17. Politicizing Motherhood: Chinese Garment Workers’ Campaign for Daycare Centers in New York City, 1977–1982
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17 Politicizing Motherhood Chinese Garment Workers’ Campaign for Daycare Centers in New York City, 1977–1982 Xiaolan Bao What impact does women’s labor force participation have on transforming their positions in the family and their perceptions of life?1 This has been an issue of major concern to scholars of women and labor in the last two decades.Various conclusions, often bifurcated and sometimes conflicting, have been reached in the studies of different groups of working women, focusing on different aspects of their lives, and written from different perspectives. Varied as the conclusions are, these studies have effectively challenged any simplistic attempt to dichotomize family and work by revealing the complex ways in which they intersect to shape the lives of working women.2 Unlike many studies that try to understand working women by studying the various forces that shape their lives, this chapter places women workers at the center of its analysis. Through an in-depth examination of a campaign for daycare centers initiated and organized by Chinese women garment workers in New York City, it reveals women immigrant workers’ agency in reshaping their destinies in their new homeland and addresses some of the issues raised in the scholarship on women and labor. The questions to be asked include: What are the major factors that have contributed to the rise of labor activism among the Chinese women workers? What strategies did they use, and how did these strategies contribute to their final success? What political implications did this campaign have for the workers, their community, and the labor movement in the United States? In what ways can this campaign complicate our understanding of women immigrant workers in the United States? The analysis in this chapter is primarily based on information in the Chinese community newspapers and the author’s interviews with individuals in the community from 1989 to 1998 for a larger project.3 Some of these individuals have actively participated in the daycare campaign. This study begins with a brief discussion of the history of the Chinese community in New York City, the impact of the Chinese garment industry on the city and the community, and women’s changing roles in the Chinese immigrant working-class families. It then proceeds to analyze the causes of the campaign and to examine its development, and it explores the campaign’s political impact on the women workers, their families, and their community, as well as its implications for the study of women and labor. 286 Women, Family, and the Garment Industry in New York’s Chinatown: A Brief History Unlike the situation in the major Chinese communities on the West Coast, the garment industry was not a part of the landscape of NewYork’s Chinatown until the late 1960s.A principal reason for its absence was the scarcity of women in the community. Although the gender ratio was unequal in almost all Chinese communities in the United States before the end of the Second World War, it was even more so in New York City. By 1940, when the Chinese male-to-female ratio had dropped to about three to one nationally and two to one in California, it remained at more than six to one in New York City, and at more than nine to one among those fifteen years of age and older.4 Given the garment industry’s long-standing tradition of relying on low-paid female immigrant labor, it is not accidental that New York’s Chinatown had not been a center for the city’s garment production. The Chinese gender ratio began to change during and after the Second World War, following a series of changes in U.S. immigration laws.5 Women formed an overwhelmingmajorityof theChineseimmigrantsintheimmediatepostwarera.Between1947and 1952,90percentof theChineseimmigrantswhoenteredtheUnitedStateswerewomen.6 Since many of these new immigrant women settled in New York City, the city’s Chinese gender ratio dipped from more than 6 men to 1 woman in 1940 to 1.7 to 1 in 1960.7 Women’s immigration in the post–World War II era has revitalized the economy of the community. For decades, restaurants and laundries remained the city’s two major Chinese businesses and employed primarily men. After the war, with married women entering the community in significant numbers, many of the Chinese restaurants and laundries were transformed into family businesses and grew significantly.Women’s economic contributions were largely ignored, however, because they worked primarily at home. Particularly in the Chinese family laundry businesses, women, sometimes with their...


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Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islander American women -- History.
  • Asian American women -- History.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Pacific Islander American women -- Social conditions.
  • Asian American women -- Social conditions.
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