between “public and private spaces; work and leisure; paid and unpaid labour; pay cheque and rent cheque,” the LCP entails extensive overtime and unpaid work. According to her research, 65 per cent of LCP caregivers surveyed in the Toronto area admitted to working more than the capped 44 weekly hours and  44 per cent of these received no compensation for overtime. Program graduates bear the brunt of employment in which 12-hour days (unofficially) and $1,000 per month salaries (after charges for accommodation and food) are not out the ordinary. Complete these calculations, and pay under this government-sponsored employment program amounts to less than half of minimum-wage.

The long-term effects of the program are further cause for concern. Because LCP workers are actually prohibited from upgrading their educational and professional skills for the duration of the program, the caregiver often possesses no “legitimate” non-domestic work experience post-graduation. As a result, workers are circumscribed to insecure, low-level employment that limits their economic prospects, in effect sustaining their social marginalization. As of 2008, 50 per cent of male migrant Filipino youth (aged 12 to 16) in Montreal – a substantial proportion of whom are children sponsored by LCP mothers after several years of separation – were not attending school, likely due to the familial, societal, and economic marginalization sustained by the program.

As feminist scholar Chandra Mohanty observes, the relationship between centre and periphery always exists. As the position of white middle-class women shifts from the periphery to the centre, lower-class and coloured women come to occupy the position of the periphery. This shift is compounded by the failure of many men to accept the domestic responsibilities that must underpin a gender-equal society. This gender disequilibrium is one piece of the global patriarchal structure. Almost half of the women under the LCP are mothers who have left children in their home countries, often paying female nannies even lower wages to care for their own children.

Here in the West, what has been conceived of as the work of women is still not valued enough by our government for the proper institutions to be put in place that recognize how fundamental this work is by adequately subsidizing it. As we fail to tackle the deeply-penetrating gender inequality which we blindly see as, “Like, so last feminist wave,” socially and economically marginalized women continue to pay the price. ο