On the Backs of The Help?

August 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

Before I started my daily meditation this morning (my shower) I read Rilke. I happened to read the introduction to his Sonnets to Orpheus this morning, which described how Rilke wrote this collection in “absolute solitude” at the Chateau de Muzot, a tiny medieval castle-tower near Sierre in the Swiss Valais. He was in solitude to write these poems, except for “one wondrously efficient housekeeper.”

The blogosphere and Twitterverse and airwaves are abuzz as we speak with talk of the new movie The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel. The film adaptation of this novel about black maids in the American South, and a white woman who writes their stories, has been much-awaited by book clubs nationwide.

But there is much criticism of the book and the movie as well, for glossing over deep issues of racism and making it seem so easily remedied.  It has also called attention to the plight of domestic workers, and caused some to question the stereotypical (and blithely celebrated) portrayal of certain races, especially women of those races, in Hollywood.

I have been thinking about domestic workers in the United States such as house cleaners, nannies and babysitters. I have been thinking about feminism’s goals, and the glass ceiling, and the manner in which so many women of the privileged class- we who have advanced degrees and professional careers- are getting ahead.  It is not just Rilke and a class of men who rely on women to get ahead.

We, too, are getting ahead on the backs of our sisters.

We are working towards equal pay and equal respect in jobs our grandmothers could not necessarily have pursued. But how can we work long hours away from the home (or, like me, in a home office) and keep a tidy house, and spend time with the kids, and have date nights with our husbands without ‘the Help’? Many of our mothers and mothers-in-law are likely still working and/or do not live near us. We rely on women (many of them women of color, only some of them documented citizens) to help us get it all done–  to live the dream of balanced, productive, successful lives, the kind of lives men have been able to live for centuries

It makes me wonder, is feminism only for the privileged few?

I know this question has been asked many times before. I am not sure what the answers are. If we do not want to be, or cannot be stay-at-home moms, we will have to rely on someone to take care of our children. Perhaps a better world is one in which this most important responsibility is shared by men, and is a fairly-paid, respected position, with benefits. This better world would, of course, also carry more opportunities for more women to work in other non-traditional realms if they so chose.

Wow, does it sound like I’m dreaming, or what? What a testament to how far from that world we are now. For now, I will call attention this disparity of goals for women, and welcome your thoughts.

** Please see my follow-up to this post here for clarification of the ideas expressed here **

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§ 6 Responses to On the Backs of The Help?

  • Val says:

    Good Morning Lourdes, what a fascinating post you’ve written. It is interesting to note that more and more women are electing to employ cleaners. For the women who hire other ‘sisters’ to take on the tedious and monotonous task of keeping their homes clean, it is of course a luxury. Many times this service is also a necessity for the elderly or infirm and I feel to get a clearer picture of exactly what it means to be a house cleaner or as you say in relation to the book and movie of the same title, ‘The Help,’ you wold need to speak to someone who actually does this job.

    In fact, not all cleaners/maids/domestics/nannies are African American,Hispanic or ever oriental. Color is no longer the a factor in this industry. Actually, they look a great deal like me, because Lourdes, they are me. I’ve been cleaning homes to support my daughter for the past eight years. I am self employed with a registered business number and I make a good living doing this. The people who employ me are from every demographic and hire me for a variety of reasons: cancer treatment that leaves them too frail to clean, the elderly who are now too old to do these daily tasks and to honest they like the social contact because of loneliness, the one time situations for weddings, funerals and the like and finally, the minority, upper middle class women who don’t want to be bothered to do it. I appreciate all their custom. I have no idea what the situation is in the US regarding domestics, but in Canada this is a business like any other and there is no longer any connotation with class or ghetto employment. Most cleaners are doing more than cleaning, they are small business owners who do their own accounting, scheduling, inventory and marketing.

    You question whether feminism is for the privileged few could be considered a thorny query with no easy answer but for simplicity sake, it all depends on how one defines feminism. If it is seen as a social club for those with university degrees and white collar occupations, then that is rather elite. If it is seen as wisdom earned in the real world by women who have experienced inequality in harsh and brutal ways, then this is probably closer to my own definition. Feminism wasn’t something that evolved because women weren’t being promoted up the corporate ladder.Rather, the women’s movement sprouted and gained momentum in an environment of poverty, abuse and oppression that plagued the majority of women in the era before birth control (which to me was indeed the great liberator)and the outset of world war two which gave us the right to work. Interesting isn’t it Lourdes, that a terrible war is what, in the final analysis gave you and I and all the women of our generation the freedom to pursue employment outside the home.

    As for the academic background of individuals who are in occupations such as this that are deemed menial by some of those who employ them, you would be surprised at the number who possess their own degrees and professional designations. Most of us prefer a straightforward occupation such as this that is flexible enough to allow us to be with our children and to pursue our loftier goals and dreams freely.

    As for my own background socially, geez there is a story to tell. Some of my relatives are wealthy beyond good taste 😉 while others are poor as dirt. I’m in the middle for now with a fantastic view of humanity and oh, what a sight it is!

    I would also like to mention that many African American women are not pleased with this book/movie ‘The Help.’ It is seen as insulting and a regurgitation the stereotype of the mammy/slave lie. I agree with my sisters.

    • Hello Val– Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post so thoughtfully. I think that this does raise many very good questions as to what is feminism, and what are its goals. Please accept my sincere apologies if you were offended by my post. Perhaps I should clarify:

      What I mainly wanted to call attention to, was the fact that by and large (at least here in the U.S.) house cleaners are not those with their own businesses, they work for referral agencies which often take a significant cut of their earnings. A large (difficult to know how large because of the underground nature) percentage of cleaners, at least here in the Southwest, are undocumented women, because this is one of the only types of employment they can get without papers. I used to represent many women as survivors of domestic violence in immigration petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, and the vast majority of them worked as house cleaners and nannies. These women are exploited every day. Those who employ them regularly “forget” or postpone paying them, pay them diminished amounts, refuse to pay by claiming they did something wrong and more. I should have clarified that the women I was thinking of that seem to be outside of feminism’s goals are those who do not do this work as their own, profitable and rewarding business, they are those in the underground economy that are being exploited, as well as those in the above-board economy who wish to do other work but have not been afforded other opportunities.

      I should have been more specific (and I have revised this now) that women who work in domestic positions are not a “class” of people, and the work is certainly not meant to be construed as menial and ghetto, they may simply be a group of women whose rights may not be respected. All too often the work is very low paid, and these women do not make a good living with their own businesses as you do.

      I did not mean to be elitist about feminism’s goals, and I realize my post originally came off this way. What I meant to say was that feminism first and foremost should be about choice, and about respecting the rights of women, and freeing women from violence and exploitation. But also included in feminism is the chance to live balanced lives professionally and personally, as men have been doing for years. This is where, those of us who can do that, can be seen to be achieving this type of success on the backs of other women, assuming they are not completely fulfilled doing the work that they do, and that they cannot have balanced lives themselves. I believe the unfortunate truth, Val, at least here, too many of these women are still exploited, and cannot rise above the poverty line.

      I believe I did mention, in the beginning of the post, the criticism about The Help book/movie in terms of insulting stereotypes and glossing over racism. I definitely agree as well! I wrote on Latina Fatale’s website that I was thoroughly offended that Latina magazine chose to highlight, in celebration, Latina women who had played maids in Hollywood.

      Thank you for the spirited debate here! This is what I was hoping to spark with this blog.

  • Hi Lourdes, interesting post, and thanks for linking to us. I’m sitting here pondering the statement, “We too are getting ahead on the backs of sisters”. I’d like to propose that many of us are actually standing on the shoulders of sisters, because many of them prop us up and add enrichment to our lives. Many of us could not get ahead without them.

    I think we are only “getting ahead on their backs” if we are taking advantage of them in some way. I personally don’t have children, but I have a very demanding job that requires 60 plus hours a week. I already have mapped out who is going to be taking care of my future children, and she just so happens to be a domestic worker and she is undocumented. She has already been helping me in other aspects of my life, such as assisting with errands every once in a while, and the more successful that I become I plan on sharing my success with her.

    I think that feminism is only for the privileged if we take advantage of working class women in some way. If privileged women, on the other hand, spread their success, uplift the women who help them, etc then we are being supportive of our sisters. Just like my secretary and clerks who are pretty much struggling to get by, I am fiercely loyal to them and will bend over backwards to try to support them in advances their careers and in anything else that they need from me.

    In my post I was criticizing the magazine for romanticizing the aspect, and not addressing that many latina actresses are forced into these types of positions because that is how the world sees latinas…uneducated and here to serve others. Of course there are many successful domestic workers such as the previous comment, but that’s not really what this is all about. I just want to see a world where an actress doesn’t have to play a maid over 300 times. Can I just please see a freaking woman president on tv??

    • Thank you very much for your comment Latina Fatale. I think you and I are on the same wavelength, exactly. I feel the same way about our nanny, who is from Argentina. I would bend over backwards for her, and as I gain success, my husband and I include her and share most everything we have with her.

      But as you say, “many of us could not get ahead without them.” This is the main point I wanted to bring to light. If we cannot get ahead without them, does that mean that we are getting ahead on their backs, even if we are not taking advantage of them? Do they have the same kind of success that we have, a success that fulfills them and affords them all of the opportunities they desire? I hope so, but I fear that too often, this is not the case.

      I think that Val’s case, where she has her own very successful and rewarding business is just too rare. I see just too many women, as I said in my follow up post still exploited in domestic positions. At least as we discuss and spread our ideas, we can hopefully be a part of the change.

      Agree about a women president on tv, btw 🙂 Amen.

  • Jessica says:

    I like this post because it addresses the situation at hand. Feminism is for all of us who have sturggled to have our opinions and viewpoints in today’s world. I think we need to stop wanting to have “perfection” and stop living by the superficial standards of what it is to be successful.

    A clean house, folded laundry, meals on the dinnertable on time, working full time, and so on. My house is only clean when people come over, ahead of time, I was a full time teacher and day care raised my first child. I left my job, my post grad education, and decided to stay at home.

    I blog, write novels, and am taking one class at a time. But, for now, it’s about my children and if that makes me any less feminist so be it. My husband works for the oil field and is never home so I am all alone. I feel like a single mom sometimes because of the time we spend apart.

    I wanted to hire “Help” but if my abuela could clean houses, raise 8 children and many grandchildren , while keeping a home what’s stopping me?

    This may not be an intellectually stunning comment but I get tired of women looking down at each other. Oh, and 24 had a female president, I think.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jessica. I think it is great that we are all having this dialogue. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to stop trying to achieve “perfection”– we should strive to achieve what is authentically true to our hearts and our spirits if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so.

      My point with this post was not that anyone is less of a feminist because they stay home, or because the tend to children or clean houses, it was that some women do not have a choice. I think you might be different because it sounds like you do have the choice (correct me if I’m wrong).

      I agree that feminism is not just about achieving a certain kind of success. I simply wanted to provoke thought around the idea that some of us are more liberated to make different kinds of choices as result of feminism than other women. I certainly did not mean to “look down” on any other women. On the contrary, I actually intended to raise the profile of domestic workers and the many ways their rights are trampled and they are diminished every day. Thanks again for contributing, and best of success for your endeavors in the future.

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