Nursing & Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States

Nursing & Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States

Nursing & Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States

Nursing & Empire: Gendered Labor and Migration from India to the United States

Synopsis

In this rich interdisciplinary study, Sujani Reddy examines the consequential lives of Indian nurses whose careers have unfolded in the contexts of empire, migration, familial relations, race, and gender. As Reddy shows, the nursing profession developed in India against a complex backdrop of British and U.S. imperialism. After World War II, facing limited vocational options at home, a growing number of female nurses migrated from India to the United States during the Cold War. Complicating the long-held view of Indian women as passive participants in the movement of skilled labor in this period, Reddy demonstrates how these "women in the lead" pursued new opportunities afforded by their mobility. At the same time, Indian nurses also confronted stigmas based on the nature of their "women's work," the religious and caste differences within the migrant community, and the racial and gender hierarchies of the United States. Drawing on extensive archival research and compelling life-history interviews, Reddy redraws the map of gender and labor history, suggesting how powerful global forces have played out in the personal and working lives of professional Indian women.

Excerpt

If seeing is believing, then as a child, Thankam Vellaringattu’s eldest daughter had every reason to believe that her mother was a full-time homemaker. In the morning when she woke up, her mother was there to greet her. At night when she went to bed, her mother was there to tuck her in. Whenever she needed a ride to or from an extracurricular activity, her mother was there to provide it along with all of the other “soccer moms.” Little did her daughter know that Thankam was also—at the same time—the family’s primary income earner.

Thankam Vellaringattu worked the night shift as a registered nurse (RN) in the coronary care unit (CCU) at a hospital in Long Island, New York. Both the time of the day and the intensity of the unit are not unusual for a foreign nurse graduate (FNG). Indeed, the preponderance of FNGs on the night shift was what prompted Vellaringattu’s inclusion in the article, “Clocking in Past Midnight,” published in 1998 by Little India, a news and features magazine aimed at Indian im/migrant communities in the New York metropolitan area. The piece brings to light the range of locations that Indian im/migrants occupy in the after-dark economy: as medical residents, on-call physicians, nurses, transit workers, convenience store managers, gas station attendants, restaurant workers, and taxi drivers. For some, such as the medical resident turned Harvard professor, the night shift was primarily a rigor to be suffered on the way up the career ladder. For others not as well placed within the labor market, the night shift is a reality that they must endure without an easy or inevitable end in sight. While almost all of those interviewed preferred jobs that would allow them to get a good night’s rest, for most, mobility into the daylight hours was much more of a distant dream than a forthcoming reality.

Within the context of the article, Vellaringattu stands out. The only woman interviewed, her story highlights the night shift as a solution, not a (real or perceived) segue. It was part of a family strategy she devised with her husband, Tom. In the article, she describes how “Tom and I worked together—he would give baths to the children, cook the meals and clean up after dinner.” Her husband adds, “This is our solution to the child care . . .

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