Book Review: Melissa W. Wright’s Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism

By Laura Schroeder

With the feminization of labor that has occurred in recent years, it is vital to examine the interplay between labor, gender, and globalization. In the book Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism, the human geographer and feminist Melissa W. Wright effectively argues that in today’s global economy, the myth that the third world woman1  is disposable is pervasive. This ethos is tied to a culture of violence that normalizes the mistreatment of women and permits their dismissal and delegitimization in the public sphere. Using ethnographic research and a variety of theoretical frameworks, Wright presents the reader with an intricate and passionate account of the spatialized and corporeal aspects of factory work in the global South. However, a more detailed exploration of how workers perceive their own value and labor as well as a more committed examination of coalition-building and global solidarity would further strengthen her claims.

Wright draws from Marxism, poststructuralist feminism, and postcolonial theory in order to ground her research. While it is evident that the author has combined a handful of independently-focused research projects into a single work, her overarching argument encompasses these seemingly disparate and diverse areas of study. A few thematically organized sections support the main argument that the myth of the third world woman as disposable is profoundly embedded in the global capitalist system. In the first section, Wright discusses the phenomenon she labels “factory fathers and disposable daughters.” Framing themselves as paternal protectors, the factory managers in a Chinese facility control the bodies and mobility of their female labor force and perpetuate a system of high labor turnover. The author then moves to an exploration of the female worker in Mexico, arguing that she can be likened to a prosthetic controlled and directed by a masculine brain. Finally, Wright examines both the literal and corporate wasting of the Mexican woman before analyzing feminist border politics, social movements, and individuals that subvert current power structures.

Employing ethnographic research methods, Wright’s observations, interviews, and research give her authority and a critical lens through which to explore this topic. She provides a brief discussion of her methodology, including a statement of reflexivity that recognizes how her own identities and subjectivity may have altered her interactions with interviewees and her research results. She also takes care to identify her research’s methodological shortcomings and to state that she does not hope to generalize; rather, in focusing on the nuances of specific contexts, she was able to identify a few salient phenomena in order to support an argument that reflects both local and global perspectives and a diverse array of actors.

Despite this, in deconstructing the myth of the disposable third world woman, Wright omits, for the most part, the perspectives of the workers themselves. While Wright readily admits that it was difficult to interview workers due to language constraints in China and issues of accessibility and factory management in both China and Mexico,2 in discussing the views of managers at facilities for much of the book and only briefly exploring workers’ conceptions of their jobs and identities within the global capitalist system, she weakens the claim that both managers and workers see themselves as disposable. She states that it is her intention to explore women’s disruption of the myth of disposability;3 however, she only superficially examines their perception of their own disposability, making parts of the book seem tenuously connected and inconsistent. There is, at times, a strange isolation of the discussion of factory owners from that of factory workers, and only a brief examination of the complex set of interactions between these two groups. Beginning with Chapter 5, Wright does describe the social dynamics of her sites of study along the US/Mexico border, providing thick descriptions of how gender and racial and ethnic identity affect promotions and perceptions of disposability. Applying such observations and conclusions to other sections of her examination of the disposable woman could fortify her claims.

Additionally, Wright’s claims could be supported by a brief discussion of factory-specific activist efforts and an analysis of the links between producers and consumers along with building global solidarity.4 While Wright claims to address the “many ways that the myth [of disposability] was resisted by workers and activists,”5 she does not address efforts of female factory workers to organize or build coalitions in depth, although she does briefly recognize that she is “certain that the myth of the disposable third world woman exposes the dire need for forming alliances between the consumers and the producers of global capitalist goods.”6 Instead, her discussion of activism addresses the killings of disappearances of young women along the US/Mexico border. Although the myth of the disposability of the third world woman underlies much of this violence, it would perhaps be more coherent to root a discussion of its subversion in a factory. Themes such as freedom of assembly, maternity leave, and attempts at factory activism would build on Wright’s study of factory dress codes and the gendered and spatialized division of tasks at facilities.

Melissa W. Wright’s Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism effectively argues that the myth of the disposable third world woman perpetuates and reproduces the power structures embedded within world capitalism. Despite this, a worker perspective on her own views on disposability and the value of labor is missing from this discussion, as it favors the managerial perspective. Further, Wright’s claims would be strengthened in addressing factory-specific subversion and an analyzing the often obscured relationships between producers and consumers. Regardless, Wright’s work, anchored in diverse theoretical approaches and situated in close to a decade of ethnographic research, ultimately furthers the discourse surrounding the role of third world women in the world capitalist system and provides us with a direction for further research on how to fight the myth of the disposable third world woman and the harm it causes across the globe.

1 Wright notes that she is “unable to evade the pitfalls of linguistic representation” in using this term but recognizes its problematic binary usage (14). For the sake of consistency and clarity, I also use this term here.
2 Pages 10-12.
3 Page 9.
4Wright does admit: “How to create a politics or coalition that confronts the myth is a question that I cannot fully answer, even though I stress the imperative for doing so” (14).
5Page 11, paragraph 2.
6Page 15, paragraph 2.

Wright, Melissa W. Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2006.