Success a long trickle down away for women day laborers

The same day that Associate Professor of Women’s Studies Anne Lacsamana read an article about Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and her “lean in feminism,” she spotted a story in her Twitter feed about immigrant women, mostly ­Latinas, who gather on a corner in New York City to find work cleaning houses.

The story, which appeared March 12, 2013, in The Nation online, described how potential employers come to the street ­corner to hire a housecleaner, typically at the rate of $10 an hour, sometimes less. Most of the employers are Satmar Hasidic families. The Nation story said the corner at Marcy and Division avenues, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, was one of two known sites in the country where women day laborers wait for a shot at work.

Lacsamana, who hadn’t known there were women day laborers in the U.S., considered their situations alongside the article about Sandberg’s feminism. Sandberg wrote the widely discussed 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In it she examines the lack of women in positions of power, specifically at the highest levels of the corporate world. “I definitively thought the juxtaposition of the two articles revealed the class tensions in the U.S. women’s movement,” Lacsamana recalls.

On the one hand were the day laborers, she says, and on the other was Sandberg, who was receiving a lot of media attention for her focus on women at the very top, a very specific group of women. “And her argument was if women could succeed at the top, eventually it will just trickle on down,” Lacsamana says. Sandberg critics have dubbed that trickle-down feminism; Lacsamana thought the high-level success would never trickle down to the woman day laborers.

Given the Great Recession and the economic toll it took on American women, she considered the media focus on Lean In to be at odds with the realities faced by the vast majority of those women. “I do believe that U.S. feminism needs to include not only women breaking glass ceilings — Sandberg et al. — but also those stuck in some of the most vulnerable and precarious situations,” she says.

In July 2013, Lacsamana contacted the Worker’s Justice Project, an agency working to organize the woman laborers in Brooklyn, and asked if she could visit. She did, and that was the beginning of her research. Lacsamana is learning more about the corner through the project and is working to establish relationships with the laborers, among other related research. The women Lacsamana has met so far are primarily from Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia and Guatemala.

With the help of an Emerson grant, Brenda Narvaez ’17, Lacsamana’s research assistant, mapped the day laborer paradas, the popular “stops” where day laborers congregate seeking work. A ­women’s studies and foreign ­languages major, Narvaez came to Hamilton with experience working with laborers at a community organization in her hometown of Homestead, Fla. She used her language skills to translate for Lacsamana.

Narvaez identified the prevailing misperception about day laborers — they chose this line of work. On the contrary, most are forced into their roles after unsuccessfully searching for alternative employment, she says. Living with no sustainable income, no insurance and no legal protection, women day laborers are particularly vulnerable, she points out. “For day laborers, this is a matter of survival, [these individuals] did not want to leave their food, their culture or their families, but were left with no other options.”

Lacsamana has found no scholarly work about the challenges faced by women day laborers, and says she’s confirmed that, at this point, Marcy and Division is the only corner where large numbers of them gather in the U.S. A self-described “transnational feminist scholar who pays particular attention to labor and the political economy,” she is pursuing a fellowship that will allow her to spend next year developing her research into a book. Lacsamana’s other publications include Revolutionizing Feminism: The Philippine Women’s Movement in the Age of Terror, published in 2012 by Paradigm.

— Maureen A. Nolan and T.C. Topp ’16

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