People who frequent the blogosphere love to argue about women’s equality and lack thereof, at home and at work, and to dissect hot-button subjects like equal pay and gender discrimination, who changes the diapers and who takes out the trash, in our relationships and in society at large.
And I love to argue right back.
Especially when dissenters complain that those of us doing the so-called whining about women’s inequality are overprivileged, overeducated women with too much time on our hands and too many choices when it comes to combining work and motherhood.
I never hear these folks ridiculing men who are “overeducated” or have “too many choices.” Maybe because education and choices are treasures no one can ever have too much of, whether you are male or female.
One of the harder points to explain to skeptics is that those of us who speak out about inequality, sexual harassment and shitty daycare are the tip of the female inequality iceberg in America.
The reality is that the only women speaking out are well-educated and economically secure, literate and well versed in the skills of the debate table, with access to newspapers, computers, the Internet, and other communication loudspeakers. We generally have husbands (or ex-husbands) who are tolerant of dissention from women. Our individual cultures and religions tend to support women’s independence in thought and action. When we argue during dinner table debates we may make people twitch. However we don’t risk ostracism, physical violence, stonings, divorce, condemnation from all-powerful mothers-in-law living upstairs, or church leaders who believe women’s highest calling is submission and sacrifice.
We so-called elite women have the time to debate the issues of fairness because we have good jobs at regular hours and decent childcare. We are not scraping by on minimum wage and working triple shifts while our toddlers languish in dodgy childcare with a bottle of formula duct-taped to their mouths. Most importantly, we do not typically risk getting fired from our jobs by speaking out and standing up for ourselves and other women.
We speak out because we are the only ones who can speak out.
And we speak out because we know we have an audience. In other words, people listen to us. Not everyone. Not all the time. But in general, we speak out with knowledge that we will be heard — at least by each other.
But women below the tip – the vast majority of women in the United States and the world – cannot speak out. Many are not fully literate, so they cannot disagree or discuss these issues in written or verbal form. Many do not have access to the Internet (or free time to surf it), so mommy blog rants are out. And in the few instances where they do speak out, few listen.
Which is why I find the courage of two household workers who spoke out this past May astonishing and inspiring. One is a 32-year-old single mom and widow from Guinea, West Africa, living quietly in the Bronx. She was employed by the Sofitel hotel luxury chain as a maid for their Times Square property. She was attacked by a high-profile international guest while attempting to clean a suite she thought was empty. Her attacker could not have been more elite or powerful – yet he faces charges of attempted rape and sexual assault, and if convicted, could spend 25 years in prison.
Three thousand miles away in California, a divorced housekeeper employed for 20 years by an uber-wealthy actor and politician stayed quiet as a media tsunami washed over her life. We may never know whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s housekeeper’s sexual participation was voluntary or coerced, but because she bore his child, it is indisputable that they had a sexual relationship. She didn’t talk to the media, but she had already spoken out to the one person who mattered: the father of the son she bore while taking care of his house, his wife and his four children. In exchange for her silence, she received a modicum of financial security for herself and her son.
Let’s pause for a minute to consider the limited rights housekeepers in the United States enjoy. Although many highly educated and highly empowered women can be found in the US, housekeepers as a group do not benefit from most of the elite rights and privileges that come with being a partner in a law firm or an executive in a Fortune 500 business.
In many ways, “domestic help” caricatures female laborers without rights, women expected to perform the traditionally female jobs of serving, cleaning and caring for living quarters for men. However, housekeepers in the United States have never been expected to service men’s sexual needs – at least not explicitly. But the two housekeeper tales from each of our coasts make me wonder: How many housekeeper horror stories have we NOT heard over the years?
Housekeepers are almost exclusively female. They work long hours and perform dirty and at times downright disgusting manual labor. They are poorly paid. Housekeepers are often recent immigrants with limited ability to communicate or negotiate in English. They have few job alternatives. Often they are working not just to support themselves but to provide for young children and extended family, decreasing their ability to leave a job if they experience abuse or harassment. Although housekeepers are critical to the success of a hotel or a home, they have little leverage or visibility. By design, housekeepers are expected to be nameless and nearly invisible. Rarely seen, never heard.
In other words, housekeepers are powerless. At least until these two spoke out.
Over the decades, I imagine there have been thousands of maids who were not believed by their employers, the police, the courts, the media or their attackers. Now these women can speak out and be believed – at least more often than in the past. It may be difficult. They may fail in the courtroom or the courtroom of public opinion. They may be punished, ridiculed, shamed. Their children may suffer. But the world is finally listening. The housekeepers have become heroes.