Migration can lead to new perceptions of women's work, health, and social status

By Rebecca Sladek Nowlis

When Leonora found herself working as a maid in the United States, the familiar
line between employer and servant blurred.  Rather than being pleased by the
democratic nature of her new American home, Leonora (a pseudonym) thought of
her inclusion into the family as an intrusion into her personal space.  She was
brought up as a servant in Brazil, and was more comfortable with a clear
delineation between her employers and herself.

Leonora’s experience is part of a larger picture that shows how globalization
and transnational migrations are changing the way women think about work and
how it affects their lives and social position.  Stories told by Brazilian
immigrant women, many who transitioned from being domestic employers to
domestic employees, will be presented as part of a symposium on women’s
multiple roles on Thursday, January 27, 2000 at the 11th International Congress
on Women’s Health Issues held in San Francisco.  The Congress is sponsored by
the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Nursing in affiliation
with the International Council on Women’s Health Issues and other co-sponsoring

“From our conversations with Brazilian women, we found that moving to a
different country and assuming new positions in life can provoke a thoughtful
reevaluation of what work actually is and how it shapes a person’s social
status,” said DeAnne Hilfinger Messias, RN, PhD, director of graduate studies
in nursing at Indiana Wesleyan University and principal investigator of the
study.  “Situational changes influence how women view their own work and their
own worth.”

As part of a qualitative research study, Messias interviewed 26 Brazilian
women, 22 to 60 years in age, who had come to the United States between two
months and 17 years ago.  The majority were partnered or married when they
moved and about half had children.  Most women left Brazil between 1985 and
1994, a time of pervasive economic instability with hyper-inflation, low wages,
and high costs of living, said Messias.

Migratory movements have had a profound affect on the work and employment
patterns of women, and the Brazilians were no exception.  Some of the
participants were well-educated, professional women who, in Brazil, had
employed maids and servants of wtheir own.  In the United States, they suddenly
found themselves working as house cleaners, baby sitters, or restaurant

“Domestic or service-type work is one of the few options available for
immigrants, particularly for those who are undocumented,” said Messias. 
“Middle class women had to work jobs they considered to be lower class.  Their
work experiences brought up a variety of gender, class, and cultural issues.”

The Brazilian women began to see both paid and unpaid work differently than
they had before, said Messias.  Domestic chores and child rearing, which they
hadn’t classified as work in Brazil, quickly took over many of their lives, and
they realized how strenuous and time consuming those jobs really are, said

“Domestic work, such as housework, child care, and elder care—the prototype
of women’s work—is characteristically undervalued and invisible,” said
Messias.  “‘Women’s work’ is often dismissed as not being work at all, or not
considered skilled work, and is generally devalued.  Here we had these middle
class women who now understood what invisibility felt like and realized that
all kinds of work goes unrecognized.’

Messias believes that a broader definition of work needs to be acknowledged not
only by women themselves, but also by health care providers.

“When nurses consider issues related to women’s work, they need to broaden
their definition of work beyond employment,” said Messias.  “To fully
understand the multiple relationships between women’s work and women’s health,
we need to recognize all aspects of women’s work and reflect on the nature and
experiences of all women,” said Messias.

The symposium on women’s multiple roles will also include research on the
perceived quality of multiple social roles in black and white women, the impact
of intimate partner abuse on women’s employment, and the emotional health
issues associated with being a lesbian in a university setting.