By Kate Aseltine
There is a serious problem with the way women living in the “Third World” have come to be conceptualized in the West. Stationed within our own “Euro-centric” discourses, we often overlook the varying and distinctive cultural contexts these women occupy. By viewing these women only through the lens of Western capitalist ideologies, we are complicit in the controlling imagery that “undercuts women’s agency by defining them as victims of a process of pauperization or of “tradition” or “patriarchy” rather than as agents capable of making their own choices.”(Mohanty 151). We overlook the examples of Third World women who have carved a space for themselves, as teachers, as entrepreneurs, as leaders, or we disregard these women as “outliers” from the normative subjugation. Though Mohanty would not hesitate to concede that the lives of many women in the Third World are bleak, she argues that the capitalist strategies of the West are not a solution. In fact, these subversive and increasingly globalized forms of capitalism are, in her estimation, structurally responsible for their strife.
Yet again, we find capitalism painted as the antagonist, determined to thwart an egalitarian future, and with good reason. As Mohanty emphasizes,” The common interests of capital (e.g. profit, accumulation, exploitation) are somewhat clear at this point” (Mohanty 140). As I argued in my previous blog, capitalism functions by creating inequitable power levels, establishing dominions of domination and subordination, and designating social groups as the privileged or “the other.” Those who occupy the space of this other, or minority, are then positioned to be utilized as cheap labor and are stripped of their rights by de-humanizing controlling images.
This mechanism can be seen throughout out our nation’s history, and remains a salient issue today. “In the United States, histories of slavery, indentured servitude, contract labor, self-employment, and wage work are also simultaneously histories of gender, race, and (hetero)sexuality, nestled within the context of the development of capitalism (i.e. of class conflict and struggle)” (Mohanty 146). Mohanty utilizes the example of slavery in the United States, when African American men and women were used as “chattel” to serve Caucasians and produce agriculture in the South, and the subjugation of people of color and women continues to be a salient issue today. These points argue for a reexamination of the picture of Third World women that exists in our imagination.
In examining the relationship between the women of the Third World and the West, Mohanty suggests that the Eurocentric colonizers of the past seem to have been replaced, by a modern model disguised as “globalization.” Capitalist interests in the Third World have changed very little over the past 500 years. The West continues to strip women of the Third World of culture and agency, and leech their resources and labor. Women are the cheapest producers of foreign goods, and women of the Third World make the ideal employees. Using the example of female lace workers in Narspur, India, Mohanty asserts that jobs and tasks are established within an “ideological construction… in terms of notions of appropriate femininity, domesticity, (hetero)sexuality, and racial and cultural stereotypes.” These discourses drastically belittle what women, particularly women in the Third World, are capable of by portraying them as infantile, a controlling image we reinforce every time we think of them simply as victims. Job typing has facilitated the creation of a social identity: workers are isolated within their sex, race, and class, and this isolation perpetuates their subjugation. The work of these women is shaped within this framework, and “tedious” and “unskilled.” The effect of these definitions of women’s labor is not only that it makes women’s labor and its costs invisible, but that it denies women power and agency, effectively trapping them within a position of subordination. Capitalist principles stress that valuable labor and laborers, exist only within the masculine sphere, which is why Mohanty argues that, “Analyzing and transforming this masculine definition of labor, which is the mainstay of capitalist patriarchal cultures, is one of the most significant challenges we face” (Mohanty 151).
Our role in the future of our increasing globalized, and capitalistic world is changing dramatically, and we must adjust our conception of ourselves accordingly. Within the globalized, capitalistic matrix of domination we no longer occupy the role of citizens –we are consumers. This has dramatic implications on the way we interact with our politic systems, particularly the ones responsible for perpetuating this matrix. When we subscribe to controlling images of women of the Third World, we take a step backwards. When we vote for a system sustained by subjugation, we deny ourselves a more egalitarian future. To combat this, we must rethink what we know about positionality and experience. We need a movement built on solidarity, and productive solidarity cannot exist without an acknowledgement of culture, history, and difference.