Education for the Vocation of Housework
Home economics training serves a double function,—it prepares for an income-earning occupation and also for a woman’s own life needs. . . . The returned [World War I] soldier will demand that many occupations, now taken over by women, be given back to him, but at no time can he replace the woman who is well trained in home economics.
—Henrietta W. Calvin, Home Economics Courses for Girls and Young Women, 1918
The U.S. federal government and local state and municipal governments did not coerce girls to choose domestic work as a vocation. There was no need. Young women were surrounded by familial and cultural pressures to become housewives and household workers; they were effectively closed out of other professional and technical fields. In these circumstances, little coercion was needed to strengthen their choice.
Government programs did, however, spread information and ideas about what housework was and how it should be done. Accepting the social limitations placed on women, government agents, educators, and family experts used public schools and federal funds to teach young women and girls what their jobs were.
Often the experts who designed and purveyed these messages were women. Unlike those feminists who fought women’s assignment to particular work and segregation from the world of men, seeking the improvement and advancement of women, they accepted segregation and sought advancement through accomplishment within a “woman’s field.” This chapter does not consider how well the strategy helped women to gain social equality with men1 but how it led privileged groups of women to design programs and courses that sustained a vision of women as domestic workers and maintained a division of household labor between middle-class housewives and working-class, often nonwhite, domestic workers: a power relationship that persuaded middle-class women to accept their exclusion from centers of male power.2
I distinguish here between the educational, school-based programs that predominated during the 1920s and the work relief and training projects that emerged as part of the New Deal response to the employment emergency of the 1930s. First I focus on the vocational education classes funded by the federal government under the Smith-Hughes Act (1917) and guidance given these courses by the Office of Education. I then turn to work relief and related projects run first by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and then the WPA.
Developing a Woman’s Profession
The most regular source of employment in the United States, paid or unpaid, for all adult women was housework, whether done in their own homes or in those of employers. Many women did both during their lifetimes, either simultaneously or sequentially: working for wages as an adult outside their own households, or working in domestic service until marriage shifted the work to the couple’s household. Domestic work might also be sought at the end of the work life, as the single job available to older women forced into the labor force because of widowhood, divorce, or desertion or the husband’s unemployment. Whatever the cause of women’s economic need, domestic service was an all-purpose solution.
By about 1900, home economics as an educational discipline to train women for this occupation was taking on all the aspects of a certified profession with collegiate-level degree programs, a national association (the American Home Economics Association [AHEA] founded in 1908), journals reporting research, and curriculum developments. Home economics lacked, however, one essential professional criterion: exclusivity.3 Every woman in the society was expected to be able to do some elements of household work, and this universal female expectation excluded men from some claim to work in the field. (Men could, of course, qualify through research and writing, and some did.)
To complete the professionalization of home economics as a female-led scientific field, the leadership had to develop subcategories to create ladders of authority and competence that distinguished women along lines of ability, social position, and respect within the professional associations. Not surprisingly, as in other academic fields, university-based scientists working in laboratories ranked over high school teachers in applied home economics, although the latter were more expert than housewives simply practicing home economics. In contrast to chemistry, biology, physics, and other increasingly arcane sciences of the end of the nineteenth century, however, which separated male scientists’ knowledge from that of ordinary men, all women were expected to know something about the “science” of the home. Home economics had a different task from that of the male-dominated sciences; it had to rank the “amateurs,” as well as establish the professional-amateur distinction. Housewife–employer had to be differentiated from domestic–employee; within the working class, women who performed housework for wages had to be distinguished from housewives who labored for love of home and family. The unassisted housewife was still to reign as the queen of American domestic life,4 even though the image of maternal and wifely service disguised how different this work was for a wife with servants, a wife with no help, and a wife having to do her own as well as another woman’s housework.
Unlike feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who advocated taking specialized tasks such as cooking out of the home and making the home a center for emotional and sexual life, leaders of home economics such as Ellen Swallow Richards (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Martha van Rensselaer (Cornell University), Mary Schenck Woolman (Teachers College, Columbia University, and Simmons College) and Marion Talbot (Wellesley College and University of Chicago) chose to emphasize the home’s economic importance in consumption and human development, reaffirming the need for full-time female labor in the household. Many of these college-educated women were not, however, willing to do housework or to have women like themselves do it. Home economists and women’s club leaders set out to save the home as a center of female professional competence, and in doing so, they emphasized the image of the solitary housewife. Simultaneously, however, they sought to justify middle-class women’s pursuing interests other than housework and to train a class of women to take over the essential manual labor of the home.
Distinctions between housework as wage work, as unwaged work, and as a profession were debated and codified during the 1910s through political debate. Vocational education and teachers’ groups lobbied Congress for federal legislation to provide support for vocational training of American youth. A number of progressive groups, led by the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE, later the National Society for Vocational Education, NSVE), sought congressional funding for state education programs to prepare youth for the complicated skills needed in an industrial society. During the years immediately before and after congressional passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, the meaning of vocational home economics, as well as its content and student population, was heatedly debated.
In general, the American Home Economics Association, composed of collegiate experts in fields such as nutrition, sanitation, textiles, and design, and of middle-class clubwomen and housewives, initially favored not including home economics in a vocational training bill, while the NSPIE, composed of industrial educators, labor economists, and youth workers, did want it included. Labor reformers such as Henrietta Roelofs of the YWCA Committee on Household Employment and home economists in favor of education for wage earning also backed the NSPIE position. These women believed that “non-wage earning occupations in the household, such as are practiced by the wife and mother, should be considered under the subject of vocational homemaking education, and wage-earning occupations in the household . . . should be considered under the subject of vocational industrial education.” Clarifying differences between housewives and servants was “an act of historic importance in the solution of the domestic service problem,” said Roelofs, “for it signified a recognition of domestic service on an industrial basis with all that this involves in standardization of hours, division of labor, etc.”5
Throughout the early 1910s the NSPIE tried to persuade the AHEA to join in congressional lobbying and to assuage the AHEA’s objections. These came from the “academic Home Economics people who felt it was too trade like”; from the “group who believe[d] that the vocational element will ruin ‘the beauties of home life’”; and from those who believed that NSPIE did “not really want to advance Home Economics but to use it as a stepping stone” for industrial education.6
David Snedden, a leader of the NSPIE, may have been willing to give up the exclusive use of funds for training domestic servants because he believed housewives were workers. He boasted at one point that he had been trying for years to get the U.S. Census Bureau to include under “gainfully employed” “the approximately 20 million women who are employed in homes but not for wages, or for direct monetary return.”7 The NSPIE may also have believed that protecting funds for vocational training of working-class girls was less essential than for working-class boys because the girls would be employed only before marriage and did not need as much training as their prospective husbands, who would be employed throughout their adult lives.
Some tentative mutual understanding enabled the NSPIE, AHEA, and other women’s groups to lobby successfully for congressional passage of the Smith-Hughes Act for Vocational Education in 1917. Building on the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 for federal subsidy of rural extension programs in agriculture and home economics, Smith-Hughes provided for funds to be granted to state education authorities to pay one-half the costs for instruction in three vocational fields: agriculture, arts and industries, and home economics, designated simply as “vocational home economics.” Theoretical arguments became practical ones about whether the U.S. Office of Education would authorize expenditures for non–wage-earning homemaking courses, for wage-earning industrial courses, or for both. If money were to be given for homemaking courses, what standards would define “vocational” training as opposed to “household arts” appreciation?
The divisions within and between groups were rarely clarified. Indeed, the Smith-Hughes Act provisions for supporting the training of teachers for vocational home economics gave everyone a reason for being a vocationalist. The act’s effect was to provide federal support for about one-third of public school home economics training, with the remaining two-thirds coming from state and local funds without the requirement that it be for “vocational” training. The act also paid land-grant colleges for training teachers of home economics, a significant incentive for the development of collegiate programs, the primary purpose of which was to train women for teaching.8 These women could have premarriage careers, earn respectable wages, and then be able to care for their own homes at marriage—an ideal mix for middle-class women’s education.9 Despite the rhetoric of the movement, the collegiate programs did train women for work in commercial and mercantile food, decorating, and furniture businesses; by 1928, the Home Economics in Business section of the American Home Economics Association had three hundred members.10
Increased professional opportunities for middle-class women were an immediate consequence of the Smith-Hughes Act, and the division between the American Home Economics Association and the National Society for Vocational Education vanished. By 1920, the two groups and organizations in the women’s lobbying federation, the Joint Congressional Committee, joined forces to seek more funds for home economics, which was allotted only 20 percent of the funds for trade and industrial education in the 1917 legislation. During the 1920 legislative session, they pushed for the Fess Home Economics Amendment to Smith-Hughes, which explicitly recognized homemaking education as vocational under the act’s terms and guaranteed one-third of the allotted funds to home economics work.11
The Fess Amendment failed, and no new funds were authorized by Congress until the passage of the George-Reed Act in 1929, which authorized additional funding through 1934 for Smith-Hughes Act classes and equalized expenditures between vocational education in agriculture and in home economics. The George-Ellzey Act of 1934 raised the funding level and gave equal sums to vocational training in agriculture, trades, and industries and to home economics and was perpetuated by the George-Deen Act in 1937.
Collegiate training in home economics could serve the same functions for black as for white middle-class women, except that for black women, with higher rates of sustained paid employment, normal college support from federal funds and possible professional employment in nutrition, textiles, and dietetics could be guaranteed. The career of Flemmie Kittrell, a 1924 Hampton Institute graduate in home economics with a 1935 Cornell University doctorate in home economics, is one such professional success story. As dean of home economics at Howard University, she developed a field in international nutrition education and became a leader in exporting the knowledge of U.S. schools of home economics to Africa during the establishment of independent African nations.12
Training of teachers followed racial lines, however. Most black women were trained in the southern black colleges, which had developed during Reconstruction to provide basic literacy and job skills for freed slaves. From the time Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded Hampton Institute in 1868 to the death of his intellectual heir Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute, in 1915, “Negro industrial training” was the preferred beneficiary of northern businessmen–philanthropists and southern white school reformers. Hampton, Tuskegee, Fort Valley (Georgia), and Utica (Mississippi) were teacher training colleges (or normal schools, supported by congressional appropriations for Negro land-grant colleges from 1890 on), founded to train industrial teachers who could transmit the work ethic to the Afro-American working class, which was seen as shiftless and unable to take advantage of its labor market “as unskilled domestics and agricultural laborers.”13
The pattern developed at Hampton was for four years of high school training. The first two years consisted of 10-hour workdays, followed by 2 hours of night classes; the second two years consisted of classes 4 days and work 2 days a week. The work that financially enabled students to pursue collegiate certification as teachers was chiefly in farm labor, domestic service, and unskilled factory production; the student teachers, who would become the “agricultural and mechanical teachers for the South’s black public school system,” “were taught ‘proper’ work attitudes by having to do unskilled work so that they would have no problems in teaching ‘the dignity of labor’ either to children of farm laborers and servants.”14 Manual labor was a norm for the collegiate peers of the black home economics trainee in the south, and the women’s course differed little from the men’s.
The southern home economics curriculum for white women assumed that black servants performed manual labor. It was nonmanual and in “such ‘white women’s specialties’ as teacher training and scientific instruction, i.e. chemistry in nutrition or the application of chemistry and physics to cooking rather than applied studies. . . . If an applied course was given it was a special class in fancy cooking, . . . which could not be trusted to the Negro servant,”15 When Texas Technological University sought certification for teacher training in home economics in 1928, it listed at length its equipment for home training, which included one dozen finger bowls and a full set of two dozen soup, dinner, luncheon, salad, and bread and butter plates, cereal bowls, and bouillon cups and saucers. Middle-class girls needed to learn how to use elaborate tableware.16
In the Northeast and Midwest, schools of home economics stressed the development of professional skills comparable to those in male-dominated disciplines; home economics departments taught young women scientific standards and their application to individual households. Unlike the South, however, these institutions also nurtured research aspirations such as those Flemmie Kittrell acquired at Cornell. Northern institutions were more likely to provide a research base for, and to teach, new standards for sanitation, child welfare, and nutrition. Middle-class women were being trained for productive adult life: “If [the student] marries, she knows how to run a home. If she doesn’t marry, she may have a vocation along homemaking lines such as cafeteria manager, trained dietitian, designer of clothes, according to her talents.”17
The patterns established in normal schools and colleges were replicated by teachers in the public school programs funded by Smith-Hughes and succeeding legislation: day classes taught during regular sessions, trade extension and preparatory classes taught in the evenings for students already holding jobs, and evening home economics classes for women and wives who had other duties at home or work during the day. Day classes for regular students during the first two years of high school were intended, one advocate said, to prepare the “26,000,000 women [who] are housekeepers,” who need “specialized training in such subjects as child care, home nursing, cooking, meal-planning, garment-making, household management, and buying [since] 90 percent of money wage-earners bring home is spent by women.”18
During the course of the 1920s, an emphasis on education for the vocation of homemaking gradually took over in courses offered during the regular day curriculum. Contrary to Henrietta Roelofs’s hope that vocational education would clarify the industrial status and improve the labor standing of domestic workers, in much of the country vocational home economics became equated with preparation for a woman’s keeping her own house. By 1931, California’s annual report to the U.S. Office of Education listed expenditures under “vocational homemaking education.” The director of the Home Economics Education Service of the Office of Education, Adelaide Baylor, admitted to the Texas state supervisor,
Personally, I prefer the word homemaking in our literature that we send out to the States and through the states, and recommend that while we leave the term “home economics” in the State Plan [for vocational education], you use the term “homemaking” wherever it is possible in your materials. . . . [As to the] “useful employment” [requirement for funds], since that is also the reading of the law[,] it would be well, I think, to leave it as it is without change. A woman is usefully employed in her own home when she is a homemaker.19
As was the case with teacher training, particular skills for homemaking varied in different regions of the country and in different school districts, and they changed during the two decades between 1920 and 1940, moving from concentration on generic cooking and sewing to more elaborate specialties in clothes making, meal planning, child study, and home decoration by the end of the period. Within this general scheme, middle-class schools offered more specialized studies in home improvements, while working-class schools stuck to basics. In the mid-1920s, Dallas, Texas, public schools offered evening classes in white schools in interior decorating, millinery, clothing, and foods; by 1927, classes were added in home planning and furniture, color harmony, nutrition and dietetics, period furnishing, and tailoring. Evening home economics classes in Mexican schools in other Texas cities, by contrast, covered subjects like sanitation, personal hygiene and clothing, personal hygiene and cookery, and “how to dress becomingly.” In high schools designated “Colored,” clothing and cookery predominated, with some work in child care.20
California gave no evening classes in home economics during the 1920s, only regular day courses in public schools. By the early 1930s, part-time home economics classes were available in home sewing and millinery, child development, home nursing, and foods, basic courses of particular use to housewives needing to make their own clothes and hats, to conserve food budgets, and to understand their children’s emotional progress. Regular school courses approved for federal funds included applied work in “home food preparation, preservation, and service; home sewing, including construction and repair of clothing, linens, and other; millinery for women and children; home laundering; home gardening; home nursing; home invalid cooking; and housekeeping.” Supplemental work, eligible for funds when offered by local schools, included house planning, interior and furniture design, interior decoration and furnishing, hygiene and sanitation, household science, dietetics, and home reading, courses that varied depending on the school’s interests. California education officials assumed, however, that most training would “emphasize the needs and practices of the home with a small income where the housekeeper must act as cook, maid, butler, hostess, and mother.”21
Illinois schools, like those in Texas and California, intended to raise the aesthetic standards of students’ homes. Required to plan home projects in conjunction with classroom work, students were set exercises:
Introduce a “Better Music Month” in your home. Be responsible for the music bought during that time seeing that it is really good popular or classical music;
Collect and arrange in booklet form twenty-five gift suggestions for Christmas, giving cost of each and materials which may be used in making them.22
Ohio schools taught meal planning, garment making, and house planning and furnishing in the first year; clothing budgets, construction of garments, costume design, house management, child development and family relationships, and food and nutrition in the second year. A suggested home project in Ohio held out as a “minimum accomplishment” that “each girl should understand the principles involved in the preparations of candies and simple Christmas sweets [and] be able to pack an attractive Christmas box of sweets.”23
In segregated southern “Colored” schools funded under the Smith-Hughes, and later George-Deen and George-Ellzey acts, girls took courses in domestic service, in home nursing and child care, and in laundry, which included, in one instance, “8 lessons each in bleaching, removing stains, washing linen, cotton and woolen goods.”24 In El Paso, Texas, the school board created a segregated school system “which established a home economics curriculum for Mexican girls to enable them to acquire the skills needed to work as domestics,” on the grounds that this training would “best assist the students to find jobs.” In Los Angeles, Mexican schools that taught students English “were praised for moving Chicanas from the cotton fields to domestic service,” which would speed their Americanization.25
In all states, much of the training for domestic service was not taught under the category of home economics but was funded as “trade extension and preparatory” classes. In Texas, black and Mexican girls followed part-time courses in cooking and household service; female students of all races got training in nursing and dressmaking.26 Indian women working as “cooks, laundresses, bakers, and seamstresses were to improve their skills by study in commercial centers.”27 In California, by comparison, “trade and industrial” courses were available for girls in cosmetology, power laundry work, cake decorating, and costume design.28 Illinois devoted most of its industrial funds to men and gave courses for girls only in nursing and dietetics.29
In Virginia, illustrating the maintenance of racial distinctions among working-class women, three evening trade and industrial classes for white women were funded in 1935: in Lynchburg one in dietetics for nurses; one in textile math for textile workers; and one in home economics for homemaking, which was organized for “unemployed, underprivileged women” who needed some “bucking up.” Classes organized in 1935 for “Colored” schools, by contrast, were in domestic service, practical nursing, and “Trade Preparation for Housemaids in Coordinating, Children’s nursing, laundry, table service, cleaning, [and] general housework.”30
Black educators supported home economics training for girls, including training for domestic service. Economic hardships and poverty required black women to earn wages in domestic service and to produce food, clothing, and decent housing for their own families on low wages; teaching homemaking to twelve-, thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls implied not only wage earning but also recognition that black families had needs like white families. “If,” as Carrie Lyford, a Hampton Institute home economist, wrote, “better home conditions are to be secured [among blacks], it is necessary that girls be trained when they are young to assume home responsibilities.”31 Black colleges such as Prairie View A&M in Texas and Tuskegee in Alabama received Smith-Hughes teacher training funds (though at a much lower rate than white teacher training programs). Nannie Helen Burroughs’s National Training School for Women and Girls, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1909 with Baptist church support, sought students wanting education for “improved home life” and as “every-day workers.” All these institutions joined domestic uplift to cultural uplift with the addition of black history to the requirements of the major.32
Burroughs also undertook training of adult domestic workers through organization in the mid-1920s of a National Association of Wage-Earners. Intended, like Booker T. Washington’s earlier work at Tuskegee, to raise Afro-Americans’ pride in the limited jobs left them by discrimination and their skill in doing these jobs, the association’s practice house offered women the same educational format as practice houses for college majors in home economics and promised to work with employers to train “green country girls” to acceptable city standards. Students were given tests
in the actual preparation and serving of food, cleaning of rooms and making beds. . . . Housemaids and office attendants [were] taught how to answer the door bell and telephone. . . . Day workers [were] taught the fundamental things which most employers expect them to know or to do. All applicants [were] instructed in the principles of good conduct, manners and dress.
The association hoped to function as an employment service to guarantee good employers and good workers. For Burroughs, the enterprise’s objectives were creation of “working women of whom a community will be proud” and, through the competence and self-assurance of workers, reduction of the occupation’s stigma so that the domestic worker could be “just as proud as the nurse is of her uniform.” Though economic hardship kept the practice house from succeeding, Burroughs’s ideas were close to those purveyed through the 1930s by the YWCA and by WPA projects.33
While Burroughs’s students learned laundering, plain cooking, and waiting at table to be useful to their employers and their own families, middle-class students learned to purchase such services. Homemaking for the middle class was management; for the working class, it was labor. In married life, the middle-class girl might need technical skills; in practice,
[she] knows that skill in domestic pursuits is absolutely no asset in securing the masculine attention which she craves. As proof of this lack of interest on the part of the average man it may be stated that it is difficult to find any number of husbands who made a definite inquiry as to their fiancee’s ability to cook or who even suggested that marriage be postponed while their prospective housekeepers secure some training for their job. . . . While a man who is not trained to support his household is looked at askance, the girl hopes to “hire someone to do her work.”34
The Depression necessitated increased emphasis on frugal use of resources and maintenance of family morale. Home economics associations sought government aid to support courses in family life and homemaking to assist housewives in maintaining the family’s standard of living. Homemaking as a vocation predominated in public schools that received federal funds and in evening classes that hired unemployed home economists to teach a variety of skills for homemakers. By the mid-1930s, courses to prepare girls for their major role as homemakers and, in some schools, boys for their role as fathers were being authorized for federal reimbursement. To be acceptable, the courses were supposed to include such “social studies” issues as
1. Provision of food for the family.
2. Selection, care, and construction of clothing.
3. Care and guidance of children.
4. Selection, furnishing, and care of the house.
5. Selection and use of home equipment.
6. Maintenance of health.
7. Home care of the sick.
8. Consumer buying.
9. Management of all material and human resources available to home.
10. Maintenance of satisfactory relationships.
11. Application of the arts and sciences.35
These broad standards were interpreted with “little unanimity” by home economics experts, but a national survey indicated that “homemaking instruction tend[ed] to be pointed toward intellectual understanding more than toward manipulative skill, and that this tendency is believed to be a desirable one. It also appear[ed] that the need for studying problems of personal living rather than future homemaking responsibilities [was] being stressed, and this tendency [was also considered] desirable.” Increased funding so that more courses could be offered in regular day schools was recommended, even though such domestic emphasis might accelerate “a trend already apparent, . . . namely a decrease in the percentage of students taking subjects such as foreign languages and mathematics.”36 Evening home economics classes for adult women, by contrast, enrolled large numbers for sewing and remodeling clothing, as housewives sought to maintain clothing standards by doing the sewing themselves.
Instruction in family relations might keep middle-class and working-class white girls from practicing the skills of cooking, sewing, and laundering, but at least they promised a respected social role. Many black schools were denied any home economics training either for domestic service or for home management. By the mid-1930s, the discriminatory distribution of federal vocational funds was a topic for research by the NAACP, which protested discrimination against black pupils in all three categories of agriculture, home economics, and trade and industries programs. Indeed, as the Depression hit state budgets everywhere, federal grants became prizes that were given to the most favored pupils and schools. Funds that might have trained black girls for domestic service in the 1920s were shifted to training white girls for family living during the 1930s. For black girls, the major hope for some attention and money became the youth relief and work relief projects, which also inculcated traditional women’s work positions and skills.
Work Relief and Vocational Training
Principles and practices developed in state vocational education programs during the 1920s carried into the New Deal work relief and education programs of the 1930s. The massive national effort to provide families with income—and youths with hope for the future—expanded the government’s role in sustaining and inculcating class- and race-appropriate “women’s work” and social roles. During the New Deal, agencies trained girls and women, depending on the assessment for their best hope of income and support, to see housework in one of three ways: as a housewife–manager directing an employee, as a solitary housewife doing the work of her own family, and as a domestic working in others’ homes.
New Deal projects had one additional consideration: to avoid aggravating the trauma of job competition during a decade of high unemployment. The protests against allowing married women to benefit from scarce jobs or relief funds have been discussed by many historians. Less often mentioned are the protests against forms of education or work relief that might enable women to compete with men for jobs or black men and women to compete with white men and women.
Racial and gender conservatism underlay the moderate reforms of the New Deal. Girls and women were taught that their work was “service” and that their truest and best work was caring for homes and children, in ways that varied, of course, by class and race. Black men were excluded from skilled work relief jobs and given relief wages lower than those paid to white men; black boys in vocational programs were taught only unskilled hand work or use of outdated equipment; black girls in resident centers were disproportionately pushed into nursery and cooking and cleaning programs. The message in crisis was that no one’s position would be changed; beset by falling incomes and threats of joblessness, white men would not be exposed to job competition from women or men of color.
Keeping women attached to the home was an essential element in New Deal relief programs. Stressing women’s connection with housekeeping kept women firmly on the periphery of the job market and out of competition for jobs traditionally thought of as men’s. Strengthening the image of women as caretakers of home life reassured citizens about the conserving principles of the New Deal. In the midst of the Depression, programs that taught women how to make homes healthier and more cheerful were justified on the grounds that better-skilled housewives would presumably have higher job morale and improved ability to care for families harmed by business failures and unserved by an overstretched government. Preserving dominant ideas of woman’s primary social and economic role as wife and mother was so useful to so many groups that it is not surprising the New Deal programs readily incorporated the image into their design.
During the first two years of the Roosevelt administration, women received attention and relief through the medium of FERA-funded, state-directed projects such as camps and work relief projects. Relatively small numbers of women were served, and more radical approaches were taken to women’s education and employment in these years than would be after 1935, when stable and large federal commitments were made under the WPA and the Social Security Act. Although housekeeping was a substantial part of opportunities offered to women between spring 1933 and spring 1935, the projects did not put women’s homemaker role at the center of project design. Comparison between the earlier and later projects underlines the conservatism of post-1935 projects for women.
There were two major FERA projects for girls and women: camps operated under the worker education philosophy of project director Hilda Worthington Smith and work relief projects. Both projects purveyed domestic ideology. In camps for young women, the residents were required to perform the basic housekeeping duties of cleaning and cooking, which were often described as giving young women practical training to manage homes better: either the parental home to which they returned or their own marital home. The conservative imagery, however, existed amid classes in history, economics, and workers’ rights—a context of preparation for industrial income earning and union membership as well as homemaking.
Women’s Division director Ellen S. Woodward also concentrated the first FERA work relief projects in production that used women’s typical household skills. Women gardened, cooked, and canned food for relief distribution. They sewed and finished garments and mattresses for welfare distribution. They worked as domestics for women heads of household so that those women were able to take relief jobs outside their homes. And unemployed teachers and housewives taught home economics and household skills. Housekeeping aide projects appeared to keep women in traditional roles, paying them relief wages to care for homes of families in which the mother was unable to provide full services of cleaning, cooking, and laundry. In many instances, however, the relief worker was taking over household work so that another relief-eligible woman could get a job. Both were paid relief wages that often exceeded market wages for the lowest-paid female jobs. As Martha Swain and Susan Wladaver-Morgan have pointed out, the effect of this project was to gain relief wages for two women instead of one and to uphold a notion of government responsibility for providing income through work for women as well as men.37
Within these women’s jobs, class and race distinctions were maintained by the division between manual and nonmanual projects. Relief funds were paid to “non-manual visiting housekeeper[s], preferably a woman with some home economics training [who] visits the homes of families on relief and by means of discussion and demonstrations helps the homemaker make better use of her limited resources,” and to housekeeping aides, who were “domestic workers.”38
By spring of 1935, as FERA funds and programs were redirected toward WPA and straight work relief, programs took on a more conservative cast. The reason, one historian speculates, was a desire to protect the WPA from the charge of employing too many women. One way to respond was to keep women’s relief jobs connected to homes.39
WPA continued the housekeeping aides project, perhaps because of the large numbers of black women certified for jobs as heads of household and also classified as unskilled workers. For these women, the aide job became a major source of federal employment and one, of course, acceptable within dominant racial conventions. “By 1938, black women comprised 93 percent of the workers in the WPA housekeeping aides program, [and] all supervisory and white collar personnel in this program were also black.”40
The job changed its character from that of the FERA program, however, so that aides were assigned only to households certified by local relief authorities or designated charities. The work provided was intended to sustain the traditional family when mothers were chronically or temporarily ill, particularly in the periods around childbirth, and in families with aged, blind, or handicapped members. Many black groups welcomed the relief jobs, not only because they offered a reasonable wage at a time of high unemployment, but also because they implied federal recognition for traditionally black and despised work. A magazine story titled “The WPA’s ‘Good Neighbors’” reported that “humanitarian service is the watchword of the [14,400] colored women who are employed as housekeeping aides by the Works Progress Administration” in thirty-nine states. One could take special pride in working to improve life for families even poorer and more needy than one’s own.41
The housekeeping aide projects were easy to publicize. Paying government-funded wages to relief-certified women with “no skills or profession through which to earn a living” provided jobs for “trained home economists” to direct the mundane duties of “practical homemakers” of working-class and primarily black families. For their pay, the aides performed a range of “duties under the headings of cleaning the home, preparation of meals, laundering, making and remodeling garments and household articles, caring for children, simple home care of the sick and advice on marketing, budgeting, nutrition and home management.” They were domestic workers, but with limited hours and federally set wages. Even though the project offered workers an alternative to domestic service, WPA officials reported that the home economics lessons and supervised housework experience ultimately would enable aides to find employment in private homes.42
As was true of private domestic employment, government employment created tensions between the domestic’s work life outside and inside her own home. Reports idealized housekeeping aides as mother-housekeepers able to replace the essential work lost when a mother was ill or absent (sometimes the program was labeled “help-a-Papa”).43 Though an aide had to be the head of her own household to be certified as a relief recipient, she supposedly adopted each assignment as “her family.” One worker, caring for a family of seven children whose mother was hospitalized for a broken leg and father was “working steadily but at small pay” stayed late each night to bake and cooked Sunday dinner “regardless of her quota of hours.”44 Housekeeping aides were trained to make nourishing and appetizing meals from relief commodities so that they could teach poor housewives to use these items effectively. Courses to prepare the aides also taught them to use “graham flour instead of white flour in baking cakes, and making a meal for four serve eight persons with the aid of stretchers and fillers.” The aides learned to make furnishings such as drapes and table linen from flour bags and “a china buffet out of a piano box.”45 In Kansas, housekeeping aides trained in “the safest and most modern methods for canning fruits and garden produce . . . taught hundreds of women how to can these things for use in their own home.”46 Beneath the official mandate to provide care for families authorized by local charity or public health agencies was the mission to teach home economics techniques and attentive mothering.
Housekeeping aide projects were organized in all parts of the country but were essential in the South with its large black population and the highest rates of “female heads eligible for works program employment.” The heaviest percentages of female heads of household were in the former Confederate states, excluding Louisiana and Arkansas. From Texas to Virginia, the lowest percentage was 20.1 in Tennessee, rising to 37.4 in Mississippi. Washington, D.C., where 23.9 percent of households among relief-certified families were female-headed, reflected its position as a southern outpost.47 Planners desperate to assist women accepted surrogate homemaking as a reasonable job for unskilled black women workers.
The housekeeping aide project required constant vigilance by federal officials to keep it from becoming a domestic servant project. The project was intended to have women serve families at roughly a peer level, with race and religion usually matched, but in the South state officials “thought of [it] as a ‘servant’s project’ employing 100 percent Negro women.” In Mississippi and Louisiana, where few white women worked in domestic service, no whites were assigned to housekeeping aide projects, and workers sent out on the project were referred to as “maids.”48 As late as October 1940, a New Orleans newspaper reported approvingly that, as part of their training, housekeeping aides were washing and ironing laundry for poor families that did not need service in the home but were “unable to care for their laundry.”49
In spring 1935, just before the FERA was superseded by the WPA, Ellen Woodward announced a federal allocation of $500,000 to train 7,600 domestics. Woodward may have had a variety of motives. One was the desire to improve standards for workers so that housewives would be discouraged from reducing wages and raising hours. Another was the political need to do something for hard-hit black Americans without offending white New Deal supporters and critics. A third was pressure from her peers to create work relief for unemployed professional women. Whatever the project’s origins, news reports indicated the popularity of education in traditional roles. Newspapers seemed relieved that the New Deal might turn back the deterioration of household standards caused by commercial innovations in housework, “ful-fill[ing] the needs of a generation that has discovered it is not necessary, it is not profitable and it is not good for the human body to live out of a can.”50
In the FERA project, Woodward began to develop the pattern that she worked out fully in the WPA after its creation in May 1935. The primary goal was to get women jobs. All advisers and advocates for women assumed this was possible only if women were trained and paid for work already generally accepted as women’s work. Woodward was convinced, moreover, that household work as an occupation providing jobs would cease to exist without the “elevation of this occupation to the level of a modern industry.”51
Additionally, Woodward was beset by political critics of the New Deal, especially by members of the comfortable middle class, who charged that “women’s projects” paying security wages, such as sewing rooms, removed needy women from the employment service rolls and from the domestic service supply. Many sewing projects gave one hour at the end of the day for domestic training with the implicit promise that these women were available for hire when the local market demanded additional servants.52 Woodward could save domestic work as a large-scale job for women, rebut criticisms of New Deal social leveling, and get women off relief rolls through a properly conceived domestic work training program. Her approach was evident from the earliest authorized projects in spring 1935.
Woodward set procedures to design projects for local housework customs; for each city or state, directors of women’s work were required to call meetings of “representatives from non-fee-charging bureaus, such as the Big Sisters, YWCA, Council of Jewish Women, Catholic Women’s Organizations” to educate them about proper standards in “wages, hours, living conditions, and contracts.”53 The advisory committee was to set the particular content of the local training course within the general categories of cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care, and personal hygiene. Letting housewives determine work content while the government encouraged hour and wage standards and the use of a regular contract was the implicit bargain Ellen Woodward maintained throughout the New Deal.
Training household workers, carried into the WPA in 1936, compensated relief-certified teachers to teach high-school-age girls (though women aged eighteen to thirty-five were accepted) skills that would enable them to enter the labor market and find jobs. The trainees did not have to be certified as relief-eligible (though local relief offices referred girls from families collecting public assistance) and were paid only with “lunches, uniforms, and a dollar a week for carfare to and from the training centers.”54 Teachers got relief funds; young women got skills that would presumably keep or help them off relief rolls; and the public got better-trained household workers. Training programs for household workers were “inaugurated in February 1936 in 17 states, New York City, and the District of Columbia.” The program registered 9,272 young women and trained and placed 5,685 in just over a year.
The project was designed to train full-time live-in or live-out workers, who would work for a single employer. Indeed, so set was the notion that a domestic was a live-in worker that the WPA would not refer women heads of families for housework training unless their home responsibilities permitted their accepting live-in jobs.55 (The housekeeping aide projects, with limited daily and weekly hours, were for these older women.) Government programs also inculcated public health standards into home-based work. Health examinations of trainees became popular, and workers were issued health certificates after passing standardized tests for venereal diseases and tuberculosis.56
As Woodward faced increasingly desperate need without increased job options for women, she resourcefully reorganized household training in late 1937 into the Home Demonstration Service.57 As a widow making her own way, Woodward, supported by her ally Eleanor Roosevelt, had consistently fought for a portion of relief funds for women. Her Mississippi background as a white “lady” also echoed Roosevelt’s instinct to base appeals on the image, if not the reality, of women’s traditional roles. Training one set of women to be better housekeepers so that they could pass these skills on to other housewives was a relief form that appealed to public desires for continuity and personal security.
Home demonstration centers for household skills gave relief recipients a respectable location from which they either found jobs or remained in the centers to teach their newly acquired skills to local classes of homemakers and domestic workers. A WPA-certified job, work as a home demonstration expert paid a “security wage,” which was a significant incentive for women to accept training. By late 1937, the project had been established in twenty-three states and enrolled almost six thousand women.58 As late as June 1940, a domestic training program was operating in twenty states and the District of Columbia. There were sixty-five centers, “15 of which [were] for white trainees only; 20 for colored; and 30 for both white and colored,” as one observer reported.59 Very few Southern states had such programs, perhaps because lack of alternative jobs for southern black women meant that there was no shortage of servants; additionally, southerners may not have liked the notion of federal interference in regulating household labor conditions.
Woodward enlarged the projects’ ability to pay stipends, and she sharpened the agency’s stance on working standards. In most areas, and especially in southern states, the relief wage was higher than the going rate for domestics and worked to push up the local standard. When housewives complained that they could not find domestic servants because they were “on relief,” it usually meant that the women had WPA jobs and were unwilling to leave them for the “fire-sale” wages of the Depression. In states like New York and Pennsylvania, WPA wages for homemaking aides were about $60 per month for 128 hours of work. “Good” housework wages in the private market were $8 to $10 per week with room and board and more than 60 hours per week; $5 per week was a popular norm. One author noted the tension between government pay and private pay: “Girls can’t be expected to work hard around the house all day for $5 a week, but on the other hand the average man in Pittsburgh can’t compete with relief salaries. Let’s strike a sensible compromise and get some of these people back to work.”60
The standard accepted by WPA headquarters and local advisory committees from 1936 to 1938 was less stringent than the 48-hour week formulated by the voluntary watchdog group, the National Committee on Household Employment, and the YWCA during the 1928 pre-Depression prosperity. All these groups had come round to a harsher standard: 60 working hours a week, with 1 hour of work being calculated for each 2 hours of afternoon and evening “on call” time; “two half days off a week, beginning not later than 2 P.M. on the week day and 3 P.M. on Sunday”; overtime compensated by time off or extra money and not to exceed 12 hours in any one week; and a one-week paid vacation after the first year’s service.61
WPA-funded training schools worked with local offices of the United States Employment Service (USES) or National Reemployment Service (NRS) to persuade prospective employers that students with certificates deserved regulated jobs. After the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, some training programs used the act’s provisions to inform employers about minimum acceptable wages. Hours were not dropped to the FLSA 40-hour maximum, but its existence was used to advocate placement at 48 hours per week for live-out workers and 54 hours per week for live-ins.62
Wage standards varied more according to locality than did hours. It was presumed that cash wages were subsidized by uncounted presents of goods in addition to meals and rooms. Consequently, the standards for wages were less exact: advisory committees called for a minimum to cover “cost of living of independent women at a health and efficiency level,” minus the cost of room and board for a worker living in. For workers living out, carfare was to be paid, with nothing said about their room costs. The inherent competition of the local rate for relief jobs provided a federal baseline for pay, one always higher than the local domestic rate, according to state news reports collected at WPA headquarters. In some localities, authorities closed down the competing WPA projects to force women to accept domestic work jobs that remained unfilled at the local state employment office.63
In return for meeting wage and hour standards, housewives could expect to hire workers trained to meet local norms of service. Workers were instructed in personal hygiene and social etiquette (including judicious “use of lipstick, rouge and powder”) at the same time they learned to use cleaning materials, recipes, and child care techniques that met middle-class women’s expectations.64 It was assumed that “girls come from underprivileged homes and need to build up new standards not found in their own homes. . . . They need to be taught new attitudes, poise, etc. Cooperation with employer is set up as a necessary end.”65 In general, girls were to be trained in houses much larger than their own (one in Florida had five bedrooms, three baths, a kitchen, living room, sun parlor, and porches), to learn “how to answer a telephone properly, how to use electrical appliances, how to prepare and serve a smart luncheon or formal dinner, and the care of linens and silverware.”66 They were taught pronunciation; “old methods of accenting words on the wrong syllables until you can hardly recognise the words they mean” were corrected in southern projects.67
Whereas in the South girls were taught humility, in the North they had to conform to behavior that was “neither abject servility nor ‘irritating displays of independence.’ Rather . . . an attitude of dignified service and, as an employer put it in a letter of appreciation, ‘that grand willingness to do just a little bit more than is actually specified.’”68 Northern projects stressed responsibility and cooperation more than southern ones did.
Training to care for children in the middle-class fashion was important in all projects. In a Mississippi project, the objections of employers “to negro nurses, that of frightening the child with ‘bugger’ stories and superstitions, is done away with for the girls are taught that it is harmful and must not be done.”69
Table service and cooking varied regionally. In the South, as Ellen Woodward noted in a memorandum to women’s project administrators, making good biscuits was more important for a domestic’s success than learning to make many dishes in an overall mediocre meal.70 In Baltimore, “hot rolls . . . light, delicate, crisp,” was the specialty.71 In Connecticut, one was expected to be able to bake a good apple pie.72 In New York City, the rules for formal family table service were to “carry a napkin, never touch the tableware with a bare hand, serve from the left, don’t lean on the diners’ shoulders, don’t whisper down their necks.”73
Since women certified as heads of household were not eligible for domestic jobs that required them to live in, much of the domestic training work was carried on in the youth division of the WPA, the National Youth Administration (NYA). Like its parent, the NYA resolutely held to existing race and gender divisions in organizing its projects. Even in the most liberal agency in the New Deal, the Division of Negro Affairs headed by veteran educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the NYA sought to exploit adherence to traditional work divisions rather than to challenge them.
When Bethune was appointed by President Roosevelt to head the division of Negro Affairs of the NYA, she found that racial discrimination did not take the form of offering different projects for black and white youths. Rather, black teenagers were not certified as eligible for projects in proportion to their economic need, and resident work projects were not set up in communities where needy youths lived. Bethune protested actions of southern relief officials to certify white families for relief funds more often than they certified black ones.
Neither Bethune nor other NYA and WPA officials fought the other major limitation, however—the requirement that work projects be jointly funded by the federal government and by sponsoring groups in local areas. White groups rarely underwrote integrated projects, and black communities were hard-pressed to accumulate equipment and materials for projects on which the federal grants would pay wages and staff expenses. Martha Swain points out a similar diminution of opportunities for women in 1938, when the WPA increased local contribution scales to a level higher than women’s groups, who had sponsored women’s projects, were able to raise.74
With such constraints on providing assistance, Bethune’s acquiescence in gender- and race-segregated projects is not surprising. State reports provide abundant evidence that the NYA trained women not just for work in the home but also for their appropriate place within the home. In the South black female youth were conditioned primarily for employment as domestic workers, while white female youth were trained for employment as housewives—to be more proficient in running their own homes. The 1937 report for Mississippi recorded that the state “had enrolled 450 NYA youth in homemaking classes and 800 in domestic service classes.” The report did not comment on the racial content of these categories, but it is likely that the white girls were in homemaking and the black ones in domestic service.
Kentucky state pamphlets issued for use in NYA courses indicated job assignments and work relationships. In four pamphlets for homemaking classes on spring cleaning titled “Look Up for Spring—Dress Up; Fix Up; Spruce Up; Clean Up,” the drawing on the covers of the first three showed a young white woman sewing, hanging curtains, and a full clothesline. The drawing on the cover of the “Clean Up” brochure showed a black woman in a bandana bending over a washtub. As we saw when examining surveys of consumer expenditures, even the seasonal nature of this relationship was accurate. A white housewife without a washing machine could generally plan to do her own housework except for hiring a part-time worker for the heaviest chores of the year, which included laundry work during the annual spring cleaning.75
Other Kentucky reports in the Technical and Training Series illustrate the decorative aspects of middle-class housewifery. Titles in this series include “Hand Questions,” “Personal Cleanliness,” “Christmas Cookies,” and “The Kitchen strikes for Cheer in Color.” The only non-household-work pamphlet illustrated with a white woman is “The Waitress.” A Louisiana class taught “the arrangement of furniture in the various rooms, for properly fitting out a home. Landscaping was then discussed, with a special demonstration of the manner in which evergreens could be grown from cuttings.”76
Hospital work, a major category of personal service performed in a nonhome setting, also sustained racial divisions between women. Texas state reports on hospital training programs record black girls being assigned to kitchens, cafeterias, supply rooms, and laundries. Latin-American girls had similar assignments.77 White girls were trained on the wards as nurses’ aides and in hospital offices as clericals. One reason Texas and other southern states may have rationalized this division was the segregation of nursing schools and the lack of nursing education facilities for black girls in those states. Faced with students desiring to pursue nursing education, the Texas NYA asked the Division of Negro Affairs to prepare a list of hospitals that would accept black girls.78
By the end of the 1930s, most young women in the domestic projects were black and Hispanic. Only with the new influx of refugees from Europe would the programs again be racially diluted. Once again, domestic programs were used to acculturate newcomers to the society. As one report said, “German hausfrauen are being given an opportunity to learn the culinary ways of their adopted land,” as well as “table service the American way.” After training, the penniless refugees, mainly Jewish, could find employment as domestic servants.79
The refugees were harbingers of the international crisis that ended domestic training and took women workers, black and Hispanic as well as white, out of kitchens and into factories. The training programs ended when the New Deal officially closed down relief programs in 1942. They had aided numerous women and their households by providing wages and working conditions that may have been ameliorated somewhat by the social pressure of local women’s clubs monitoring WPA projects. The New Deal had not, however, challenged gender beliefs that women’s greatest contribution to social well-being came through sacrificial care of children and homes, or racial beliefs that the position of women of color was to serve white women in this responsibility, or class beliefs that domestic work was a good education for a young woman whose career would be marriage and housekeeping.
After the war, many middle-class housewives wanted to go back to where they had been before the war eroded the domestic labor supply.80 A proliferation of alternative jobs for women provided white working-class women an out, however. The escape of women of color waited until 1950s civil rights victories broke down job discrimination by race.
Women fled housework because it never gained the protections and benefits typical of many jobs during the 1930s. Just as vocational home economics became identified with homemaking and ignored paid work in homes, labor reformers and domestic servants failed to persuade employers and legislators that the same problems existed in domestic work as in any modern employment—a need to regulate hours, provisions for unemployment, and security in retirement.