in Interviews | 04 MAR 07
Featured in
Issue 105

Women on the Move

An interview sociologist Saskia Sassen about the role of women today – from cleaners and mothers, to professionals and politicians – in newly emergent social structures, from the US to Japan and Dubai

in Interviews | 04 MAR 07

Saskia Sassen thinks big. Her project is nothing less than to grasp our own epochal transformation – the end of one historical period in human history and the radically uncertain and complex emergence of another. For the past 25 years she has charted the unbundling of the nation state system and the bifurcation of social, political and economic processes leading to the global turbulence we are experiencing today. Her chief effort has been to recover a politics among the dispossessed and, with her concept of the ‘global city’, locate the key sites where the practices and processes of our epochal shift materialize.

Roland Kapferer: Are the hard-won rights women have attained over the last century or so at risk in the new ‘risk society’?

Saskia Sassen: This is a question that matters to me in two ways. One is that, yes, women are losing rights; the other is that women are also emerging as critical political actors. The loss of rights through the new fundamentalism in the US works its way formally through the law and informally through activist anti-abortion politics. But beyond these extreme cases, there is a less visible loss of rights actively pushed or supported by the government that affects all citizens. It is less visible because it operates through specialized technical domains. If you are rich you do not notice it, but if you are poor, and a woman, you feel it. For instance, credit card companies pushed the legislature in the US to expand their rights to go after whatever money debtors may have. It used to be that when you declared bankruptcy, a sort of invisible wall went up protecting you from losing everything, so you could keep on feeding your kids and trying to rebuild your life. Not anymore: now the credit card companies can go after the last dollar you have, the money for the baby’s milk so to speak. Insofar as the largest share of the poor in the US are women and children, this new law disproportionately hits women and children. Within the formal political systems, women who achieve high rank tend to function as ‘masculine’ subjects. Rarely do they function as a subject that subverts these binaries. Mary Robinson did, Gro Harlem Brundtland did. I doubt that Hillary Clinton will, despite the talk about children and villages. The more significant force that women represent is coming through informal venues. There are multiple invisible political histories made and enacted by women all over the world. Sometimes these histories become visible. Thus the women who recently have won Nobel Peace Prizes – Wangari Maathai from Kenya and Shirin Ebadi from Iran, and further back in 1997, Jody Williams, the key organizer of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) – worked outside the formal state apparatus. Similarly, I see immigrants as informal agents making history. Their numbers are small, their powers almost nil, yet whole state apparatuses re-gear to address their presence, to control them. They are also agents that make certain very complex processes visible, not through their power, say, to bomb a country, but through their mobility, their wounds and the death of their bodies. Women are becoming a particularly significant factor. Over half of all immigrants are estimated to be women, and they are a vanguard in the struggle for survival. These are informal actors that unsettle existing formal arrangements.

RK: When you say that even women who achieve high office fail to subvert traditional binaries, I’m reminded of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who made a related point in his book Masculine Domination (2001). He claims that masculine domination is a universal constant and criticizes feminists for attributing women’s anxiety about their bodies to the ‘fashion beauty complex’ rather than explicating the deeper structures, categories and institutional forms from which the beauty complex stems.

SS: Sure, and to an extent he is getting at something. But there are two analytic operations that open up a range of possibilities. One is to focus on feminine and masculine subjects (in some cultures women get to be the masculine subject and men the feminine subject, as per western notions). This then means that it is critical to understand that systemic positioning can trump biology and cultural gendering, and that gendering (a term that I find increasingly insufficiently able to capture critical dimensions) is not enough to understand what is going on with men and women. The monarch who was a woman in past European kingdoms was clearly a masculine subject, so was Cleopatra. Today’s immigrant men working long days in factories, become domesticated subjects, the feminized subject as per our western historico-cultural notions. Secondly I think that inequality, discrimination and power are made. We need to understand the making of these binaries.

RK: I think a point that sets you apart from a number of feminists is your focus on larger systemic and global concerns. Not that gender isn’t an important question – it’s critical – it’s just that the focus needs to be expanded in view of complex emergent globalizing conditions. Could you perhaps say a little more about what you mean by strategic gendering?

SS: One example: strategic gendering in the global city occurs both through the sphere of paid work (production) and that of the household (social re-production). The critical background variable is that these cities are a crucial infrastructure for the specialized management of global economic processes. It means that the key components of this infrastructure need to function like clockwork. One such component is the professional workforce. I like the notion of the professional household without a ‘wife’, whether that household is a man and a woman, or a same-sex couple, or a single professional man or woman – the point is that the historic figure of the ‘wife’ is absent. The demands placed on the top-level professional and managerial workforce are such that the usual modes of handling household tasks and lifestyle are inadequate. As a consequence we are seeing the return of the so-called ‘serving classes’, made up largely of immigrant and migrant women. Insofar as these households are critical for the functioning of leading economic sectors in global cities, the nannies, the cleaners, the housekeepers, are not only exploited workers, as they are usually seen. They are actually a strategic infrastructure for the work-lives of those professional men and women, and hence, indirectly, for their firms. The notion of ‘strategic gendering’ allows me to go beyond unequal earnings or occupational conditions of women and their victimhood, and capture the ways in which gendering is one constitutive element in the formation and functioning of a system, including a complex system. Another instance of professional women as cultural brokers in leading financial sectors. Gendering here is strategic for globalizing firms that enter new terrains and introduce major innovations in financial practice. Professional women are emerging as a key type of worker insofar as they are considered good at building trust across cultural boundaries and differences. The globalizing of a firm’s or a market’s operations entails opening up domains (sectors, countries, the world of consumers) to new kinds of businesses, practices, and norms. This kind of cultural brokering is critical, especially given the mistrust and the resistances that had to be overcome to implement economic globalization.

RK: Indeed! The concern with trust was a major factor at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. An urgent question for today’s corporate leaders is how to gain the public’s trust and how to engage increasingly fragmented populations.

SS: Certainly the necessity of building networks and new systems of trust is a key factor for informal actors in the global economy, who, don’t forget, are not just disadvantaged or powerless people – they can be large corporations too!

RK Mike Davis makes the point about the new servile classes very well in a recent article about the Filipina maids working in wealthy homes in Dubai. Following the architect, George Katodrytis, he draws attention to the ‘post-global city’ – a nomadic city built around a consumerist ethic and an indentured labour force. A prosthetic, isolated city no longer about dense urbanity but simply designed to stimulate appetites.

SS: Davis is very good. But I want to make a different point. The condition of being a migrant woman emerges as crucial to the formation of novel economic arrangements in global cities – emergent alternative political economies. Most of the research on immigrant women has focused on the poor working conditions, exploitation and multiple vulnerabilities of these household workers. These are facts. We know this. However, I’m not satisfied with simply describing other people’s misery; I want to dig and complicate things. Analytically speaking, what also matters is the strategic importance of well-functioning professional households for the leading globalized sectors in these cities, and hence the importance of this new type of ‘serving class’. For a variety of reasons, immigrant and minoritized women are a favoured source for this type of work. Theirs is a mode of economic incorporation that makes their crucial role invisible and hence they can be paid very little. Being an immigrant or minoritized citizen facilitates breaking the nexus between being workers with an important function in the global information economy – that is to say, in leading industries – and the opportunity to become an empowered workforce, as has historically been the case in industrialized economies. In this sense the category ‘immigrant women’ emerges as the systemic equivalent of the offshore proletariat. (That is, the low-wage workers in Global South countries doing the outsourced jobs of the rich countries). There is a further complication in this analysis: insofar as they are strategic these women become a masculine subject (as historico-culturally shaped and understood). Immigrant men tend to become a feminized subject – invisible, systemically marginal and often redundant. All of these gender intersections show the extent to which the binary man-woman is not very useful to address some of these issues.

RK: Recently some feminists have become concerned about the ways in which their discourse has been used as an alibi for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. George Bush and other political leaders have portrayed themselves as liberators of women imprisoned behind the burka. What do you think about the former British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s recent insistence that Muslim women remove their veils in his office? Is the veil worn by Muslim women sexist?

SS: It seems that politicians such as Bush and Tony Blair stop at nothing to make their bad decisions seem just. What we need to do is to explore, de-liberate and puzzle out the complex issues that diversity is throwing on the historical agenda in a way we have not seen for along time. We have become used to the embedded liberalism of the Keynesian state – its project, no matter how imperfect, of incorporation and standardization across religion, income, education. This is clearly not enough. There are deeper, intractable issues that are coming out, for which there are no clear solutions. I do not have answers to these questions about Muslim women vis a vis their own Muslim cultures. There is such great variability that it is difficult to generalize. But it is clear that not all Muslim women find the veil confining; on the contrary, for some it
is liberating.

RK: In a different critique of multiculturalism, Wendy Brown has made the point that multiculturalist politics, claims about new hybrid identities, emergent subjectivities and the foregrounding of gender, preserve neo-liberal capitalism and increasing global inequities from serious critique. What is needed today, she says, is a thorough reconsideration of class. What do you think about this?

SS: I am inclined to agree, with two very large caveats. One is that class often works through these other segmentations. The other is that class is no longer the category it was when Marx developed it. Todays multiple systems of power operate through technical systems and do not involve people as in traditional notions of class. The workplace as a strategic site where class gets articulated is but one site of a growing range of sites – the community, the household and novel techno-economic systems. In my own work I try to get at these other sites.

RK: What kinds of ‘novel techno-economic systems’? What other sites?

SS: Well, for example, lately I have been researching cyberspace and new digital practices. And women are critical in this – as has been shown by Baghdad Burning, the famous girl blog from Iraq, or the use of the Internet by Afghani women under the Taliban and countless other examples.

RK: But surely these Afghani women were part of a small elite? Many women in Afghanistan are still illiterate.

SS: Yes of course. Many people don’t have access to the Internet. Class, but also struggle, is today articulated through digital space as well. There are many different ways of working with the Internet that are emerging and I’m interested in looking closely at these innovations. For instance, the ways in which certain offline women’s practices can be transformed in the online environment. For the particular question you ask, I am keen on pursuing a series of substantive political processes. We see here the potential transformation of actors ‘confined’ to domestic roles into actors in global networks, without having to leave their work and roles in their communities. They do not have to become cosmopolitan in this process, and yet they are participating in an emergent global politics. In many cases, cyberspace is a far more concrete space for social struggles than the national political system. It becomes a place where non-formal political actors can be part of the political scene in a way that is much more difficult in national political institutions.

RK: Nancy Pelosi has just been inaugurated as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States. Alluding to her claim that she will rid US politics of corruption she said that ‘it takes a woman to clean House’. In your most recent book, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2006), you argue that Japanese housewives are generating new political possibilities as housewives. Are you saying the same thing as Pelosi?

SS: Pelosi is invoking an image that functions as a trope. But in fact, the ‘housewife’ can also function as an informal political actor that is potentially powerful. One case is the (in)famous soccer moms of the US suburbs, who were seen as decisive for a candidate’s victory. They functioned as informal political actors; and they did so as mothers/housewifes. In other settings, housewives have a very specific type of political power precisely as housewives. This is the case with housewives in Japan’s dense city neighbourhoods. Their line is: ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about politics, but I do not like that candidate.’ Thereby they can kill that candidate, precisely because their evaluation is trusted. The figure of the ‘housewife’ varies greatly. American housewives are closely tied to the mass consumer apparatus. Japanese housewives command a fundamental respect related to their positioning in the dense suburban environments of Japan. Through their networks and public appeal they can easily destroy a politician’s career.
RK: What you are saying is almost a provocation – it seems a long way from the women’s lib ethic of, say, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963). Except of course she was talking about American housewives in the 1960s.

SS: I’m not engaging in abstract arguments about housewives in general. I’m speaking specifically about the Japanese situation and the Japanese housewife who is 100% a housewife, as a result of which she can go way past the household, even though it is the latter that gives her ‘standing’ as we might say. Nor am I romanticizing the role of the housewife. I am interested in seeing how traditional subordinate subjects can destabilize existing power hierarchies – more along the lines of a key subject in my research: the complexity of powerlessness. This is not about the desirability of women being housewives! This becomes clearer if we use the case of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires protesting their disappeared children. It was as mothers that they gained standing, and protections against state abuse. If they had protested simply as citizens of Argentina (the formal political actor) they would have been in conflict with the state and probably arrested. But as mothers they stepped outside the Hegelian master-servant dialectic. Of course, I’m not saying that Pelosi had all of this in mind! (Laughter)

Dr Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her books have been translated into 13 languages. They include Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Globalization and Its Discontents: Selected Essays 1984-1998 (New York, New Press, 1998).

Dr Roland Kapferer is a writer and musician based in London and Sydney. He has lectured in film and media at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He is currently writing a book on new corporate-state systems and editing a collection on ecology.