ELSA CHANEY: SURROUNDED BY LOVE-
ELSA, LASA AND EMPOWERMENT
Center for Worker Education
City College of New York
I. Cuba Research Inspired by Book by Elsa Chaney and Mary Garcia Castro- 1
II. Elsa Chaney's Life- Excerpts from her Autobiography- 4
III. Elsa Chaney's Death- Surrounded by Loving Sisters and Friends- 9
IV. Conclusion- 10
Prepared for delivery at the XXIII International Congress of the
Latin American Studies Assocation,
Washington, D. C. September 6, 2001
I. Cuba Research Inspired by Book by Elsa Chaney and Mary Garcia Castro
In 1991, at a LASA congress, I purchased the book Muchachas No More: Household
Workers in Latin America, by Mary Garcia Castro and Elsa Chaney, which analyzes the
status of household workers and their organizations in Latin America and includes an
article by Elena Gil Izquierdo, who directed the educational program for former domestic
workers in Cuba. This book was very influential in my research, not only because it
provided important information and analysis, but because it provided a framework for
doing academic work in the context of a commitment to working with household workers
for fundamental changes. In 1993 and 1994, Esther Maria Rodriguez, a Cuban
education professor who was a teacher and a director of one the schools for domestic
workers, and I interviewed 27 former domestic workers in Havana. Our research is
summarized in a paper I presented at a LASA congress in 1995 and an article Esther
Maria Rodriguez and I wrote in Cuba Update in June, 1995. In 1998, Belkis Vega,
a Cuban film director and I, completed a video "From Maids to Compafieras"
about transformations in the lives of former domestic workers.'
According to the census of 1953, over 32% of working women in Cuba were
employed as domestic workers- individuals who are hired to clean, wash clothes or take
care of children in the homes of other people. 2 Often they live in a small room in the
homes of their employers start working when they are children, receive room and board
and an extremely low salary, are expected to work early in the morning until late at night,
are denied days off, vacations, sick leave and health benefits, and are denied the right to a
personal life or to leave their employers' homes without permission. The census figures
only included employed females 14 years and older and since a large proportion of
domestic workers started working before they were 14, the real percentage is much
Two years after the Revolution of 1959, women educators and activists with full
government support, organized an extensive educational program which involved 63,000
domestic workers who received basic literacy classes and job training, as well as
consciousness raising. Economic and political changes opened up numerous jobs and
former domestic workers were hired as bank employees, telephone operators, taxi drivers
and public employees.
During the 1960s, full-time live-in domestic service was eliminated. Although some
women are currently hired to clean the homes of others, they receive regular salaries.
The eradication of slave-like domestic labor in Cuba challenges the rest of Latin America
where a large proportion of women and children are still employed as domestic workers.
Again the actual figure is much higher than the official estimate of 20%.
Oria Calcines, who directed the Evening School for Domestic Workers, explained that
Fidel Castro decided to encourage the organization of a school for domestic workers
rather than their unionization because:
He wanted to open the doors of culture and direct women to work
centers. This is what killed domestic service. All we had to say was 'Here
is your school.' The domestic workers themselves, by getting involved in
the schools and their new jobs, eliminated domestic service, without the
necessity of creating special legislation.
Following is an excerpt from an interview with Maria Manuela Blanco, former
domestic worker who became a labor judge:
I consider the school for advancement for domestic workers has improved
our status because we are no longer domestics, we did not have that hard
and in a way humiliating work, not because work humiliates anyone, but
because of the way we were made to work, many times with abuses, with
the discrimination I referred to and that's over. We no longer had a master
who didn't care about us, who if we got sick, just replaced us, with no
On the other hand, the liberation that women reached is the right to hold
office, it is the right to culture, to demand that their children won't be raised
ignorant, illiterate, that there won't be racial discrimination, that we all
should have equal rights.
As in everything, women's liberation is still not complete, and although
there exist possibilities, and the country pledged with the victory of the
revolution women would be totally liberated, this does not mean that all the
women we see are totally liberated, because there are those who are
submitted to marriage and the family and don't get involved. We still have
things of the past, but nevertheless there is a liberation.3
Following is a summary of the results of 20 interviews with former domestic workers
in Cuba. 4 Nine are black, six are mulatto and five are white. The average age they started
working was 14, with two beginning at age 9. The majority indicated that prior to the
Cuban revolution in 1959 they worked over 13 hours per day. They discussed poverty
and racial discrimination before the revolution and saw themselves as part of an
underclass. They indicated that now they were living in socialism, where they found
dignity, self-confidence and equality.
We were interested in looking at the extent to which changes in class, gender and
race relationships led to a sense of empowerment. Repeatedly they talked about
gaining self-confidence and a sense of personal self-fulfillment. Maria Teresa Hernandez,
a bank employee said that "the revolution made me a person, it gave me all I had,
it gave me joy for living." 50% said they participated in economic and political
decision making in their country, 30% said they didn't and 20% gave mixed responses.
The women we interviewed expressed a sense of self-empowerment through their
personal and collective struggles at their workplaces. The goals of economic and social
equality are very much alive for a significant sector of women who worked as
domestic workers before the revolution. The fundamental transformations in their
personal lives and their sense of empowerment through the Cuban revolution give
the former domestic workers the strength to continue to struggle.
Cuba is the only country in Latin America that has eliminated live-in domestic
service. As a result of the Cuban revolution and the participation of women in
an educational program, young Cuban girls no longer have to clean other people's
homes in order to survive. While today many women in Cuba are paid to clean the
homes of other people, they live in their own homes, attend schools, receive regular
salaries and are often paid in dollars.
Associations of household workers in Latin America have been successful in terms
of developing international communication networks and increasing the self-esteem,
educational levels and career opportunities of some of their members and leaders. In
some countries they have won legislative improvements, but the regulations usually aren't
enforced. There has not been a significant improvement in the quality of life of household
workers in Latin America in any country besides Cuba. Economic and political
structural changes are needed in Latin American countries to support the transformation
of the lives of working women.
II. Elsa Chaney's Life- Excepts from her Autobiography 5
Elsa Chaney is a retired political scientist turned anthropologist. She received her
PhDform the University of Wisconsin in 1970 and taught both at Fordham University
and the University ofIowa. Today she is active in the Green Party of owa City and
in the Section on Gender and Feminist Studies of the Latin American Studies
Girls in the high school graduation class of 1946 did not have well-defined life plans.
We talked about becoming nurses, teachers, secretaries or airline hostesses.
After working a few years, we'd become full-time wive and mothers.
But good things happened to me: a scholarship to attend a small junior college in
Kansas where I was deeply challenged scholastically by Ursuline nuns and where
students from Latin America inspired my first interest in the region to which I would
dedicate my professional life. Nine years in the Grail, an activist Catholic lay movement
that was profoundly feminist without the label, well before the "second wave."
Graduate study in comparative politics of developing nations at the University of
Wisconsin in the 1960s when it seemed that the only requirement for fellowships was to
keep breathing. All these opportunities led me to my life of teaching and research about
women in Latin America.
Into The World of Work
In 1959, I partnered with another Grail member on a trip to Colombia and Peru.
We were looking for placements for women being trained at the Grail's Overseas
Institute in Brooklyn. I had moved there to finish my final two years of college at
Fordham University. In Lima I was invited by the Juventud Obrera Catolica
(Young Catholic Workers), a Belgian movement, to a meeting of household
workers preparing to launch their own organizations to improve their wretched working
conditions. Years later I encountered domestic worker leaders in many Latin American
countries who had been 'conscientized' by the JOC.
After Fordham, where I majored in journalism, I left Grail and headed for
Washington to work as a press assistant, first for Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota
(the 'good' McCarthy), and later for Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin... (In 1968, I
again worked for McCarthy when his wife, Abigail, asked me to direct "Women for
McCarthy" in the 1968 presidential campaign.)...
I applied for a fellowship at the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin
at Madison. A PhD would be my 'ticket' to a position of real responsibility in
government. I majored in comparative politics of developing nations...
In 1967, I set out for Peru and Chile on a Fulbright dissertation grant, interviewing
women politicians in both local and national government. The study became:
Supermadre: Women and Politics in Latin America, the first work based on survey
research on women in Latin America. A Spanish translation is in its second edition.
When I defended my thesis in 1970, I was only the ninth woman to receive a PhD
in political science from Wisconsin. By then I had given up the idea of returning
to Capitol Hill. I wanted to teach, but the job market was tough. I had two strikes
against me: I was a woman, and I had written a dissertation about women...
There were only two offers of employment, one at Iowa State University at Ames
and the other at Fordham University. I chose the latter.
Another woman had also been hired. We were the first females in the political science
department. How daring we felt as we planned our first appearance in pantsuits!
I taught the traditional courses, although in my last two years I won a long battle to offer
several courses on women in politics.
The Women's Coalition of Latin Americanists
My Fordham years were also the years of WOCLA, the Women's Coalition of Latin
Americanists. In collaboration with Margaret Crahan, an historian of Latin America in
the City University system, and a half-dozen New York Latin American Studies
Association members, we organized a fight for more representation of women in the
association. We were incensed that at the Wisconsin congress in 1973, only one woman
was scheduled to chair a panel- with her husband!
At the congress, I acted as go-between, running from a meeting of the rebellious
women to meet the local organizer (one of my former professors) in the hallway,
who then carried our demands to a special session of the LASA executive committee.
The good friend actually asked the classic question: "Elsa, what do these women want?"
Literally a paper tiger, WOCLA published a newsletter, collected signatures to
nominate Jane Jaquette for LASA vice president and Meg Crahan for the executive
committee (Meg won), and created general mischief that made the men at least
somewhat nervous. Women would soon force change in many professional organizations,
but I believe that we were the first to rebel. In later years, four women, including Jane,
would serve in succession as presidents of LASA.
My growing interest in women's issues was greatly stimulated by membership in
NYWAC, the New York Women's Anthropology Caucus, bringing together great
women who would make key contributions to what came to be called women's studies:
June Nash, Helen Safa, Connie Sutton, Eleanor (Happy) Leacock, and others.
I joined with June and Helen to write a proposal to the Social Science Research Council
to bing together Latin and North American researchers who were beginning to study
the problemdtica of women.
In the spring of 1974, some 50 women scholars gathered in Buenos Aires for a seminar
"Feminine Perspectives in Social Science Research" (the papers later were collected as
Sex and Class in Latin America.). In the summer, Helen and I ran a two-month
seminar on the same theme in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Among the 285 applicants were
many of our friends, but we decided to include only younger women without their
PhDs in order to push forward the nascent field of Latin American women's studies...
Among the participants were Carmen Diana Deere, another future president of LASA,
as well as my current colleague in the household worker research project, Mary
Women in Development at USAID
A participant told us about the Percy amendment, passed the previous year,
a congressional mandate requiring that all U. S. governmental agencies include women in
their programs and projects. After several years of teaching, I needed a change.
I heard that the new coordinator of Women in Development at the United States Agency
for International Development, Arvonne Fraser, had several positions, including two for
social scientists. One does not easily shed the experience of the 1960s at the University of
Wisconsin, where I had not only marched and protested against the Vietnam war, but had
been active in Citizens United with the Peoples of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We met
in Paris and Montreal with Madam Binh, North Vietnamese Secretary of State, and others
in the shadow government of South Vietnam.
When I first walked into the State Department building, I said to myself, "Well,
here I am in the heart of the beast." Was I "selling out?" I argued with friends about
being "inside" (you'll be swallowed up, compromised) or staying "outside" to continue
the radical critique of the whole development enterprise. But Arvonne was completely
disarming. She won me over when she told me that...there were millions of dollars flying
around and she intended, she said, to get a lot of them for women. Arvonne decided that
the social science slots could wait and offered me the position as her deputy. With
joy and trepidation I accepted...
So much paper moved through our office- to fulfill the WID mandate, we had to
"sign off' on nearly every project- that it was impossible to devote much time to the flood
of documents that came across our desks, to meetings that seemed important, to attend
project reviews, to begin designing our own projects and programs, to travel to see what
was going on in the field.
In those early days we confronted daily and hourly the agency's perception of
women's role in (in what at the time we called) LDCs: less-developed countries.
With few exceptions, women were viewed only as "targets" in the agency's population
and MCH (mother-child health) programs. The word "women" rarely appeared in
documents unless prefaced by the phrase "pregnant or lactating." Non-mothers, mothers
not pregnant or lactating, girls, and older women were invisible.
Yet most of the world's women still lived (and continue to live) in peasant or quasi-
peasant economies where they farm alongside their menfolk or often farm alone.
Yet the agency directed its agricultural projects exclusively to men...Nor did the
men believe they could learn much from us...We gradually broke down the resistance of
many scholars toward "WID" and began funding and publishing dozens of research
papers...We attempted to demonstrate that not only that the inclusion of women improve
results, but that many projects would fail if women were left aside...
During the ten years between leaving the WID office and landing in Iowa I worked as
an independent contractor...I spent two wonderful years in Jamaica, where I had
two projects back-to-back. One was a study of how outmigration affected the women
left behind in Jamaica and St. Lucia; the second was a grant to spend six months
at the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute, where I studied the effects of migration
on smallholder agriculture, food and nutrition...
Research and Activism Concerning Household Workers in Latin America
Currently I live in Iowa City. In 1989, I was on a consulting assignment with the
Women's Service in Agriculture and Development at FAO in Rome, when word came
that I had won a Rockefeller residency to do research on rural women and feminist issues
in the Women's Studies program at the University of Iowa. I stayed on to direct the
Women in Development Program and teach in the anthropology department...
In 1994 I retired which did not mean stepping out of life. Engaged for the past
five years in a wonderful, fantastic, mad project, I've made eleven trips to
Latin America. Two colleagues, Mary Garcia Castro, Brazilian sociologist, and Mary
Rosaria Goldsmith, North American-Mexican anthropologist, form a technical team
to assist household (domestic servant) associations and labor unions in seven Latin
American countries to do studies of their own reality.
Our aim is to take the mystery out of survey research. One of us goes to help
initiate the project, training the household workers themselves as coordinators and
interviewers and assisting them in planning the field work. One their own, they carry
out the interviews and code the results. Then I go to help clean their data and
run tables so that they can write their reports.
Additionally I work as a volunteer advisor to CONLACTRAHO, the Latin American
and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers, sponsor of the studies. The seeds
of the confederation were planned after a panel that Mary Castro and I put together for
the 1983 Mexico City congress of our professional organization, the Latin American
Studies Association (LASA). We invited two household worker leaders to comment on
the four scholarly presentations- the only studies on household workers we could locate at
that time. (We later put together a collection, Muchachas No More, with these and many
At the congress, we academics asked the workers what we might do to assist them.
They had two requests: to link them with other domestic workers organizations in Latin
America and to help them plan a gran encuentro, a "large encounter," of workers
from other countries. "We've heard that household workers are organizing" they said,
"but we don't know how to get in touch with them. We don't have the chance to travel
the way you do."
The encuentro that turned into the founding congress of the confederation finally took
place in Bogota Colombia in 1988 after four years of fundraising. There now are
23 affiliates, ranging from the newest organization, Costa Rica, with about 50 members,
to the Federacao de Trabalhadores Domesticos do Brasil that has 49 affiliates.
That might sound impressive, but these women represent between 15 and 20 percent of the
counted female labor force in Latin America, and only 5 percent at most are organized.
The confederation links these organizations through seminars and congresses and
publishes a newsletter. And household workers now travel in their own right: five
representatives to Beijing funded by UNIFEM, seminars in trafficking in women in
Brussels, on women and migration in Geneva, and to many other international events.
Writing two books and numerous articles on household workers has been satisfying,
but putting research into practice has been the most rewarding work I have ever done.
III. Elsa's Death Surrounded by Loving Sisters and Friends
Elsa Chaney fought a valiant struggle against ovarian cancer. She thoroughly
researched the illness and her own health, explored different types of treatments, became a
consultant and supporter for other women with cancer and defied the statistics by living
six years after her diagnosis. She used her experience as a researcher to prolong her life.
In July 2000, I was at Northern College in England with a group of students from the
City College of New York Center for Worker Education who were studying race and
ethnicity in England and the United States. I received an email from Mary Garcia Castro
who had received an email from Florence Babb that said that Elsa was dying. I flew back
to New York with the students when the program ended and flew to Iowa City the next
I took a cab to Elsa's home. When I gave the cabdriver the address, she said the
address was familiar and asked me if she had taken me there before. I explained that
I had never been to Iowa City before. She said "Oh Elsa lives there. I've taken her to the
hospital many times. She's a wonderful woman"
When I arrived at her home, I was greeted by two of Elsa's sisters, Mary Erickson and
Laura Isberg who were providing twenty-four hour loving care to Elsa. Elsa was weak
and pale and lying in the bed. She was happy to see me. I told her how her much her
friends in LASA love her. She told me she is going to get better. She said she has had
relapses and she recovers. She was glad I was there so that I could help her walk. She was
concerned about an email list that her sisters could not find. We read the email.
Several friends from Iowa City were visiting constantly, playing Mozart, reading poetry
to her and giving her ice cream. She was receiving phone calls from friends throughout
the United States and Latin America. She wanted to talk about the research involving
household workers in Latin America and discussed with me the progress of the work in
each of seven countries.
When I went to visit Elsa the next day, I found out that she had died a few hours
earlier. Her sisters wanted me to stay because they were expecting a call in a few hours
from Olga in Peru and they needed someone who spoke Spanish. They were planning to
donate her books to Women's Studies programs. I had dinner with a group of Elsa's
friends from Iowa City and learned more about how important she was to other women
I called a cab to go to the airport, and the cabdriver was Sherrie, the same woman who
took me to Elsa's home. She was smoking a cigarette. I told her that Elsa had died.
She was very upset. She used to drive Elsa home from the hospital after her
chemotherapy treatments. Sherrie had never been outside of Iowa and Missouri but Elsa
told her a lot about Latin America. I told Sherrie to stop smoking. Elsa had told her the
same thing. Sherrie decided to visit Elsa's family.
Elsa Chaney participated in a number of struggles through LASA that had a clear
impact on the increase of the participation of women in the association and contributed
to the growth of the women's movement. In 1973 she participated in a struggle at the
LASA congress in Wisconsin which led to an increase in the number of panels chaired
by women and an increase in the number of women in leadership. In 1974, she
was one of the organizers of seminars in Latin America which trained women who
became leaders of LASA and leading scholars in Latin American Studies. When
Elsa and Helen Safa insisted that their workshop in Cuernavaca in 1974 would include
only younger women without PhDs, they provided the seeds for the birth of a new
women's movement within Latin American Studies. Elsa was a member of the executive
committee of the Section on Gender and Feminist Studies of LASA.
Elsa's work contributed to the empowerment of many individual women through her
development of support networks, educational programs, and research projects with
funding. Her work with CONLACTRAHO contributed to the growth of a potentially
powerful movement of household workers in Latin America. When Elsa worked in the
Women in Development program at USAID during the Carter administration, she made
important contributions in terms of the inclusion and promotion of women in the work of
the agency. Some information about this work is available in her unpublished
autobiography and it would be very important to interview her co-workers to deepen
our understanding of this work. We need to encourage more members of LASA to
go into governmental work, through elected positions or administrative appointments
and learn more about the experiences of LASA members who have held governmental
Kathleen Staudt wrote a tribute to Elsa which was published by the American Political
Science Association in which she stated: "What does it say about our discipline when a
prolific researcher-writer, policy analyst and leader-activist never received tenure?" 6
While the decision of Fordham University not to give Elsa tenure was a loss for the
students, faculty and staff at Fordham, it was not a loss for the rest of us. There are many
paths for those of us who are committed to academic research, teaching and movements
for social change. Elsa chose not to be constricted by academic institutional demands
which would have limited her options. She didn't have the economic security that is
provided by a tenured faculty position, but she had the freedom to integrate research,
teaching and activism in her own way.
One of her major concerns was fundraising to carry on the work of CONLACTRAHO.
She worked with many others in developing proposals and received numerous grants from
foundations to assist CONLACTRAHO members in participating in conferences.
However, the funding was always limited and temporary and it required an enormous
amount of work. In March of 2000 Elsa and I distributed a letter to LASA members
asking for contributions for the work of CONLACTRAHO. Mary Garcia Castro, Mary
Goldsmith and the leaders of CONLACTRAHO were successful in raising the funds to
organize a congress of CONLACTRAHO in Mexico in March, 2001.
We would like to work together to organize an Elsa Chaney foundation to continue her
work in terms of providing financial and organizational support to associations of women
workers and researchers in Latin America. We hope you will fill out the enclosed form
so that we can maintain communication and you can assist us organizing the foundation.
We are looking forward to hearing from those of you who would like to carry
on Elsa's work.
1. Copies of this video are available from Jean Weisman, PO Box 20432,
Port Authority CC, New York, NY 10129.
2. This paragraph and the following three paragraphs are revised versions of material in an
article by Esther Maria Rodriguez and Jean Weisman in Cuba Update, June, 1995, p. 24.27.
3. This interview was published in Por Un Nuevo Despertar, 1995, the newsletter
of CONLACTRAHO, p. 16-22.
4. This paragraph and the following two paragraphs are revised versions of material
in the paper presented by Jean Weisman at the LASA congress in 1995.
5. These five pages are excerpts from Elsa Chaney's unpublished autobiography, p. 1-25.
6. Kathleen Staudt, www.apsa.net.org/PS/march01/chaney.cfm. p. 2.
Castro, Mary Garcia. "The Alchemy Between Social Categories in the Production of Political
Subjects: Class, Gender, Race and Generation in the Case of Domestic Workers'
Union Leaders in Salvador-Bahia, Brazil" in The European Journal of Development
Research, Vo. 5, no. 2, December, 1993.
Castro, Mary Garcia. "Engendering and Coloring Labor Unions: Transcultural
Readings of Latin American Women's Ways." In Augustin Lao and Arlene
Davila. Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2001.
Castro, Mary Garcia, Mary Goldsmith, Aida Moreno, Helen Safa and Jean Weisman. "In
Memoriam: Elsa Chaney" in LASA Forum, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Fall, 2000.
Chaney, Elsa. Supermadre: Women in Politics in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas
Chaney, Elsa. Unpublished autobiography, 2000.
Chaney, Elsa and Ximena Bunster. Sellers and Servants: Working Women in Lima, Peru.
New York: Praeger, 1985.
Chaney, Elsa and Mary Garcia Castro. Muchachas No More: Household Workers in Latin
America and the Caribbean. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Chaney, Elsa and Constance Sutton. Caribbean Life in New York City: Sociocultural
Dimensions. New York: Center for Migration Studies of New York, 1987.
Chaney, Elsa and Aida Moreno Valenzuela. "The Difficult Path Toward Organizing
Household Workers." In John Friedmann, et.al. Emergences: Women's Struggles for
Livelihoods in Latin America. Los Angeles: University of California Latin America
Center Publications, 1996.
Nash, June and Helen Safa. Sex and Class in Latin America. New York: Praeger, 1976.
Staudt, Kathleen. "Elsa Chaney" in American Political Science Association Online,
Weisman, Jean. "Transformations in the Lives of Former Domestic Workers in Cuba:
Class, Race and Gender Relationships." Prepared for Delivery at the XIX International
Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington, D.C. September 30,
Weisman, Jean and Esther Maria Rodriguez. "Entrevista- Maria Manuela Blanco" in
Por Un Nuevo Despertar (newsletter of CONLACTRAHO), 1995.
Weisman, Jean and Esther Maria Rodriguez. "From Maids to Compafieras" in Cuba Update,
(published by Center for Cuban Studies), June 1995
Weisman, Jean and Belkis Vega. Video- "From Maids to Compaferas" 1998.
Elsa Chaney Foundation- Information Sheet
I would like to support the effort to organize a foundation.
I would like to make a donation in the future.
I have experience in creating or working with a foundation.
I can help in the following ways:
How I knew Elsa:
Return to: Jean Weisman, Center for Worker Education, NAC 4/217,
City College, Convent Ave. at 138th St. New York, NY 10031.