This article focuses on the use of narratives and personal storytelling in the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights campaign. I argue that while stories told to the media and at the legislature helped bring mostly undocumented domestic workers a sense of visibility and recognition in broader society, the narratives drew on long-standing cultural tropes of bad masters, individual victims, and the home as a site of care that have longer genealogies in slavery and colonialism. As earlier myths of domesticity masked labor relations in colonial and slave economies, so too these narratives used by contemporary leaders disguise the racialized and gendered division of labor in a neoliberal globalized economy. The recourse to a storytelling strategy — with its reliance on restrictive public narratives, the heavy involvement of advocacy networks and foundations in shaping these narratives, and its emphasis on winning over adversaries rather than fighting them — ultimately narrowed the goals of this movement and resulted in limited changes for immigrant domestic workers. While symbolic recognition through storytelling has been important in humanizing and making visible the struggles of a mostly undocumented female workforce, this strategy, when divorced from a larger grassroots and autonomous movement, has been incapable of challenging broader global patterns of gendered inequality.
Out of the Home, into the House: Narratives and Strategies in Domestic Worker Legislative Campaigns
Sujatha Fernandes is professor of political economy and sociology at the University of Sydney. She was formerly professor of sociology at the City University of New York. She is the author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (2006), Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (2010), Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation (2011), and the forthcoming book Curated Stories: How Storytelling Is Hindering Social Change. Her website is www.sujathafernandes.com.