When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration

When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration

When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration

When Women Come First: Gender and Class in Transnational Migration


With a subtle yet penetrating understanding of the intricate interplay of gender, race, and class, Sheba George examines an unusual immigration pattern to analyze what happens when women who migrate before men become the breadwinners in the family. Focusing on a group of female nurses who moved from India to the United States before their husbands, she shows that this story of economic mobility and professional achievement conceals underlying conditions of upheaval not only in the families and immigrant community but also in the sending community in India. This richly textured and impeccably researched study deftly illustrates the complex reconfigurations of gender and class relations concealed behind a quintessential American success story.

When Women Come First explains how men who lost social status in the immigration process attempted to reclaim ground by creating new roles for themselves in their church. Ironically, they were stigmatized by other upper class immigrants as men who needed to "play in the church" because the "nurses were the bosses" in their homes. At the same time, the nurses were stigmatized as lower class, sexually loose women with too much independence. George's absorbing story of how these women and men negotiate this complicated network provides a groundbreaking perspective on the shifting interactions of two nations and two cultures.


Immigration is the great American drama, assimilation and upward mobility its great dream. But you won’t find these dreams in Sheba George’s moving tale of emigration from Kerala, India, to the United States. Hers is a narrative of continuing connection back to communities of origin— visitations on the occasion of birth, marriage, or death; the exchange of kith and kin (parents, children, and spouses); the flow of material aid and gifts; visual memories in photographs and homemade videos; and frequent phone calls and, increasingly, electronic mail, not to mention the old-fashioned letter. (Kerala, after all, has the highest literacy rate in India.) Sheba George focuses on the families, divided and unified in the process of transplantation, and how they create a Kerala of their own in Central City that is still tightly bound to the Kerala of India. Her ethnographic eye dwells on the different spheres of life in the United States— work, home, and community—on their interrelations and their internal composition, rather than on their degree of absorption into the wider United States.

To conduct ethnographic research is to continually revisit the people one is studying. But as Sheba George does so, she also nostalgically revisits her own childhood. When Sheba was ten, her mother departed for the United States to ply her nursing skills, leaving Sheba and her two younger brothers in the gentle care of their father. Two years later they would be reunited with their mother in a new land. When Women Come First uncovers the sociological meaning of this journey.

Sheba spent a year and a half in Central City interviewing, observing, and participating in the community created by an unusual migration . . .

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