Alissa Quart and Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Alissa Quart and Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich

In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Against Amer­ica’s Most Vul­ner­a­ble Work­ers by Ber­nice Ye­ung

In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Against Amer­ica’s Most Vul­ner­a­ble Work­ers by Ber­nice Ye­ung. New Press, 225 pp., $25.99

Is the #MeToo “mo­ment” the be­gin­ning of a new fem­i­nism? Coined by the civil rights ac­tivist Tarana Burke in 2006, the term took off in 2017 when celebri­ties like the ac­tress Alyssa Mi­lano be­gan us­ing it as a Twit­ter hash­tag. Ex­ten­sive re­port­ing in The New York Times and The New Yorker on ha­rass­ment in the en­ter­tain­ment and tech in­dus­tries helped the move­ment bring down some of those fields’ most pow­er­ful fig­ures. By speak­ing out, a num­ber of fa­mous ac­tresses— some of them bet­ter known pre­vi­ously for their not-so-fem­i­nist roles as cute witches and be­guil­ing pros­ti­tutes—have done so as well. To date, most of #MeToo’s at­ten­tion has been aimed at the rich and in­flu­en­tial: for in­stance, abu­sive talk show hosts and other no­to­ri­ous me­dia fig­ures.

#MeToo has too of­ten ig­nored the most fre­quent vic­tims of abuse, how­ever, such as wait­resses or ho­tel house­keep­ers. These are among the in­vis­i­ble peo­ple who keep so­ci­ety go­ing—clean­ing homes, har­vest­ing our veg­eta­bles, and serving sal­ads made of these veg­eta­bles.

Who among those of us who de­pend on their la­bor knows their strug­gles or even their names? It can seem like an up­hill bat­tle to bring at­ten­tion to the work­ing­class vic­tims of ha­rass­ment, even though these women are of­ten abused in starker and more bru­tal fash­ion than their coun­ter­parts in Hol­ly­wood. Ber­nice Ye­ung, an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist for the re­port­ing non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Re­veal, has helped cor­rect this im­bal­ance. Ye­ung is no tourist in the lives of the work­ing poor women she cov­ers. She has been writ­ing about the plight of farm­work­ers and maids ha­rassed and raped by their over­seers for more than five years, in places far from ex­ec­u­tive of­fices—fields, base­ments, and break rooms. Her new book, In a Day’s Work, is a bleak but much-needed ad­di­tion to the lit­er­a­ture on sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the US. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, a fe­male farm­worker whose su­per­vi­sor vi­o­lated her in a shed:

He held gar­den­ing shears to her throat. He pulled her hair or slapped her while he raped her be­cause he said she wasn’t putting enough ef­fort into it. Then he co­erced her into si­lence by threat­en­ing to kill her chil­dren in Mex­ico or by re­mind­ing her of the power he had to fire her sis­ter and brother, who also worked at the same farm.

Then there is Ge­orgina Hernán­dez, a clean­ing woman in Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, who re­jected her su­per­vi­sor’s ad­vances when she took a new po­si­tion clean­ing the lobby and ex­te­rior of the ho­tel where they worked. This job paid bet­ter than her pre­vi­ous po­si­tion “scrub­bing the oily kitchens and lift­ing the heavy rub­ber floor mats.” She ended up, how­ever, hav­ing to hide in the women’s bath­room, where her boss fol­lowed her, mur­mur­ing dis­turb­ing lit­tle noth­ings like “you’re de­li­cious.” Fi­nally, he raped and im­preg­nated her. This sex­ual and so­cial vi­o­lence is hap­pen­ing all around us. A do­mes­tic worker in Ye­ung’s book who was as­saulted at the rental house she was re­quired to clean re­counts that her rapist “cor­nered me and pinned me against the wall and... tried to pull my pants down again.” Ye­ung writes that “she did not re­port these at­tacks be­cause,” in her words, “I was afraid that I would be fired.” An­other jan­i­to­rial worker, Erika Mo­rales, was put un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a con­victed sex of­fender who went to her work­site “to watch her as she vac­u­umed or scrubbed bath­rooms. In ad­di­tion to star­ing at her and mak­ing sex­ual com­ments, she says the su­per­vi­sor sneaked up be­hind her and grabbed and groped her.”

Like most of the women Ye­ung in­ter­viewed, Mo­rales felt dis­gust and a sense of shame that then per­me­ated her life. Her pain was com­pounded for an­other rea­son: she was a sin­gle mother with two chil­dren who couldn’t af­ford to lose a pay­check. “In that mo­ment, I was go­ing through a sit­u­a­tion where I couldn’t stop work­ing,” she tells Ye­ung. “The fa­ther of my chil­dren wasn’t there. I was alone with the kids.” It was also a mat­ter of time: it would “take weeks of fill­ing out ap­pli­ca­tions be­fore she could land a new job and [she] didn’t know how she would feed her chil­dren in the mean­time.” She made an ap­peal to her as­sailant him­self, plead­ing that her chil­dren needed to eat. He laughed in her face.

A few women even­tu­ally went to the po­lice, but a num­ber felt they could not do so for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing not know­ing their rights. A farm­worker named Norma Valdez, whose fore­man as­saulted her in an ap­ple or­chard, was asked on the wit­ness stand why she hadn’t gone to the po­lice, Ye­ung re­lates. “Valdez said she didn’t know she could.” In an­other in­stance, a Latina do­mes­tic worker told a hu­man rights ac­tivist that she “wanted to make a re­port to the po­lice, but she was un­doc­u­mented and felt stuck in her job.” They also fear— or know—that they will fall into desti­tu­tion if they lose their jobs. They may also face the pos­si­bil­ity of de­por­ta­tion. “The su­per­vi­sor knew that for work­ers not au­tho­rized to be in the coun­try,” Ye­ung re­counts of one sex­ual as­sault case, “the prospect of los­ing a job was al­most as men­ac­ing as a death threat.” Other vic­tims “grap­pled with long­stand­ing taboos around sex,” and those pro­hi­bi­tions ini­tially kept them from speak­ing out. “Mar­i­lyn from Or­ange County said that her su­per­vi­sor openly watched porn on his com­puter,” Ye­ung writes. “Oth­ers re­ported that their su­per­vi­sors had taken pic­tures of their chests or be­hinds on their phones and sent them to their male co­work­ers. None of the women knew that this could be con­sid­ered sex­ual ha­rass­ment.” As one of the work­ers Ye­ung in­ter­viewed put it, they thought such voyeurism was “just the cul­ture of build­ings at night.” These women as­sumed, of­ten cor­rectly, that they were close to help­less against their leer­ing male co­work­ers.

The men in Ye­ung’s book who are nei­ther abu­sive nor sleazy are not au­to­mat­i­cally “al­lies,” how­ever, or even qui­etly be­nign. Amer­i­can unions have not al­ways had good records when it comes to deal­ing with the needs of their fe­male mem­bers, in­clud­ing dis­cour­ag­ing sex­ism among their male mem­bers. Ye­ung de­scribes a union meet­ing in Fe­bru­ary 2016 when a fe­male mem­ber of SEIU United Work­ers West named Veron­ica La­guna shared a list of griev­ances—from low wages to over­whelm­ing work­load—and then men­tioned sex­ual ha­rass­ment. At that point, some of the male mem­bers booed. “As she spoke, a low roar emerged from the au­di­ence,” in Ye­ung’s words.

This “in­ci­dent,” Ye­ung con­tin­ues, “made it clear to the union lead­er­ship that they had to over­come the mis­con­cep­tion” among male mem­bers that, as an SEIU of­fi­cer put it, “women’s is­sues are not worker is­sues.” For some men, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence is still a trivial prob­lem, or even some­thing they imag­ine women en­joy as proof of at­trac­tive­ness. White-col­lar men, un­der the shield of hu­man re­sources de­part­ments that can pay mere lip ser­vice to com­plaints, may sim­ply hide their dis­dain bet­ter. But at least some of the male work­ers at SEIU must have come around: that chap­ter ul­ti­mately signed a con­tract with new sex­ual ha­rass­ment pro­vi­sions.

In a Day’s Work sug­gests how the strug­gles of work­ing-class women align with those of their sis­ters in the cre­ative class. It of­fers an op­por­tu­nity rarely found in our class-po­lar­ized so­ci­ety: to bring to­gether women across eco­nomic lev­els around a sin­gle is­sue. What might make this op­por­tu­nity hard to seize is that the out­come of sex­ual ha­rass­ment is sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent for women of vary­ing so­cial classes and oc­cu­pa­tions. Ac­tresses like Mira Sorvino can be “heart­sick” af­ter learn­ing they may have lost ma­jor film roles due to Har­vey We­in­stein’s machi­na­tions against women who re­fused his sex­ual de­mands (he al­legedly black­listed her to the di­rec­tor Peter Jackson and oth­ers). But the very idea of hav­ing a ca­reer that can be de­railed might seem for­eign to women sim­ply work­ing to get by or to stay in this coun­try. Un­like many vic­tims of ha­rass­ment in the film, TV, and tech­nol­ogy in­dus­tries, a num­ber of the women in Ye­ung’s book are ter­ror­ized not only by phys­i­cal vi­o­lence but also by de­por­ta­tion warn­ings and threats against their chil­dren. (“Then he co­erced her into si­lence by threat­en­ing to kill her chil­dren in Mex­ico.”) Is there enough here for a com­mon cause? If women like Sorvino and women like the do­mes­tic work­ers in Ye­ung’s book are be­ing abused in such di­ver­gent ways, or with such vari­ant out­comes, can they still share a move­ment? The his­tory of women’s fight against sex­ual ha­rass­ment is as full of dis­union and frag­men­ta­tion as it is of sol­i­dar­ity. Class dif­fer­ences among women have trou­bled the move­ment since the 1975 case around which the phrase “sex­ual ha­rass­ment” was coined. Car­mita Wood, a forty-four-year-old ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant at Cornell Univer­sity, left her job af­ter her boss, Boyce McDaniel, a famed nu­clear physi­cist, thrust his hand up her shirt, shoved her against her desk, and lunged at her for un­wanted kisses. Wood, a mother of four, after­ward found work­ing with her as­sailant un­bear­able and filed a claim for un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. Cornell re­jected the claim, and Wood sought help from up­per-mid­dle-class fe­male ac­tivists at the univer­sity’s Hu­man Af­fairs Of­fice. To­gether they cre­ated Work­ing Women United, which held events where ev­ery­one from film­mak­ers to wait­resses shared their hor­rific sto­ries. Wood ul­ti­mately lost her ap­peal. Work­ing Women United, for its part,

frac­tured af­ter just a year due to ten­sions be­tween its work­ing-class and its mid­dle-class mem­bers. Car­mita Wood was also quickly ex­cluded from news cov­er­age of the group: it seemed that she was less in­ter­est­ing to re­porters than its mid­dle-class or­ga­niz­ers were. As those women shored up their move­ment, Wood paid the greater price for her brav­ery, be­com­ing, as her grand­son called her in an in­ter­view, “a black sheep” in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, strug­gling for her un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. She fi­nally left town and re­set­tled on the West Coast.

The gap be­tween bour­geois and work­ing-class fem­i­nists has trou­bled other al­liances as well. Work­ing-class women and trade unions re­jected the Equal Rights Amend­ment (ERA) through­out much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury out of con­cern that it would re­move the few on-the-job pro­tec­tions women al­ready had, like lim­i­ta­tions on the amount of weight they were re­quired to lift. Even in the 1970s, af­ter the AFL-CIO en­dorsed the ERA, many work­ing-class ac­tivists con­tin­ued to con­sider it purely a mid­dle-class is­sue. Then there is Roe v. Wade. The plain­tiff,“Jane Roe” (Norma McCor­vey), a work­ing-class woman, felt alien­ated by the up­per-mid­dle-class fem­i­nists who had pushed her case to the Supreme Court. McCor­vey even­tu­ally switched sides to join the pro-life move­ment. A par­tic­u­larly stark case in which well-off women mis­took their in­ter­ests for the com­mon cause was a public re­la­tions cam­paign spon­sored in 2003 by the Na­tional Coun­cil of Women’s Or­ga­ni­za­tions (NCWO). The cam­paign was meant to shame the Masters Golf Tour­na­ment, held at a club called Au­gusta Na­tional, which ex­cluded women as mem­bers. The as­sump­tion be­hind the cam­paign was that if fa­mous fe­male golfers were ad­mit­ted into Au­gusta, all women would some­how ben­e­fit—never mind that the only form of golf most work­ing-class peo­ple can af­ford is of the minia­ture va­ri­ety. Many have since doubted the idea that vic­to­ries like the one the NCWO pur­sued around Au­gusta might trickle down to the non­golf­ing fe­male ma­jor­ity. “Trickle-down eco­nom­ics wasn’t the best ex­pe­ri­ence for peo­ple like me,” Tressie McMil­lan Cot­tom, a black fem­i­nist and so­ci­ol­o­gist, has writ­ten. “You will have to forgive me, then, if I have sim­i­lar doubts about trickle-down fem­i­nism.”

The rec­om­men­da­tions in best-sell­ing fem­i­nist busi­ness books like Sh­eryl Sand­berg’s Lean In like­wise are most ef­fec­tive—if they are ef­fec­tive at all— for women who can ad­vo­cate for their in­ter­ests with­out risk of re­tal­i­a­tion. “We hold our­selves back in ways both big and small,” Sand­berg wrote, “by lack­ing self-con­fi­dence, by not rais­ing our hands, and by pulling back when we should be lean­ing in.” For or­di­nary work­ing women, lean­ing in would be im­me­di­ate grounds for ter­mi­na­tion.

But not all at­tempts at cross-class sol­i­dar­ity have failed. Up­per-mid­dle-class women have long sup­ported work­ing­class and lower-mid­dle-class women’s strikes, in­clud­ing the on­go­ing teach­ers’ strikes, and ef­forts by work­ers to or­ga­nize them­selves in unions since the “mink brigade” protested with the New York shirt­waist strik­ers in 1909. Since 1974, the Coali­tion of La­bor Union Women has ad­vo­cated on be­half of un­or­ga­nized women work­ers and lob­bied to make unions more re­cep­tive to the needs of their fe­male mem­bers. More re­cently, and on a smaller scale, there are or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Brook­lyn-based Hand in Hand, which was founded by up­per-mid­dle-class women: it seeks to im­prove con­di­tions for do­mes­tic work­ers and nan­nies by si­mul­ta­ne­ously urg­ing their em­ploy­ers to im­prove their wages and work­ing con­di­tions and en­cour­ag­ing the work­ers them­selves to know their rights and make their needs known to their em­ploy­ers. Hand in Hand and groups like it are not a sub­sti­tute for a na­tional fem­i­nist move­ment for all classes, but they sug­gest what can be done if we are de­ter­mined to in­clude as many women as pos­si­ble in the strug­gle against abuse and ex­ploita­tion.

In a Day’s Work does of­fer sev­eral ex­am­ples of work­ing-class women who only needed a lit­tle en­cour­age­ment to de­fend their rights. Ge­orgina Hernán­dez, the ho­tel cleaner and rape vic­tim, spoke out af­ter she met the la­bor ac­tivist Vicky Márquez, who had “found her at work, clean­ing the movie the­ater,” and con­vinced her that her com­plaint would not make her al­ready dif­fi­cult life still harder. Af­ter she came for­ward, she was “proud that she set aside her fears to chal­lenge what had hap­pened to her.”

But what Ye­ung’s book sug­gests pri­mar­ily is that fem­i­nists don’t need a pol­icy pro­gram first. Rather, we need unity, or, as we used to say, sis­ter­hood. What­ever #MeToo be­comes, it mustn’t sim­ply re­sem­ble this win­ter’s Golden Globes awards, where ac­tresses pa­raded work­ing-class fe­male ac­tivists with them across the red car­pet. Nor should it re­sem­ble bou­tique women’sonly workspaces, like Man­hat­tan’s the Wing, where mem­ber­ship can cost up to $3,000 a year. Af­flu­ent women can use their priv­i­lege to help strengthen the move­ment among work­ing-class women like the ones who ap­pear in In a Day’s Work, but only if they man­age to put their re­sources to good use.

This might, for in­stance, mean the cre­ation of more ini­tia­tives like the Time’s Up Le­gal De­fense Fund, which aims to sup­port sex­u­ally ha­rassed and abused work­ing-class women and give them le­gal aid. Or it might mean of­fer­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port to women who lose their jobs af­ter speak­ing out and have no sav­ings to tide them over. An­other pos­si­bil­ity would be to cre­ate “safe spa­ces” both real and vir­tual, where women like farm­work­ers, clean­ers, and servers can share sto­ries and sketch out strate­gies to im­prove their work­ing con­di­tions. What­ever else it in­volves, build­ing a cross-class move­ment, as Ye­ung shows, will mean learn­ing to stop un­see­ing the work­ing women around us.

Mem­bers of the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union (SEIU) and other pro­test­ers at a rally on In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, Chicago, March 2018

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