Bernice Yeung's In a Day's Work
In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence against America's Most Vulnerable Workers was published in 2018 by The New Press.
Justice through Solidarity
The Women #MeToo Left Behind
The Multiple Faces of #MeToo
The End of Sex Equality
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Justice through Solidarity
Bernice Yeung exposes the sexual harassment and rape endemic to isolated fields, offices, and homes. Despite poverty, undocumented status, and economic desperation, women farmworkers, janitors, and domestic workers have mustered the courage to overcome shame and speak out against abuse. Yeung chronicles their personal journeys. Nonetheless, it is easy to come away from this powerful book convinced that law is part of the problem rather than the solution.
In a Day’s Work exposes the demeaning of immigrant women of color through judicial delay and juror disbelief, which too often leads to courtroom defeat. The individual-rights approach to gender violence in the workplace requires a harmed woman turning into a plaintiff and seeking justice in a forum stacked against her. If she convinces an Equal Opportunity officer or a human rights attorney to take up her case, she faces a defense lawyer out to assassinate her character and besmirch her veracity. Not only do legal rules presume the perpetrator’s innocence unless he is proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt but patriarchy remains strong, as the old shibboleths—that virtuous women will fight rape to the death and that men’s lives shouldn’t be ruined for acting like men—persist. At best, an employer will settle out of court and formulate a new code of conduct for supervisors and subcontractors. Any of us who have sat through sexual harassment training know how inadequate such courses are when one is faced with the realities of workplace violence.
The question becomes, why do organizations of workers, doubly vulnerable due to their citizenship status and invisibility, still campaign for legal protections? Why have the National Domestic Workers Alliance and various state affiliates lobbied for a “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights,” even with weak enforcement mechanisms? Why did their counterparts worldwide seek a convention on “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011, with measures against workplace violence and sexual assault? And why does the International Domestic Worker Federation and the International Confederation of Trade Unions today push the ILO for a standard-setting convention on “Violence and Harassment against Women and Men in the World of Work” for passage next year at the International Labour Conference? Laws create norms and aspirations for behavior by the state as well as employers and individual men. Most importantly, they are good for organizing and the empowerment of workers necessary for transforming practices.
Illustrating the potential benefits of such campaigns, Yeung offers the trajectory of Georgina Hernández, a victim when we first meet her, who becomes one of the hunger strikers who in 2016 demanded that California Governor Jerry Brown sign the “Property Service Workers Protection Act.” Union janitors won this fight, which requires companies that employ janitors to register with state authorities, allow inspections of their subcontracting chains, and provide sexual harassment training. This initiative came from the membership of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Workers West, which voted to make sexual violence an issue for collective bargaining.
Noted for social movement unionism, SEIU understood the power of grassroots trust, especially in intimate matters. Yeung charts the building of networks that outsiders too often miss. Working with nongovernemental organizations, including the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, SEIU approached the East Los Angeles Women’s Center, an organization esteemed within Spanish-speaking Southern California. The Women’s Center created a peer promotora program, modeled on Mexican lay public health educators, to enhance knowledge, raise consciousness, and facilitate action.
Through their hunger strike, Hernández and the other promotoras reclaimed their bodies. Their final healing circle collectively celebrated survival by reading letters to attackers and releasing doves of peace.
Eliminating sexual violence from the workplace needs cadres of workers to defend their coworkers and workers forcing employers to maintain zero tolerance as a condition of work—another reason to support unions in this era of right-wing assault abetted by the Supreme Court. Workers acting alone lack power, but together they can bring greater justice, even individual redress, than can most sexual harassment trials. Their challenge to workplace practices breathes new meaning into the old slogan “the personal is the political.”
Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and distinguished professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes on the home as a workplace. She is finishing the book “Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019” (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). She works in solidarity with home care, domestic, and other home-based workers. She can be reached at email@example.com and tweets at @eileen_boris.
The Women #MeToo Left Behind
Months have passed since the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal open, and the #MeToo moment still mostly belongs to women we already know. We confused fame for power, when in fact this conflation only accurately describes the position occupied by a select few. Even then, nobody is powerful just because we know their names. The problem is wealth. Men in possession of obscene wealth also possess obscene power. Visibility is just another product you can purchase.
#MeToo’s recent momentum stems partly from its secondary revelation. We are shocked not just by the names of the predators but by the names of their victims, too. We had engaged in a form of magical thinking. We had thought, at least some of us, that visibility could protect women. Maybe it’s true that a woman can buy a buffer, but buffers can be broken. A woman is still a woman under patriarchy, no matter the size of her bank account.
But these aren’t new problems, and neither are the plights of women who do not enjoy the wealth and fame of Hollywood actresses. #MeToo, after all, did not suddenly spring to life in October 2017. Tarana Burke coined it in 2006, in a process she describes on her website as a reaction to a dearth of rape crisis centers and trained counselors in underserved communities. Bernice Yeung’s debut book, In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence against America’s Vulnerable Workers, is both within the tradition of #MeToo and a necessary expansion of current conversations.
Yeung, who reports on the abuse and exploitation of farmworkers and domestic workers for Reveal, describes a chain of failures. Women are failed first by immigration policies that force them into the shadows, then by their employers. Sometimes they are failed by other women. Midway through the book, Yeung recounts the experiences of June Barrett, an immigrant and domestic worker. Barrett’s work is difficult, as Yeung’s description of domestic work as “the crucial but unseen labor done behind the doors of private homes” communicates. Barrett is at the mercy of the vagaries of her employers. When Barrett is repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted by the man in her care, the man’s daughter is no ally.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Barrett told Yeung. “She was laughing. Because I was just a piece of meat, just the caregiver, I was nothing.”
When domestic workers, like Barrett, and farmworkers, like the members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Campesinas Unidas, organize, they largely do so on their own, and usually outside the trade union movement. Yet organize they do, and they take on extreme risk in the process. We cannot turn the tide of sexual violence in this country without their efforts—or without placing the realities of their lives in clear public focus.
If #MeToo is to achieve any of its goals, we must reconsider old demarcations between public lives and private actions. The casting couch can’t remain a dirty secret; its implications must become acknowledged fact reaching far outside the boundaries of the entertainment industry. #MeToo takes gendered violence out of newsrooms and restaurant kitchens and living rooms and places it in front of our eyes, where we must either reckon with it or look away. The movement identifies collective accountability as a step toward justice.
In a Day’s Work reminds us that a woman, depending on her race and her immigration status, can be at once victim and victimizer. #MeToo shouldn’t just be a movement without borders; it should be a movement against borders. As long as visibility is a luxury, so is justice.
Sarah Jones is a staff writer for The New Republic, where she covers national politics. Her work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and Scalawag magazine, among others.
The Multiple Faces of #MeToo
The face of the #MeToo movement is beautiful. Literally, it’s good looking. It’s got bombshell blondes, gracefully aging brunettes. And it is through them—the elegant, nearly all white, almost all moneyed women in Hollywood—that we associate this anti–sexual violence movement. It is through this rarefied group that we have begun to see real-life results from allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
But what of those real-life results? I suppose they include the fact that many of us no longer think fondly on the careers of men like Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Morgan Freeman, and Louis C.K. After learning about their reprehensible behavior, it has become increasingly hard for me to laugh at C.K.’s jokes or honor Rose’s storied journalistic career. That they’ve been fired or banished from the public eye has felt appropriate. But that’s pretty much, give or take, where we as a nation have landed on punishment. Fire a couple of rich and famous guys and call it a day.
There have been a few outliers, of course. Harvey Weinstein just turned himself in to police a couple of weeks ago, Bill Cosby got convicted of rape a month ago. Belatedly, three or four chickens have come home to roost. But it doesn’t go far. Of the many famous men accused of sexual misconduct, most are just fine.
And when you consider that most of these men are doing OK—despite the serious allegations launched against them, despite the fact that most of the women who did the launching of these allegations are rich and famous—it’s pretty depressing to think about the rest of us.
The rest of us, by the way, is a lot of people. We, the non-rich-and-famous, cover a large swath of the population. Some of us are middle-class professors and writers; we have a platform and cachet. People listen to us. But for others of us, it’s harder.
In her recent book, In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, Bernice Yeung tracks down women whose ability to stay in this country hinges on their ability to be as silent as possible. It is undocumented women who live and work in the darkest shadows of our economy, without many rights but with fear of deportation.
Yeung expresses how difficult it was to get women to talk to her for this book. And that makes sense when the women she was seeking out were afraid that the act of telling their stories could compromise their ability to feed their children adequately, send money back to their home countries, and, most importantly, stay in America.
“There came a time when I told myself, ‘No more,’” says one of the women interviewed in Yeung’s book. “I am seeing that this type of thing did not only happen to me. It was happening to many, many more women and if I stay quiet then it is going to continue happening.” But this was not the norm. The norm is sexual assault in California fields by bosses, or of domestic workers in the homes of the people they take care of, of women janitors (who make up of 34 percent of those who work in building maintenance) in big office buildings way after 5 p.m. And most of the time, the stakes are too high for them to want to reveal their sexual assaults to their friends and families or to other workers, let alone the press.
I want to know more about this conundrum: the one in which enduring sexual assault in the workplace is a pill easier to swallow than exposing it. I have a feeling, as Trump’s plans to expel immigrants ramp up, more and more women will move further and further into the shadows—and I’d like to know how reporters can stem the tide of silence that goes along with the conundrum they face.
The End of Sex Equality
Bernice Yeung’s In a Day’s Work details the sexual violence and harassment immigrant women endure as they harvest our food, clean our offices, and tend to our homes. Toiling for puny paychecks in precarious and often invisible jobs, these women perform essential labor all around us. They are also routinely abused on the job, with their poverty and immigration status intersecting to force them into a kind of sexual peonage. This is the modern expression of a very old and deeply American problem. It resembles the routine and ritualized torture inflicted upon enslaved women as well as gendered forms of indentured servitude, immigrant contract work, and prison labor.
What can be done about it? While the book is anchored by accounts of resilient women and their advocates, it also suggests some solutions. These include offering more comprehensive trainings to workers and facilitating their complaints, holding negligent employers accountable, changing workplace culture, reframing demands for reform by equating gender-based violence to other types of workplace violence, adjusting relevant state and federal agencies, and engaging labor unions.
All of these measures could help, but none gets to the root of the problem: the procorporate legal system that reinforces our misogynist culture and stratified economy. Sex-equality law, as it exists today, does not offer these women a comprehensive remedy. This was not inevitable. As lawmakers debated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill intended to boost equality of opportunity at work, they added a ban on sex discrimination. Women’s rights activists came to appreciate the law once it went into effect, but they argued that working women’s problems went beyond barriers to upward mobility. Creating meaningful equality at work would also require improving the pay and working conditions for the jobs most women already do, enhancing their autonomy and respect on the job.
Over time, employers and conservative government officials accepted sex-equality law by interpreting it narrowly, extinguishing its potential to deliver more fundamental economic and cultural transformation. Today, the law treats sex discrimination as a problem caused by discerning between the sexes, the solution to which is treating women and men interchangeably. Employers gain further advantage through legal strategies that minimize their accountability, cast blame on survivors, and ensure that conflicts hinge on technical legal points rather than reckoning with trauma.
This book exposes the limits of workplace equality as the law defines it. Freedom from gendered abuse would improve these women’s working conditions, but interchangeability with the men who toil alongside them in precarious, low-paying, and largely invisible jobs is not nearly enough. A rights framework that conceives of equality as mere nondistinction among workers just reinforces the structures that lay the foundation for sexualized mistreatment. Rather than chipping away at the edges of this problem, Yeung’s book suggests something more.
This something more begins from a cultural reckoning with the reality that these women’s trauma is the human cost of the cheap goods and services that give elites the luxury of work that offers fulfillment and creativity. Professionals would also benefit from a new rights paradigm—rooted in flexibility, autonomy, and dignity—that attends to workers’ actual vulnerabilities rather than offering equal treatment with other, slightly better off workers. Working women’s advocates should borrow from the criminal justice activists who have begun a broader conversation about whose rights the law protects and whose it tramples.
Katherine Turk is associate professor of history and adjunct associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her first book, Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) won the 2017 Mary Nickliss Prize from the Organization of American Historians. As the 2018-19 Mary I. Bunting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, she will be at work on her next book: a history of the National Organization for Women.
I am glad and grateful for the astute responses to In a Day’s Work from Eileen Boris, Sarah Jones, Collier Meyerson, and Katherine Turk.
In their own way, each of their essays points to a larger, unanswered question that I struggled with while writing the book—and which I continue to grapple with as a reporter who covers sexual violence: What should justice look like for women who have been sexually abused?
The workers featured in In a Day’s Work are some of the most vulnerable among us—the immigrant women doing some of the hardest work for the lowest pay. In this scenario, poverty, immigration status, and the isolation of the job conspire to make harassment and even assault a known workplace hazard.
The fact that these women often go unseen and ignored makes justice especially elusive. In her response to In a Day’s Work, Sarah Jones argues that these workers’ lack of visibility—or rather the way in which women doing low-wage work are routinely invisibilized—serves to create borders around who receives a shot at justice. And Collier Meyerson observes that attention and accountability come most readily to those with power and privilege.
They both raise a critical point: The women featured in my book, along with the hard work they are doing, have been diminished and devalued because of their race, immigration and socioeconomic status, and gender. What does justice look like for those not deemed worthy of it?
But even when farmworkers, night-shift janitors, and domestic workers take the unusual and bold step of demanding action against the on-the-job harassment and violence they’ve experienced, it’s unclear that justice will be delivered.
Conventional notions of justice tend to focus on seeking recourse through the legal system or by filing a complaint with an employer. But as both Eileen Boris and Katherine Turk note, my book asks: What are the limitations of these systems in responding to sexual assault victims?
In a Day’s Work features the stories of various women who were dissatisfied with the results they received from the legal system and from their employers. Some believed their complaints were not taken seriously by their bosses. Meanwhile, civil lawsuits rarely allowed for confronting the perpetrator and instead focused on the technical aspects of an employer’s legal liability.
Workers also said that turning to the criminal justice system was frustrating—sexual assault cases are rarely prosecuted, and if they are, the victim has little agency in the process. If a trial victory is how accountability is measured, then very few will ever know justice. Simultaneously, there are legitimate concerns—especially in communities of color—about whether criminalization is the true answer to this problem.
Nevertheless, there is clear value to the current laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work because they establish norms and standards. They convey a sense of rights and expectations. That’s why, even as I tried to point to the vagaries and biases that might be embedded in company policies and the legal system, In a Day’s Work also sought to explore the value of pushing for these types of reform and responses.
I have personally seen how, in fighting for new laws or taking their cases to court, previously victimized women have transformed. I’ve seen how, in getting activated around this issue, they come to feel more empowered to demand dignified workplaces and respect in their jobs. I have seen them become leaders in their communities and workplaces.
But ultimately, concepts of justice are incredibly individual. Some harassed workers have told me that justice, to them, is the ability to publicly confront their perpetrator in a court of law. Some wanted their harassers fired, or prison time for their rapists. Others said that justice simply meant an end to the harassment so they could go to work in peace. Still others said that they began to feel a sense of justice when they realized that they had been believed.
Clearly, no single system can deliver a sense of universal justice when its very meaning is so variable. Instead, I have been interested in efforts that look to prevention, that seemingly pie-in-the-sky idea tied to changing workplace behavior and attitudes. Decades of social science research has held that when it is made clear that sexual harassment is not tolerated, there will be less of it.
Prevention is not as abstract as it might initially sound. In a Day’s Work chronicles promising strategies that are worker centered and industry specific. These include worker-led training, bystander intervention, and programs that demand employer accountability by harnessing the power of consumers and workers alike.
In the end, justice can mean many things to many people but when it comes to sexual violence, we ought to consider that justice is actually the absence of the transgression happening in the first place. When we continue to rely on conventional ideas of justice by solely pursuing cases through the legal system or company bureaucracies, victims are asked to seek recourse for a violent act they have already been forced to experience, endure, and survive. For these women, as resilient as they have proven themselves, any semblance of “justice” comes too late.
Let’s instead look to these women to show us other ways forward, for new pathways to justice that focus on stopping violence before more women and workers are harmed.
Bernice Yeung is an investigative reporter and the author of In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence against America's Most Vulnerable Workers (The New Press, 2018). The book is based on reporting she began in 2012 while she was a journalist at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.