I’ve seen two films recently that reflect on the lives of women who work away from their children for jobs, opportunity and money. The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s successful Southern novel of the same name, and The Learning, a POV documentary about four Filipino women who leave their families for a year to teach in Baltimore’s public school system.
Both films illustrate how America depends on underpaid female labor — teachers and domestic workers — to raise and educate our young children. Both films also demonstrate how often mothers sacrifice time with their own offspring in order to increase the general economic welfare of their families.
The Help grew out of Stockett’s life experiences in Jackson, Mississippi with African-American domestic servants in the 1960s. The film depicts strong black “maids” who keep the house running, put delicious fried chicken on the table and stop their employer’s white children from crying too much. Black “Mammy” stereotypes abound as the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) claim on their web site, Not Even Past. They point out that in the South of the 1960s, “Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes.”
I understand the history that was missing from The Help’s whitewashed perspective on race in the south — civil protest, sexual harassment, lynching — but I still found that I (as a middle-class white viewer) identified with the film’s melodrama and sentimentality. Growing up white and financially comfortable in Florida in the 1960s, I experienced this segregated world through my family’s domestic servant, Bernice. Bernice had ten children of her own to raise, but she left them several times a week in order to care for me and my three sisters and to provide much-needed financial support for her own family. I remember Bernice’s tireless presence in our house -- her support when my parents were not available -- but I never spent extended time with her children nor visited her home. The most accurate points inThe Help, I believe, are not found in its portrayal of interracial social or political realities but in the domestic realities of cooking, cleaning and childcare — women’s work.
Exceptional long distance parenting is depicted in PBS’s The Learning by four Filipino women who make 25 times their annual salary teaching in Baltimore. The documentary includes tearful goodbyes with Filipino children and Skype sessions with husbands and infants. Back in Baltimore, a young female student says upon learning that her Filipino teacher has left her children in another country, “I wouldn’t leave my family, if I was you.” The teacher says nothing.
Ten million Filipinos work outside of their country, sending back 20 billion dollars to their families annually. Long distance labor is a familiar story for Mexican workers as well. The U.S. economy has a twisted history of being sustained by unequal pay for women and minorities. Now it has a global reach.
“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”
I wonder if he had “women’s work” in mind?