In concluding, I want to glance at what happened to domestic service and housework between 1945 and 1980 from the perspective of the late 1980s, to assess how household work is done now, and to offer a vision of what housework might become. I hope to clarify how the issues of the book remain alive for us to confront.
As the end of World War II approached, middle-class housewives around the United States began to hope that women workers would leave industrial jobs for domestic service. Peace, they wistfully assumed, would bring domestics back into the home as well as the boys back from overseas. Through local private community organizations and public employment offices and schools, MCHs sought to attract and persuade domestic workers to return to service.
Some MCHs expected servants to return to live-in status, but most recognized, as Katherine Davis, chair from 1940 to 1945 of the National Committee on Household Employment, put it, that “household servants are gone forever.” Instead, housewives should expect to do more of their own housework (which they had leaned to do during the war) and to hire live-out, part-time, or specialized domestic services. Even if a housewife got a full-time worker, she would, said Katherine Davis, work only “an 8-hour shift [so] she won’t be there at both ends of the day—to get [the] husband’s breakfast and see the children off to school and to serve dinner and wash up afterwards.” Most likely, the worker would come part-time, three days a week, or every morning or afternoon to do such tasks as cleaning, making beds, and preparing evening meals.1
The U. S. Women’s Bureau began planning before the war’s end for conversion of women’s jobs, including the issue of how to keep the improved wages and working conditions gained by domestics during the war. “Bettering conditions in this field [was] definitely women’s responsibility—with women constituting most of the workers and most of the employers.” In March 1946, the bureau held a conference on household employment and initiated a survey of community actions. Once again, the bureau encouraged local groups and the U.S. Employment Service to propagandize for voluntary compliance with set wages and hours.2
Across the South, where black women workers had few options, public schools persisted in matching federal funds to pay for evening courses in vocational fields relevant to women employed in domestic service. Though the great majority of these school programs were for black workers, a few schools for working-class whites in the Midwest and around the employment magnet of New York City offered courses in housework and home management for women employed in domestic service.3 Puerto Rican women also had limited job opportunites and responded to employment agencies in Chicago and New York, which recruited them in 1945.
In some large cities, where domestic workers had typically been most in demand, local employer committees combined with the YWCA, the National Urban League, and the state Employment Services to “call back” the domestic, as the St. Louis project put it. Public meetings were held in which MCHs spelled out their goals and domestics and their representatives laid out their demands.
In a remarkable exchange in St. Louis, housewives listened to a session called “Worker Speaks,” in which domestics
described their dissatisfaction, such as the lack of respect implied in the employer’s use of their given name; they wanted to be addressed by their surname. . . . They wanted a regular time schedule, such as other workers enjoyed, so that they too would be able to plan lives of their own. They pointed out that they also had families and outside interests. They did not want to be referred to as “servants” or “maids,” nor should they be expected to use the “back door” entrance, especially at night.
Employers wanted the women to work, but some were annoyed at “the question of front or back door entrance as ‘mere quibbling’ and said it was straining a point to attempt to choose a name for a ‘domestic’”4
Despite employers’ lack of empathy, economic and social circumstances favored the reduced number of domestics. Down to 9.5 percent of all women workers by 1944, this group could hope that committees of employers would work to reduce hours and raise wages. Local committees set standards for live-in domestics, but they also adopted wage scales for daily and hourly work.
Presbyterian church women issued a pamphlet, Martha in the Modern Age (1945), to encourage followers to pay “either the minimum rate set up by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act or ‘prevailing wages paid in other occupations which require an equal amount of training or skill,’—whichever is the higher and overtime pay in excess of 40 . . . hours.”5 The National Board of the YWCA agreed to have its local committees cooperate with offices of the U.S. Employment Service to match up Y workers and employers and to survey and report local conditions. Community boards in many cities formulated voluntary codes for their membership and colluded with employment services to inform the general public about them. In Akron, Ohio, for instance, though the USES could not specify hours and wages, it “permit[ed] the USES representative to explain to the prospective employer the existing labor market situation, including comparative wages, hours, and other working conditions [that competed for worker placement].”6
Efforts to get workers into Social Security and for their inclusion under state wage, hour, and workmen’s compensation laws intensified. Economic circumstances that moved household workers into day work at better than minimum wage rates rendered wage and hour limits moot. Old age and retirement insurance remained an issue, however, until the 1950 amendments (effective January 1951) to the Social Security Act. Even this coverage was effective only for women working regular part-time hours, “employed by a single employer for at least 24 days in a calendar quarter [at least twice a week] with cash wages of at least $50 for service in the quarter.”7 Similar limitations were placed on workmen’s compensation, which applied to employers with more than one worker and hiring workers for regular, fulltime jobs.
In proposing the 1939 amendments, the Social Security Advisory Board unsuccessfully recommended that domestic workers be covered by unemployment insurance. New York State covered workers in households with four or more workers in 1936, but, except for Hawaii, until the 1970s, all other states followed the federal guidelines in excluding domestic workers. In 1965, New York State dropped the four-person rule and covered any household with a “cash payroll of $500 or more in a calendar quarter,” which brought about one-fourth of New York’s domestic workers into the system. By 1976, only Arkansas and the District of Columbia had added domestic workers to unemployment coverage. In that year, Congress approved amendments that added an estimated 308,000 out of approximately 1.4 million domestic workers through a federal requirement that states cover employers with a payroll of $600 or more in a calendar quarter. This most recent reform was designed to leave out the majority of domestic workers because the dollar amount “was arrived at as a means of excluding from coverage the householder who employed primarily one person for 1 day a week.”8 In 1988, day workers remained unprotected against unemployment.
Efforts to improve their legal status during the 1940s and 1950s did not enhance the social standing of domestics, as was symbolized in the failure to change the occupation’s name. Though the YWCA had used the term house-hold worker throughout the 1930s and the Women’s Bureau used household employment by the end of 1940s maid had become the popular name, used even in USES documents. Though avoiding painful associations with servitude, maid nevertheless retained images of immaturity, inferiority, and somewhat laborious service. Only in the 1960s, after pressure from the civil rights movement and renewed organization of domestic workers in a new version of the National Committee on Household Employment did maid give way to general houseworker and cleaning woman.
Housewives were unwilling to raise the status of maids but continued to postulate a world in which they were plentiful. In the postwar era of high expectations for home life and of larger families, families sought “help to aid the hard-pressed mother of young children, or to assist with the care of invalid or aged members, or to release the homemaker for some other type of work which she can fruitfully do in her community.” As married women continued to move into paid employment, albeit primarily in part-time work, they needed help with chores that could not be turned over to machines. Even “power laundries and ‘dydee wash’ [diaper service went] just so far, but [left] much to be done to keep clothes and linens clean. [And] eating all meals out or from containers sent into the home [was] a possibility for some but not a probability for all families.”9
Despite need and some local efforts, women with any job alternatives left domestic work. By the 1950 census, only 8.4 percent of the female labor force remained in the occupation. Only when middle-class housewives themselves had to do most of the work did they begin to perceive the design of housework as an isolating and hard job.
In the fifteen years after World War II during which households increased in size, became more isolated from each other and from outside services in suburban developments, and lost access to domestics in a decreasingly segregated labor market, MCHs struggled to meet the standards that had developed earlier in the twentieth century. Badgered to produce three, four, or even five children and berated by magazines and commentators about their duties as housekeepers and as wives and mothers, many women struggled through the 1950s. The houses got cleaned, the children were ferried to their doctor appoinments and music lessons, and husbands were provided with spotlessly clean shirts. But the tinder was being laid for the fiery outburst proclaimed in The Feminine Mystique (1963) and for its rapid spread through the eager hands of suburban housewife readers.
When Betty Friedan described in the book the “problem that has no name” of the educated, suburban housewife as boredom, isolation, and waste of intellect, she appeared to suggest that the complaint was not with housework but with the class of women expected to do it. Housework, Friedan implied, was dreary stuff that might best be done by working-class women (or men) with low job expectations; as an occupation for talented women, it was insufferable. The time had come, she asserted, for sophisticated women to give up the pretense that domestic tasks were sufficiently congenial and absorbing to fill up an adult existence.
Paradoxically, the other critique to emerge from the 1950s was a recognition of how demanding housework was, an analysis middle-class women discovered when they, like working-class women earlier in the century, began to take care of homes and to hold paid jobs. Not many of these women responded with political protest. But like their predecessors, they used their superior economic position to hire day workers to do part of the household labor. For some such women in the 1950s and 1960s, decreasing employment discrimination made it possible to remain responsible for housework while escaping suburban isolation. Their incomes were large enough to buy services and household work or to negotiate with husbands to help with part of the work.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s spawned numerous analyses of how privatized, female-centered housework functioned to maintain women’s isolation and men’s power in the public arena. A generation of women tried to resocialize men to share burdens of child care, cooking, and cleaning. Experiments to shift the work’s locus and gender were short-lived, however, and many women radicals resumed responsibilities for child care and housework.10 By the end of the 1970s, analysts focused on the “double day,” which, not surprisingly, weighed more heavily on working-class than on middle-class women.
The conservative reaction of the 1980s, institutionalized through the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, sought the revitalization of housewifery as a main objective.11 Marriage and motherhood were women’s primary roles, according to such conservative spokesmen as George Gilder and some of the contibutors to the monthly magazine Commentary; only devoted women could adequately care for children, the elderly, and hardworking men. The resurgence of family motifs in popular and academic culture affected even the political Left, which sought to recapture working-class images of supportive, extended families for the support of socialists and the Democratic Party’s left wing (seen on national television in Mario Cuomo’s “The Party Is a Family, the Nation Is a Family” speech at the 1984 San Francisco convention).12
Despite various suggestions for reform, in the 1980s housework remains the primary responsibility of adult women. Working-class women find that their housework is no easier and their paid jobs, often in the service sector, are low paid. Middle-class women remain responsible for their housework and use substantial parts of their paychecks to cover dependent care, cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
Many of the services women now buy are performed commercially. Child care centers, nursing homes, home health aid providers for the disabled and elderly, fast food restaurants, caterers, and cleaning companies offer these specialized services for prices sufficient to attract large corporations into these businesses. Office spaces where adults spend most of their lives are cleaned by crews directed by large companies. Only among rich families or the well-to-do with two income earners do households expect to hire someone to take over some of the wife’s household responsibilities. Most of the work except housecleaning is done outside the home and by crews of workers.
What has not changed in these services is the compensation and character of the labor force. The majority of workers in these industries are female; the labor force is heavily immigrant and nonwhite; and, though a tight labor market keeps wages well above the federal minimum wage (itself in decline relative to average wages), benefits and protections are lacking. The same picture holds in private household employment. Day workers essentially work on a contract to perform certain tasks, usually to standards they set themselves—and often without supervision because the employer is at her paid job. Sociologist Mary Romero has described this process in detail and concludes that contemporary household workers (who do “housekeeping” and not “maid’s” work) have restructured the job from wage work to a petty bourgeois craft job; they have improved their daily work routine but not its benefits.13 They rarely get Social Security, paid vacations, or annual raises; nor do they have health insurance, which U.S. health policy ties to regular employment in large companies.
Coupled with the continued low value of housework and its related tasks is the resurgence of nostalgia for home life of the 1950s.14 One response to a growing sense that Americans do not eat well—because of environmentally polluted food, ingestion of excessive cholesterol, teenage anxiety, and busy family schedules that disrupt meals—are calls for a return to home-prepared meals to salvage Americans’ physical and emotional health. Daily newspapers carry food sections. In a long Washington Post article, “The Late, Great Art of Cooking” (June 1, 1988), a nutritionist insisted on the connection between home cooking and nurturance: “When people reject food preparation, they lose an opportunity to nurture others”: “It’s an inherent part of women to be nurturers. I think that they need this nurturing to maintain their humanity.” Nurturance, in this account, requires spending a great deal of time on food shopping, preparation, and serving.
Instead of attributing responsibility to farmers, food processors, manufacturers, and advertisers—all of whom profit from food—experts demand that women oversee their families’ well-being by finding healthy food products, preparing food so that nutrition is not lost, and serving food in such a way that family members feel neither undernourished nor overstuffed and do not “assuage bad feelings [with the] tremendous amount of high calorie food readily available.”15 In this scenario, women’s task is to maintain a healthy household against assaults from large and well-financed businesses. One favorite example is supermarkets in which one check-out gate out of eleven self-righteously proclaims that it does not feature candy so as to protect adults from importunate, advertiser-prompted children’s demands. Such a solution makes full sense only in a culture with fantasies of perfectly run, clean, and cosseted homes, in which mothers are believed to be so powerful that they can guard families against external contamination.
Similar attempts to recenter responsibility on overworked women can be seen in proposals concerning child care and dependent care. Since these services are expensive to hire, other proposals would give families financial incentives to keep someone out of the labor force to provide care within the home. (Women are never specified as the “someone,” but they nearly always are.) As a presidential candidate in 1988, George Bush suggested a plan that would credit families with preschool children through the tax system. Households would not necessarily have to hire child care; they could simply claim the money to “pay” the mother for staying home. These solutions carry the same problems for housewife–workers that domestics have always remarked: they isolate women, require long hours of work, and include no security for retirement (or divorce, which is a form of unemployment for the full-time housewife). They make sense only in light of nostalgic versions of the twentieth-century history of wives’ household responsibilities, which, in reality, inevitably entailed exploitation of the wife or a servant.
What is to be done? Can we care for people without condemning women to isolating, low-status work, whether performed for love or for wages?
A first step is to accept that taking care of one’s physical needs, except for the chronically disabled, is a basic adult responsibility not to be foisted onto others. Mahatma Gandhi realized that the idea that no man is too great to clean up after himself is revolutionary. Since much of the feeling of greatness (of power) comes from being served, giving up this elixir requires humans to find other sources of self-worth. For men, it may mean confronting bodily realities—dirt, decay, imperfection—that can usually be kept at bay and projected onto women. For women, whose escape from body has always been less successful than men’s, it may mean finding a self-image other than that of the perfect housekeeper, mother, and wife.
To expect all adults to do the work still centered in homes—cleaning, laundry, meal production, and dependent care—would require organizing our days differently. Long hours increasingly demanded by professional life and expected from hourly production workers racking up overtime make sense only in a society that assumes that the toilers have someone else to take care of their basic physical needs. Otherwise, the burden becomes intolerable. Our prevailing assumption is that those able to earn good incomes, whether paid workers, wives, or other household members, go to good jobs, and those with less earning power take care of the daily vicissitudes of life. Demanding that each adult accept some of these chores would go a long way to changing attitudes about life, I suspect, as many protected adults find what unremitting work it takes to sustain and to protect life. A similar lesson was learned by MCHs during World War II, when they had to take over housework and discovered how hard it was when done every day.
Relying on others through purchasing some services is not necessarily exploitation, but consumers must make certain that workers are covered by benefits taken for granted in a civilized society; service work can no longer be treated as domestic employment was before World War II. People who work in service industry jobs in child care, home health visiting, nursing homes, office cleaning crews, and catering and restaurants deserve retirement and health benefits and unemployment insurance. Often female, immigrant, and nonwhite, these workers suffer from the devaluation of their labor and the fact that our regulations were designed for full-time industrial employment.
Everybody was dependent as a child and will become so again in old age; any of us may suffer disability or a harsh illness. Caring for dependent people cannot be simply a female, domestic responsibility. As medical costs of illness have risen, we have moved as a society to cover catastrophic health expenses. Chronic nursing home and in-home care are also being recognized as expensive and essential costs that few families can sustain, either financially or physically. When a family does care for its elderly members, this is usually done by an adult woman, who gives up her job and risks her own retirement well-being. By dint of numbers of votes and their lobbyists, elder Americans are making certain that society in general takes over a larger share of their catatrosphic and chronic care. Admirable in its intent, legislation authorizing this care should, nevertheless, include measures to protect workers who will be paid for supplying hospital and home care.
Child care is a growing problem, and not just because of the increase in the numbers of working mothers. Caring for children has gotten harder, not just because families have to synchronize schedules to get everyone to work, to school, to day care, and back home but because children’s environment has become more hazardous. Certainly, Michael Dukakis’s proposals for state-supported child care centers that meet standards of excellence is valid in not putting all responsibility on mothers.
Even more important is a belief that society at large is responsible for safe streets for children to play in, high-quality libraries and schools for them to learn to read in, and nutritious food merchandised to children. In poor neighborhoods of cities like Washington, D.C., even the best of mothers cannot protect children from the stray bullets of drug dealers; that requires taxes for adequate police and employment programs to offer drug users a different way to live.
When we remember the 1950s only as the era of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” and attribute their happy childhoods to their mothers’ presence in kitchens cooking good food, we forget that other children suffered deprivation from racial discrimination and poverty—misfortunes that were eased, but not erased, by mothers’ nurturance.
Black domestic workers, for instance, could only ward off some blows society struck against their children during the 1940s and 1950s. In his speech to the 1988 Democratic Convention, Jesse Jackson concluded with an image of his mother going to her housework job with runs in her stockings so that he and his brother could attend school in new socks without holes in them. His mother’s attentiveness spared him some embarrassment but did not ease the shame of her sacrifice.
Children are a national asset and need to be treated as such. So long as we hold unquestioningly and absolutely to the legend of mothers’ magical powers to cleanse, nourish, and protect, however, we are likely to adopt programs that leave the private household as the unsupported and overstrained guarantor of health and development. And because no single adult can provide all the advantages and care needed, in our cultural unconscious “good mothers” will continue to be those whose class, race, and education enable them to hire the labor of poorer, less powerful women.
During the era between world wars, images of well-educated, beautiful women who, with blithe enthusiasm, devoted their whole intelligence and energy to making life comfortable dominated the culture. These images, however, in themselves somewhat illusory, hid the reality of exploitation of other women, less powerful and unable to create counterimages of their work and lives. These conditions are being replicated today, as a large group of service workers take over those tasks that better-off women can hire out. It is time to recognize the underside of the nation’s domestic past and to build a future in which no work is hidden and no labor invisible.