Survival through Domestic Service: Poverty, Racism, and Sexism at Work in Brasil

Survival through Domestic Service: Poverty, Racism, and Sexism at Work in Brasil

As a child, Nicole McCoy (MAIS ’08) spent half of each year in Brazil, her mother’s homeland. Her family, as did most middle-class Brazilian families, employed domestic servants—usually Afro-Brazilian women from the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. McCoy, as a typical child might be, was curious about these people who lived and worked in her home, spending a good portion of her childhood watching the action in the kitchen or exploring the backrooms of her family’s home where the domestic servants lived.

“I could never reconcile the fact that they lived in these tiny, windowless rooms, adjacent to and often open to the kitchen or laundry area while the rest of us slept on the other side of the apartment in spacious rooms,” McCoy remembers. “I don’t know if being American gave me a kind of comparative ability that I would not otherwise have had, but I always knew that there was supposed to be a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ and I was never comfortable with that.”

She continued visiting Brazil frequently throughout her youth and still returns to the country each year. More than just a visitor, McCoy has been able to truly experience Brazilian culture. As an American living in the United States for most of the year, she has the ability to contrast the two countries’ cultures, analyze their differences, and see the racial and class separation in Brazil.

“As I traveled back and forth between the United States and Brazil, it was impossible not to notice the children and homeless adults in Rio. It is a social reality—not something swept under the rug or hidden away in shelters the way it is in the United States,” she says. “From the age of maybe 5 or 6, I remember being aware of fundamental injustices in the world and being concerned with war, poverty, and inequalities. So when I was asked about a potential topic for my thesis, thoughts of these women in Brazil just kept coming back to me. It was as if I finally had a chance to understand what has bothered me for so long.”

During summer 2007, McCoy, in pursuit of a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies (MAIS), with a concentration in women’s studies, again journeyed to Brazil, but this time in a different context—as a scholar.

McCoy’s thesis focused on how the expectation for many Afro-Brazilian women to become domestic servants affects the rest of their lives and the choices they make about education, marriage, and parenting. Searching for answers to a lifetime of questions and observations, McCoy spent six weeks interviewing women who live and work as domestic servants in the homes of middle- and upperclass families in Rio de Janeiro.

In strict adherence to feminist ethnographic methods, McCoy did not enter the project with a specific theory in mind.

“This is extremely important to a feminist analysis because it attempts to correct for the silencing of particular populations of people,” McCoy says. She mainly worked with a grounded theory in which the data speak for themselves, and patterns and conditions emerge throughout the interview process.

McCoy’s studies at Mason were a combination of women’s studies and sociology; the women’s studies concentration of the MAIS allows students to ground their studies in another area that complements women’s studies and do half of their course work for that area. McCoy designed a graduate course load that was heavy on theory. In the two years that preceded work on her thesis, she used her course work to explore different aspects of domestic service in Brazil, experimenting with the application of ideas from such theorists as Susan Moller Okin and Patricia Hill Collins.

“I wasn’t going in with a theory and trying to fit what I learned into that theory,” McCoy explains of her research. “The voices of the women were prioritized in my work.” McCoy began her research by interviewing women who used to work for her family and are now retired. They led her to other women who led similar lives. Overall, McCoy conducted in-depth interviews of 17 poor, black women who live in marginalized areas and work as domestic servants. According to McCoy, Rio de Janeiro’s numerous slums house all kinds of people: the poorest of the poor, teachers, drug dealers, domestics, taxi drivers, and all kinds of minimum wage or low-salaried workers.

A universal experience in the favelas is violence that stems from drug and gang activity and subsequent police brutality. All the women to whom McCoy talked described a fear of stray bullets.

Most of the women McCoy interviewed are live-in domestic servants, and most have husbands and children of their own. They live with their employing family five days a week and leave Friday after dinner to spend the weekend with their own family, where they often still are responsible for such traditional female roles as laundry and cooking. All the women are from families that worked in the service sector, generally their mothers had been domestic servants. McCoy noted that racism and sexism in the Brazilian job market make it extremely unlikely that young Afro-Brazilian women will find employment in an office or shopping mall. At best, they may secure secretarial work, but it pays little and many young women find themselves supplementing these kinds of jobs with domestic work anyway.

Ultimately, a sociological and feminist framework for McCoy’s questions and observations began to emerge, particularly rooted in theory by Michele Lamont. Lamont’s theory of cultural repertoires helped McCoy understand that domestic work as an occupation stems from historical and social context, and in this case, poor black women draw on their embodiment of this occupation. In the face of extreme poverty, racism, and sexism, domestic service is the best and easiest option for survival. But, this occupation does not come without consequence.
“It is clear that the inevitability of domestic service influences and perhaps even structures other life options,” McCoy explains. “Education and the illusory possibilities for social mobility and the opportunity it offers is often evaluated by economic constraints; it is simply not worth the cost to educate a girl in a marginal school system with the prospect that racism will severely limit any advantages accruing to educational achievements.”

The absence of options influences how life is understood by these women. Much like the inevitability of becoming a domestic servant, inherent in their understanding of their womanhood is the fact that they will become mothers, even though motherhood is a burden in this context. It further compounds the necessity of domestic service to earn a living.
“Motherhood is experienced as not useful and is a frustration in the context of social and economic uncertainty and the pervasive violence and poverty of favela life. Its lack of utility highlights the tension between hope and reality where one’s hope in raising a successful child is mediated by an inability to fully protect and care for children.”

One of the women McCoy spoke with told her how, on her way home for the weekend from the house she works in, she picks out food from the trash to feed her family. “I have no shame,” the woman told her. “I do what I need to do to eat.”

Like motherhood, relationships and marriage are also generally understood as economic burdens and emotional drains, especially in light of high unemployment rates for men, frequent occurrence of domestic abuse, and uneven division of labor across the sexes. Because these women have a degree of economic independence as domestic servants, they tend to see relationships as options and not necessities.

McCoy thinks of the project as a feminist, interview-based sociological study in which she aimed to make heard voices that have been previously overlooked or ignored. Even though she conducted the interviews in Portuguese, she found that the women were intrigued by her white middle-class American heritage and the mere fact that someone like her would be interested in their lives. She noted that the women were open, honest, and reflective about their lives and their experiences as servants, including their feelings about the people for whom they work.

“I don’t think anyone ever asks them anything about themselves personally. I wanted people to see them as human beings,” says McCoy. She was particularly sur-prised to learn that, in a way, these 17 women accept that their lives are going to be difficult without a lot of bitterness.

This past spring, McCoy presented her work at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Cincinnati. The reception to her paper was extremely positive, particularly from some Brazilian audience members. McCoy attributes much of her success to the theoretical insights of Nancy Hanrahan and her thesis committee. McCoy says she enjoys having opportunities to represent Mason at conferences, “bringing attention to the program I am coming from.”

McCoy is now pursuing a PhD in sociology at Mason. Her doctoral work will continue to focus on Brazil and Afro-Brazilian women living in poverty.

In 10 years, McCoy wants to be teaching full time, particularly in a sociology department that allows her to teach and conduct research in Brazil during the summer. She recently finished reading a series of historical fiction novels by Diana Gabaldon, and at the time of this interview, she was reading Hannah Arendt and Margaret Canovan’s The Human Condition. When she’s not studying, McCoy can be found playing with her five-year-old son, learning about wine, and cooking.

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