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Academic Research > Diaspora/Migration > “Women Staying Behind in Kythera as a Major Drive for Men’s Emigration to Australia. Changing Roles within the Split Migration Household”

Academic Research > Diaspora/Migration

submitted by Nicholas Glytsos on 01.10.2006

“Women Staying Behind in Kythera as a Major Drive for Men’s Emigration to Australia. Changing Roles within the Split Migration Household”

“Women Staying Behind in Kythera as a Major Drive for Men’s Emigration to Australia. Changing Roles within the Split Migration Household”

Dr Nicholas P. Glytsos
Researcher Emeritus of Economics

Center of Planning and Economic Research
Athens, Greece


Men’s emigration to Australia, before and after the Second World War, would not be possible if women (wives and daughters) could not replace the role and activities of the departing husband, son or brother, inside and out of the usually large household. This new role of women brought about considerable changes in the running and the sustenance of household and in its attitudes vis-à-vis the micro-social environment of the village or the island at large. It generated various economic and social difficulties and problems for the household, at least during the first years of men’s emigration. The present paper purports to bring into surface and analyse various dimensions of the new regime of the split migrant household and pinpoint some broader economic and social consequences for Kythera.

1. Introduction

The first male Greek in Australia arrived, according to oral sources, in Sydney in 1802, while the first woman arrived with her husband in 1835. A major influx of Greeks started to arrive in 1851, attracted by the hope of digging gold. Then more than 100 years later, in 1952, which is the year of the start of post-war emigration, a Greek-Australian agreement was signed, which led to the large flows of Australian government assisted Greek emigrants of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
These emigrants consisted originally in large proportions by single men, since the Greek government did not allow the emigration of unmarried women. But in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, single women started to move to Australia to straighten the previous gender imbalance in favour of men. They started to move in such large numbers that the ships transferring them were named the “bride ships”. These developments suggest that for quite a long time wives, daughters and sisters were staying behind and the men were emigrating.

The number of women applicants (from everywhere, I presume except Greece) for emigrating to Australia has been rising in the last decade or so, from 40 per cent of the “principal applicants” in 1990 to 51.6 per cent of the arrivals in 2002 (Inglis, 2003). One reason for this rise in women emigration to Australia was, as it is put, “erosion of traditional social constraints on these women in their countries of origin”, i.e. elimination of factors limiting women to domestic roles, while the husbands were unconstrained to emigrate. Migration decisions are considered by some as involving also the wives in the framework of a family strategy for raising its welfare, which could also include the emigration of daughters for the purpose of marriage.

2. Theoretical Issues and Empirical Findings

From an economic point of view, one aspect of transnational migration is the relations sustained between host and home countries and how they affect the respective economies. In recent years, considerable research is taking place regarding women in migration. However, this research investigates the situation of migrant women, their discrimination in host countries, and their roles in the household and the labour market in the host country. The changing roles of women and their contribution to the household and the local economy of the home country in split households are not so much studied. This is the case even of current migration and much less in previous periods of time when economies and societies of home countries were quite different and the role of women confined mostly to the household activities.

The departure of the husband has a bearing on the labour supply of the stay-behind-wife and vice versa, in case the wife is emigrating and the husband stays home, which is often the case of today’s emigration of Eastern Europeans to the West and to Greece and Kythera. The literature contents that this impact on the economy is materialised through two mechanisms: the income effect of the husband’s remittances and the conjugal home time effect, operating by way of the child care and leisure effect (Cabegin, 2006). Remittances raise the wife’s shadow price of home time and the reservation wage to go out in the labour market or to stay there if she already participates. But remittances may also work in the opposite direction, i.e. motivate the household to turn to production for the market. Empirical analysis would determine the actual direction of particular cases (Caberin, 2006, referring also to Stark, 1991).

At a different level of analysis, anthropologists examine the “dynamics of power relationships” when men migrate and women stay behind in the home country (Boyd and Grieco, 2003). The distribution of power within the families changes through the new economic and social responsibilities undertaken by the wife when the husband emigrates. The wife now has a greater authority and has a decisive saying in the household decisions and a strong hand in managing household resources (Boyd and Grieco, 2003).

According to some writers, the role of women in split families is very crucial, constituting the “invisible backbone” of the migration process, because “they make men’s migration possible and ensure its continuity across space and time” (Kanaiaupuni, 2000). The different roles of women staying behind depend on the social structure and the system of the traditional roles of women within the family and in the labour market (ibid.).

This situation appears to be reversed when we see women from Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) moving to the West and even to Kythera for work, leaving back home husbands and children. This kind of immigration is referred to by the name of “care drain”, which is different from the “Brain Drain” so much discussed in the past and even more recently, especially in relation to CEEC, which are loosing their scientists who emigrate to the West (O’Neil, 2003: 2).

Actually, the situation concerning the migrating – male or female - members of the family is mixed depending on nationality. According to a survey in 2000 in Greece, all married Indians are in Greece without their wives, and in the same situation are found 78 per cent of Pakistanis and the 55 per cent of Egyptian immigrants. In contrast, cases of married women immigrating to Greece and leaving behind their husbands are 69 per cent of Ukrainian, 67 per cent of Bulgarians and a lower 44 per cent of Philippine women (Cavounidis, 2003: 90). This kind of women immigration to Greece, but also to Kythera, is naturally the opposite of what happened in the 1940’s and 1950’s, with the migration of Kytherian males to Australia.

One important question put by researchers is the endurance of such split households over time. Theoretically, this is examined through micro- level studies considering split households as “a ‘survival’ of risk diversification strategy” (Arizpe 1981; Massey et al. 1987). Relevant micro-analysis of today’s Mexico indicates with respect to women of split families “a complicated picture of strength, endurance and initiative, and at the same time, women’s subordinate status in a patriarchal society” (Kanaiaupuni, 2000). For many women in poor households this kind of additional and different responsibilities from their traditional activities were unwanted and worsened rather than improved their social situation.

The survey on Mexico has shown the concern of many women working outside the home of being “stigmatized as unprotected women vulnerable to gossip and innuendo” (Kanaiaupuni, 2000). Women who stay behind with husbands abroad undertake larger economic and familial responsibilities (UN, 2005). For Mexican households, the departure of the husband is disruptive and creates short –run economic hardship in the family. For alleviating this situation, Mexican women had to get out in the labour market and undertake paid work. (Kanaiaupuni and Donato 1999).

3. The Case of Greece and Kythera

Up to the Second World War, the Greek immigrants in Australia were overwhelmingly male. Thus, in 1947, the ratio of males to females was 287:100. Only by 1981 they were almost equal, i.e. 106:100 (Community Profiles, 1994:4). Until the signing of the bilateral agreement between Greece and Australia in 1952, about 78 per cent of Greek emigrants in Australia were men (Tamis, 2004:68). Even in the case that the left behind wives emigrated to meet their husbands, the migrant families stayed often apart for long periods of time, especially in the earlier migration era. Before the Second World War, the separation was exceptionally long and in certain cases it could reach even 40 years (Tamis, 1994: 18, 2002: 143). During the period 1952-1955, the time of large emigration of dependants to Australia from Kythera, was emigration for family reunification, legitimized by the so called, on the island, “invitation”, sponsored by family members who had already emigrated (Tamis, 1994: 115, referring to Benyei, 1960: 75ff).

If the situation of women of split families is hard in modern times, as we saw above for Mexico, imagine how much worse was 50-60 years ago for Greece and how even much graver was for Kytherian women, given the economic and social constraints they were facing in undertaking their new roles and keeping the family at a dissent economic level and social pride. In contrast to mainland Greece or other large islands where the economy was diversified and the social conditions not so severely constrained, the secluded very conservative Kytherian micro-society and the one track economy (agriculture) allowed very narrow limits for the left behind wife to support her family and protect it against unfair and unfounded negative “social criticism” and malicious gossip.

Imagine an isolated and secluded island that Kythera was at that time, with no electricity (in its most part), no telephones, no newspapers, no radio – not to say anything about TV – no communication with the outside world – only a boat from Piraeus once a week weather permitting – no knowledge of how life was outside the island. Living inside these high walls, Kythera seemed to Kytherians as the Center of the World – may be not my little village Dokana, but Chora or Potamos certainly were. Anything else outside the island and especially outside Greece, was out of any imagination and out of reach, mentally, but also physically, as Australia; so far away that it could be in another planet, considering in particular that the time distance to Australia was about a month by boat, which was then the means of transportation. How much different this was from today’s easy communication and the periodic personal contacts of the family at both ends of the migration route.

The economic situation of the island was no better. The only vital sectors were agriculture and husbandry mostly for self-consumption. Other production sectors (tourism was not invented yet) practically did not exist and neither were there any other employment outlets outside the small family farm, not even a market for handicrafts that women of the household could produce at home. Thus, the possibility of working in some other activity was extremely limited. This led to the development of rudimentary atypical networking, usually among relatives and neighbours working with a system of reciprocity – I work 5 days for you and you work 5 days for me. This way, the wife could cope with the absence of the husband from the farm.

This was the place that Kytherians lived before the war and up at least to the mid-1950’s and in this environment had the left behind wife to undertake her new additional responsibilities and make a living for her usually large family, until checks from the husband started to arrive, which would often take quite a long time. Particularly difficult was the often long intervening period from the departure of the husband until remittances started arriving. Once in Australia the husband had to spend
quite some time to settle to some relatively stable job and a longer time to work for repaying his travel expenses, which sometimes took years.

Some of them, as Nick Poulos, who went to Australia in 1951 at the age of 12 1/2 years worked, as he himself said, 5 years 18 hours a day 7 days a week to pay for his fare . Although Poulos was not an adult at the time, his case indicates the long period of work required for the migrant to be able to start sending checks to the family at home. Remittances partially relieved the wife from the financial strains and responsibilities, at least to the extent that the money was adequate to cover the expenses of the household, but all other social and attitudinal responsibilities and restrictions were there.

Three, and sometimes four, generations of women were, one way or another, psychologically, socially and economically affected, by emigration of the husband or other male members of the family to Australia, or to other overseas countries. The grandmother (yiayia) was going through a severe psychological strain. Being usually of some advanced age, when waving farewell to her son or grandson, or her daughter, she believed in her mind and felt in her heart that this was the last time that she laid eyes on them, and she was usually right.

Then there comes the second generation, as a wife or a mother. Although she also went through a strong emotional pressure, her situation was psychologically less pessimistic, hoping and looking forward to a future family reunification in Kythera or Australia, as the case might be. The first family disruption coming with the departure of the father was not the only one, since the emigration of other members of the family would in time create additional family disturbances, perhaps emotionally more painful than the first one when the mother was deprived of her sons and daughters, sometimes as young as 12 years of age, moving to Australia.

It is impressive to mention in this context that out of the 27 kids that we were going to school from my little village of Dokana, 17 emigrated to Australia and 2 to the USA, whereas 7 of my cousins went to Australia and the USA. And this was not a special or unique case; it was rather the rule for most of the families in Kythera. The chain migration from father –to son- to brother and so on, depopulated whole communities. The elderly Kytherians with close relatives in Australia express often their sad feelings that emigration separated families for ever (Glytsos, 2004).

The youngest generation, represented by the daughter was also strongly affected. She might have to be deprived of her schooling, more than the male members of the family, because the family could not spare her work in the family farm or the money needed for her education. Furthermore, it could be difficult for her to get married in Kythera without a dowry, particularly if forthcoming remittances from Australia were delayed or were inadequate to accumulate a dissent dowry. Finding herself in an impasse, she yielded, sometimes reluctantly, to the family pressure to take the “bride ship” to a pre-arranged marriage in Australia, hoping to make her life economically more comfortable, but perhaps psychologically miserable, and if she was lucky enough perhaps pleasant or even happy.

It is interesting to note that among the reasons referred to for emigration to Australia, and elsewhere was “the dowry system, forcing not only brothers and fathers to emigrate by also some females”. (Tamis, 2004: 28). This means that either the male members of the family had to emigrate to keep the female from emigrating or if that was not possible and the female could not get married in Kythera, she would move to the dowry-free land of Australia. (Tamis, 2002: 143).

The patriarch family before the departure of the husband turned into a matriarch family after his leaving. The difficulty, rather the impossibility, of close communication of the husband with his family to exercise his patriarchal role, rendering his wife simply his representative for implementing his orders coming from Australia, allowed the wife to be “emancipated”. The daughters, however, had to be subject to more limitations for social reasons and to “subordinate” eventually willy-nilly to the wishes of the family to take the bride ship. In this respect, the situation of Greek women, and even more Kytherian women, in split households was difficult in the pre-war period but even in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Under these conditions, in the case of the Greek migration of that period, the wife had a rather free hand in running the household and assuming an executive role in the family affairs whether she liked it or not.

Concluding, in my view, the wife left behind was undertaking three kinds of responsibilities with focus on the household and its welfare: (a) managing the household in all its activities; (b) adopting an appropriate behavior and attitudes to the neighboring society and (c) fulfilling her responsibilities towards the husband abroad. She had to manage the household and take care of its internal issues regarding work outside the household, but within its domain, i.e working in the own fields, work in the open labour market, should the occasion presented, decide on issues of children’s education etc.

The attitudes of the family members towards the world outside the household concern the behavior in the small surrounding society, regarding human relations, participation in gatherings and local feasts, entertainment, etc. In the absence of the husband and father, particularly if their was no elder son of some age, the female family members became vulnerable to gossip and could be exposed to offensive behavior, in a period of very conservative views on the male-female relations and austere traditional morals. To avoid this exposure, and for the purpose of eliminating any potentially misconceived public appearance, the family had to be withdrawn to itself, limiting its social activities, e.g. going out to social gatherings, feasts, speak out in the open with persons that were not of the closed family or the immediate neighborhood.

This was necessary for exorcising any malicious gossiping for the female members of the household, mainly herself. She stayed more behind closed doors, so to speak, developing for its own protection what I call a “snail attitude”. Finally, the responsibilities towards the husband can be summarized in the “Penelope waiting for Ulysses to return” attitude.

Because all the above described burdens and responsibilities undertaken by wives, as a result of husbands’ emigration, which was made possible by the decision of the wives to substitute for his role in the family, the UN characterised these women as “unacknowledged heroines in the larger migration agenda of families” (UN 2005).


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