WHERE THE BORDERS
OF CLASS, RACE, AGE AND SEXUALITY MEET
Elvia R. Arriola - Director
of Women on the Border
problems at the U.S.-Mexico border that have expanded under NAFTA can
be understood by looking closely at the maquiladoras for their impact
on women's lives. Many other perspectives, such as economic class,
or racial attitudes could also be used as the starting point of analysis.
VOICES PROJECT I and II, however, use a gendered lens. This
is a critical view of law and society that operates on the assumption
that the ways in which a culture or society views the male and female
sexes, or explains how and why they are different from each other, is
a useful way for explaining just about anything in life or history. To
use gender is just a starting point of analysis. It is not exclusive
of other important factors, like race, or economics, or ideology, or culture.
It is a totally inclusive perspective. The gendered lens also
assumes that how those differences are viewed affects in turn how a society
or culture distributes power and resources. In a gendered and patriarchal
world or culture this distribution is usually unequal. In
that unequal distribution, women's differences from men are often used
to justify lower pay, second-class citizenship, objectification of women's
bodies, sexualized harassment and abuse of girls and women, etc.
In essence it is a devaluing of the female in relation to male, or of
the feminine in relation to the masculine, women to men, girls to boys,
A gendered lens
that is viewed holistically, that is with sensitivity to factors such
as race, class, age, sexuality and culture can benefit greatly from the
use of narratives, drawn from the experiences of women who work or have
worked in the maquila industry. The use of gender at the Mexican border,
for example, allows the researcher to inquire, what role does
gender play in explaining any alleged forms of oppression in the maquiladoras?
Why, for example is it a matter of recorded history and contemporary
fact that women have been so heavily represented as "ideal workers"
in the maquiladoras? How does the working women's gender, and the
Mexican or Anglo attitudes about their class, their sex, their gender
role expectations or their race affect their treatment in the factories?
How does gender intersect with race, class, sexuality, age, and
culture to explain the paltry wages that most maquiladora workers are
paid? Are there specific ways in which a female maquiladora workers
is treated that one would never expect of a male maquiladora worker? What
expectations do factory owners or supervisors have of working women in
the maquiladoras that they do not have of men, and why?
To use a gendered lens in a way that facilitates analysis of other factors
such as race, class, sex, age, citizenship and/or culture is engagement
of social justice theory with critical practice (i.e. "praxis").
Here are some specific examples of working women's experiences
that illustrate the ways in which gender at the border meets class, race,
age, sexuality and culture:
at work with Mexican patriarchy - The Mexican woman's gender
role is one where she is traditionally viewed as dependent on men and
one who has little experience in the working world, and thus with making
demands for better pay, or better working conditions. Many
Mexican working women interviewed internalize these attitudes, speaking
of factory owners preferring women "because men created more problems
for them." Meanwhile plant managers believe them to have special
qualities as workers stating, for example, that "females are much
less tolerant of mistakes, poor quality, whatever."
B. Gender at work with
sexist ageism - Factory owners
prefer to hire young Mexican women in the factories because they are easier
to manipulate and exploit. Job security is equated with allowing
herself to become the object of sexualized attention and with invasions
of her privacy. The "Miss Maquiladora pageant" for
example, encourages women to curry favor from the bosses and supervisors
with sexualized and stereotyped conduct for "ladies." Not surprisingly,
such behavior is viewed as the anti-thesis of an angry and frustrated
worker who seeks to unionize her co-workers and demand better pay, a healthier
and safer workspace or better employment benefits.
C. Gender and pregnancy discrimination
- One extreme example of gender differences explains a
particular form of abuse by maquiladora owners in the practice of mandatory
pregnancy testing for new and current employees. The irony of the
pregnancy tests, which often include not only "surprise" urine
testing but also examination of menstrual pads to prove that a young workers
isn't pregnant, is that to this day, the industry seeks out young women
as workers because of their "natural ability" to engage in delicate,
fast, repetitive and monotonous work. At the same time a young woman
is more likely to show interest in dating, getting married and getting
pregnant to have a family. Pregnancy testing, in its various
abusive and invasive forms in many maquiladoras unfairly singles out women
for their very gender identity as women.
Elvia Arriola, "Voices
from the Barbed Wires of Despair: Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical
Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S.-Mexico Border", (pdf)
49 DE PAUL LAW REVIEW 729-815 (2000).
Summary of above article.
2. Elvia Arriola, "Becoming
Leaders: the Women in the Maquiladoras of Piedras Negras, Coahuila,"
reprinted from Frontera Norte-Sur, October 2000 en
Catharine MacKinnon, Sex Equality (Foundation Press 2002)
Celina Romany, ed. RACE, ETHNICITY, GENDER AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE AMERICAS:
A NEW PARADIGM FOR ACTIVISM (2001).
Catharine MacKinnon, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex
Discrimination (Yale Press 1979).
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage America (2002)