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Teaching About Third World Women
and Globalization

Art by Grace de Jesus-Sievert
Art by Grace de Jesus-Sievert, ISIS International-Manila

by Dr. Delia D. Aguilar

Delia D. Aguilar, has been an associate professor of Women's Studies and Comparative American Cultures at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University. She is the author of Filipino Housewives Speak, The Feminist Challenge, and Toward a Nationalist Feminism, all of which were published in the Philippines. She has written numerous articles on Filipino women, feminist theory, and women and development that have appeared in Feminist Review, Women's Studies International Forum, Race & Class, and Monthly Review, among others. She now teaches women's studies courses at the University of Connecticut.

Both globalization and feminism, apprehended in a wide variety of ways, are now assumed features of the geopolitical landscape. While it is true that a declining number of young women today are willing to call themselves feminists, liberal feminism is now hegemonic in US culture. One can also safely say that globalization is part of young people's reality today, however superficial their comprehension of it might be. They know that most of their clothing is made in China, that the jobs they're hoping to get after graduation are being outsourced, that information across the globe is transmitted with astonishing rapidity, and so on. But knowledge of the effects of globalization on Third World women is still pitifully lacking.

At the start of each semester in my class on women and globalization, I ask students what sorts of things they know or what images come to mind with mention of women outside the US. They invariably come up with a list of the same items each time: that Third World women are fiendishly oppressed by patriarchy (it’s always men), that “they” (the other) don't have the freedoms we enjoy (and this is attributed to traditional cultures); then there's the inevitable mention of the “burqa” (thanks to President Bush and First Lady Laura who invoked the liberation of women in Afghanistan to justify US bombing), and always cited, finally, is that barbaric practice of FGC that never fails to arouse their maternal, missionary instincts. At this point I usually ask them what they know of SAPs. The response is often puzzled looks. (Incidentally, my students are mostly seniors and a sprinkling of juniors—this is their last year in college). So I bring up the IMF/WB, WTO and remark that these international bodies and their policies probably have a much more negative and widespread effect on women, children, and men around the world than any backward cultural practice. I tell them that the course will view the lives of Third World women squarely in the context of globalizing forces, that while globalization can be defined in neutral terms as the way in which the nations of the planet have been drawn together in an integrated world order through the contemporary process of financing, trading, producing, and exchanging goods and services, the effects on women so far are by no means neutral or benign.

Students, of course, are not to blame for their lack of information. Several feminists have decried the fact that many who write about the globalized capitalist system—even those who have produced otherwise valuable analyses—have ignored the centrality of women to the economic restructuring of the period since the mid-70s. Conversely, while globalization forces gender to be understood in the context of class and capitalist development, many feminists who write about the impact of globalization on women tend to focus, instead, on its purely representational, that is, discursive aspects. And researchers who write about diasporic populations of domestic and sex workers point to how these women possess “agency” and “resist and oppose”, on an individual basis, various forms of oppression. The idea here is to negate their victimization that is presumed to accompany the deployment of systemic approaches that speak of exploitation.

In our grossly unequal world, the total liberalisation of the world economy and trade will result in even greater tragedy. Policies and measures imposed by the IMF, World Bank and WTO towards this end have crippled economies and weakened the social fabric: exacerbating venality within state bureaucracies, existing inequalities in various aspects of power relations, and mass poverty. For the majority of the world’s people, women and children especially, the liberalisation agenda means suffering the violence of depredation—loss of jobs, destruction of farms, demise of emergent national industries, compromised food security, erosion of social services, growing insecurity, environmental degradation.

Roundtable Statement “Call to People of Faith to Resist Capitalist Globalisation and Work Together for Life-enhancing Alternatives” Peace for Life Continuation Committee, December 17, 2005

Perhaps because of events of the past 3 years, students, when asked what label they would use to describe US society, don’t offer the term “democracy” as readily anymore. At least one or two will actually say “capitalist”. But capitalism for them means greed, profitmaking, consumerism, as though all that capitalism is about is a system of messed-up values. For this reason, I have found it necessary to introduce them to the abc of capitalism, because I believe that without a basic understanding of capitalism as a mode of production, they will not be able grasp what the globalization of capitalism implies, especially for Third World women.

I have them read “masculinist” texts; that is, books that don't have an explicit feminist framework—for example, a little book by Bertell Ollman, and a few chapters from Michael Yates’ “Naming the System”. From Yates, they get a sense of the changes entailed in the historic shift from feudalism to capitalism—how serfs were thrown off the land to make way for private ownership. They learn that just as serfs were expropriated of their land, so were the native peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, that capitalism was born in theft and would not have been possible without it; they see that capitalism was expansionist and imperialist (i.e, some nations having political and economic control over others) from the very beginning. They learn three defining features of capitalism: that the nonhuman means of production—land, raw materials, tools, equipment, machinery necessary for production—are privately owned; that the vast majority sell their labor in exchange for a wage to those who own the means of production; and that owners organize production around profit, not the benefit of people. Yates underscores the fact—often obscured today in the postmodern emphasis on “difference” or “intersectionality”—that the fundamental dividing line, and the most important one in understanding the dynamics of capitalism, is that between owners and workers. He argues that this relationship is indissociably tied up with other relationships—between women and men, and between persons of different “races” and ethnicities. Capitalism, then, is revealed for what it is, a mode of production in which inequality within and among nations is an inescapable fact. I've found Ollman, in turn, very useful because, among other things, he explains in very simple terms the way in which surplus value is extracted from workers’ labor and how this results in people’s alienation from the products of their labor. Additionally, Ollman goads students to question the education they're receiving, telling them that educational institutions are always shaped by the interests of those in power. With that as backdrop, we can now proceed to the place of women in globalized capitalism.

In a presentation on women and globalization in a conference in Cuba a year ago, Nancy Hartsock foregrounded two themes. First she urged the recuperation of the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation. She spoke of how in the first stage of capitalist accumulation, early capitalist nations like Spain, Portugal, England, Holland, and France confiscated land and property through conquest, robbery, and enslavement in what is called the booty market. What we are witnessing today in the diaspora of Third World women is linked to a global process of “primitive accumulation”, the forced removal of populations from their lands, which is driving massive numbers of women out of their countries. The second, and related theme, is the feminization of labor in globalization. Today, women undeniably function as the engine of production in the world. What has caused women to be the primary workers in globalization? To answer this we need to turn to the Structural Adjustment Programs of international lending agencies that have become all but the governing bodies of the world. Here we come to grips with neoliberalism and free trade. We discuss the austerity measures imposed on borrowing countries whose cutbacks in government spending exert the severest impact on women because it is women in most societies who are held responsible for the immediate care of families. When funds for education and welfare are slashed, it is women who make up the slack. But it is the imposition of export production on Third World countries by the IMF/WB that has effected the most pronounced change in women's lives. It has pushed them out of the home into wage work, producing goods for export; in the “race to the bottom” they are the workers of choice; and it has also caused them to be the primary export product of their nations. In the Philippines this is referred to as the “warm-body export”. Today 10-12% of the population is working overseas, sending back up to $9B each year. Every Filipino knows that it is the remittances of overseas workers that allow the Philippine government to pay back its debt servicing to the IMF/WB.

What are the implications of women's location in the labor market—mainly in service industries, in clerical, technical and manufacturing work—or the realm of production? Most feminists concur that this has profound yet contradictory effects. Placement in the workforce holds a liberatory potential for women; on the personal level, those who leave rural areas for work in the cities (in India, Thailand, and Indonesia), for example, begin to enjoy a degree of economic independence and sexual freedom heretofore closed off to them. A new world of public life is opened up, and collective action to alter exploitative working conditions becomes a possibility, if not a necessity. These conditions, one must remark, look very much like the ones described by Engels in 1844 in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”—the consequences for women have been so severe that some have said that globalization is a man (to put this in liberal feminist terms). For the most part, however, women are employed in the informal sector, making organizing an onerous task.

Saskia Sassen writes of the “countergeogra-phies of globalization” upon which the upper circuits, transnational corporate culture, depend. These are what she calls the “survival circuits”, cross-border circuits whose main actors are women. Here you find maids, nannies, nurses, sex workers, and mail-order brides. It is probably the deployment of Third World women as domestic helpers and nannies in more affluent countries-both as a subject of research and as a practice—that feminists in the metropolis have the most vexed relationship with. In fact this “internationalization” of caregiving work has become a key feature of the new world order.

I tell my class that the gender division of labor in the household was a fierce site of struggle for second-wave feminism. Theorization of the so-called separate spheres, the productive and reproductive, enabled women to realize that their lower wages as directly connected to their assignment to childcare and household duties. The notion that household work is labor necessary to the functioning of society at large was a given in the series of public discussions called the “domestic labor debates” in the 70s. (The debate was about whether or not household work had surplus value since it was unpaid). Feminists then worked very hard to demonstrate that housework was not to be viewed as an act of love; this premise served as the rationale for the wages for housework campaign. That was in the 70s. Switch to the mid to late 90s. Professional women in the North now have available to them the cheap labor of immigrant Third World women who can care for their children and clean their homes. What is this phenomenon called? A “global care chain”, according to Arlie Hochshild, in which First World employers “implicitly hope to import a poor country’s ‘native culture’,(their ability to love) thereby replenishing their own rich country's depleted culture of care.” Noting that extracting resources from the Third World in order to enrich the First is hardly new, Hochschild argues that today “love and care” have become the “new gold”.

As this example illustrates, there is a marked tendency in feminist writing today to transmute activities that fall in the realm of labor into the rarefied stratosphere of the “desire industries”. This is, no doubt, symptomatic of the retreat from class that characterizes much of academic thinking today. In my view such a retreat obscures and downgrades the materiality of Third World women's plight. In this particular instance, it also rolls back the gains feminists achieved in valorizing household work. And as Barbara Ehrenreich contends, it lets First World men off the hook—the chore wars are over, men won, and women of color are down on their hands and knees doing the cleaning. In my own teaching I emphasize labor and women's role in production. I believe that it is only by taking full account of the political economy of capitalism that we can comprehend current globalization processes, the unprecedented diaspora of women and their struggles in the formal and informal sector of labor. In this connection I like to turn to Grace Chang who contends that it is women of color, the main victims of globalization, who are also the primary leaders in fighting back. Chang then cites a variety of women's organizations to support her contention.

"Peasant Woman" Art by Carlo M. Bacwaden
"Peasant Woman" Art by Carlo M. Bacwaden

How do students respond? I have frankly been pleasantly surprised by the interest and receptivity they have shown in the past 3 semesters that I've been teaching this course. Because, in effect, what I am trying to impart is a way of looking at the world, I have not confined myself to the narrow topic of women and globalization. I make it a point to e-mail them analysis of news from the alternative media, for example, in part to arouse their interest in what's currently taking place around them. I want them to become aware of and formulate more enlightened views of US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, meetings by managers of global capitalism in Davos, and those of the World Social Forum, among other things. I want them to question their own assumptions about human nature as inherently greedy and selfish, and about the permanence of capitalism. I want them to see the urgent need for social change because it is their future that is at stake. And I always tell them that if they want a real education, they must go out and get it for themselves.