Foreign Bodies: Gendering Transnational Migration


Dr. Laura Fantone, Beatrice Bain Research Group
Charlotte McIvor, Performance Studies

Throughout time and across cultures, women all over the world have played the role of domestic workers. Charlotte McIvor, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Performance Studies Department, is interested in how artwork can express the personal lives and manifold experiences of female domestic workers, as well as what it may reveal about the greater social fabric the artworks are created in.

McIvor presented her work with “Opening Doors,” a project sponsored by the Domestic Workers Support Group (DWSG) of Ireland. Opening Doors showcases quilts and photography created by domestic workers depicting their lives inside and outside of their occupation. She suggests that analyzing the development of this artwork provides a uniquely personal and powerful lens with which to consider the widening income disparities world-wide that continually places women in situations where they have limited options or financial recourse. When a country’s government does not provide ample job opportunities at home, the unemployed voluntarily migrate to work abroad as domestic workers, which in turn transforms the dynamics of the host country.

In the case of Ireland for example, various population shifts have occurred. In recent decades, the percentage of minorities has increased from 5% to 12% percent. More minorities have taken on jobs in restaurants and agriculture once carried out by the natives. This demographic shift has transformed the national identity and brought the issue of multiculturalism, and with it, debates surrounding ethnicity and the citizenship of migrant women to the political forefront. The “increased visibility and persistent invisibility” of domestic workers has helped prompt the greater Irish public sphere to question who constitutes a society, and inspired a fight for workers’ rights. By illuminating and sharing the hardships that women endure for survival and justice through art, new societal definitions of womanhood may emerge.

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Laura Fantone of the Beatrice Bain Research Group, focused her discussion on the conditions of East Asian women in Italy, which until recently, has had a tremendous influx of immigrant labor. Subsequently, the subject of anti-immigration has become a highly contentious political issue with many claiming that human rights, especially in minorities, are not recognized.

Fantone is particularly interest in the mechanisms and impact of rapid social transformation within the Chinese immigrant population. In 1982, there were only 4,000 Chinese living in Italy. Today there are about 150,000, which is still a relatively small fraction of the estimated 4 to 5 million total immigrant population.

In one case study, Fantone describes the story of a young lady who acquired a customer relations job in large part because of her gender and physical appearance. Clearly, in some labor sectors, women are preferred over men and vice-versa, a dynamic she uses to explore other sociological phenomena. Another example she provided was of a Chinese male in Italy discouraged from working in the fashion industry because his migrant mother’s idea of a lucrative job and social engineering was in the field of engineering.

Fantone, is also intrigued by evolving generational perspectives, such as the difference in attitude towards work displayed between an immigrant mother and her second-generation daughter. The mother, is proud to have worked 3 jobs for 15 years. Her daughter yearns not to work at all. The next generation demands equality on all class levels, and the work ethic clash is but one of many in the migrant community’s and women’s collective progress towards societal integration.

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