Housework is a persistent reality in my middle-class life. No matter what else I or other women in my family have done, we were always responsible for a high standard of home maintenance. It has also been a persistent political issue. From the beginning of my life, housework has divided women along race and class lines, at the same time that they were joined in their commitment to tending for people and doing the job well.
This is a book about housework and about arguments as to which groups of women will do such, and how. The book grew from three large questions. First, how did women come to feel they had to take care of people in private homes? Second, how did this work come to have a low social value? Third, how did housework divide women’s lives along race and class lines?
These questions had emotional salience for me. As a white woman born at the end of World War II and growing up in Texas during the 1950s, I learned southern racial mores and female identity in a women’s household. Raised by a formidable grandmother, with the income brought in by my mother and her sister, I saw white women as self-reliant and independent in many ways unusual for the 1950s. In our home, women went to the office every day, drove the family automobile, mowed the lawn, tended huge vegetable and flower gardens, and managed the family budget. They were physically strong and intellectually competent. Nevertheless, they relied on and benefited from the labor of black women, whose services we could afford because black women had few job options in the still-segregated southern economy.
From childhood I recall languorous, long days that began with mornings outdoors before the sun’s heat forced us indoors for reading, punctuated with baths and changes of clean, starched clothing that culminated in some pleasant dress put on to welcome my mother home from work at the end of the day. We could attain this respectability because we always had a black woman to do the weekly ironing. A “daily” who came once a week, the woman did other chores during the winter—vacuuming, dusting, light ironing. During the summer, though, the load of clothes was so heavy that she stayed on her feet over the board for most of the day’s labor that my family could afford, turning out beautifully crisp white and pastel sundresses, blouses, skirts, and handkerchiefs.
Not until I was a college student who had fled the South and joined civil rights work in the 1960s did I understand how my family had been able to afford the work of these black women. My undergraduate reaction was that we were white oppressors who had exploited the cheap labor of black people. Not until the consciousness-raising groups of the early 1970s did I realize that the independent women of my family had felt they must have domestic labor in order to achieve genteel propriety. They needed help so they could go to work themselves every day (and earn one “man’s” salary from two full-time “women’s” clerical jobs). And they wished to maintain standards of middle-class respectability while protecting the men of my extended family from bother. They had not wanted to be strong; they had been forced to be. And they expected and could count on the hard work of black women to help them.
I vowed, of course, that I would never put the burden of my housework on another woman, even as I assumed that this work was “mine.” Participation in the women’s movement augmented this commitment. I would not exploit the labor of black or any other women. And so I labored through graduate school and my first teaching job, working full time at school and study and then grocery shopping, cleaning house, going to the laundromat, ironing, cooking meals, sewing, and giving dinner parties. As I moved to professional stature, however, and came to the mecca of professional womanhood—Washington, D.C.—my responsibilities grew.
Nearly all my women friends in Washington hire another woman to do some of “our” work. I have a one-day-a-week housecleaner, and several friends with young children have full-time housekeepers. Almost no one I know cleans her own house, and many do not do their own laundry or prepare most of their childrens’ meals. A feminist and former civil rights worker, I find that I have, like my mother before me, turned over some of the most tedious housework to another woman.
Like my friends, I am a “good” employer. I pay a high hourly wage, give paid vacations, buy holiday, wedding, and baby presents, and treat the Guatemalan-born woman who cleans my house with the respect her cheerful competence deserves. Yet I am still responsible for getting the work of the house done, and I am able to do so by buying the labor of a woman who does not earn nearly so much as I and who lacks the automatic Social Security and health insurance protections of my job.
This book is fueled by my personal dilemmas: my feeling that I should keep an orderly, pleasant house and will be judged as a woman by my housewifely skills and recognition of the low social value of this work; my commitment to racial and gender equality and acceptance of the difficulties of paying another worker the same job benefits that I receive; my belief in a multiracial, multicultural women’s movement, yet my own reliance on women workers to clean my house without all the work benefits I enjoy. The book explores the creation of these cultural attitudes in the era just before I was born and the ways government and social systems acted to exacerbate these contradictions.
Housework is the quintessential “woman’s” work—regularly identified with women of all groups and social classes. No matter what other jobs women may have, they are expected, in addition, to see that houses are cleaned, meals are cooked, and children are cared for. No matter what else married women may become, they are evaluated on their performances as wives and mothers as much as on professional and work achievements. (Many men now launder, shop for groceries, vacuum, and care for children, but I do not know a household in which they take primary responsibility for these tasks.)
Even though it is central to the definition of womanhood, housework does not stand high in men’s—or even women’s—esteem. Few women now or in the recent past view an adult life measured by dishes washed, meals cooked, and rooms cleaned with satisfaction. The number of children raised is often announced with pride. The number of diapers changed, school lunches packed, or clothes folded is not. (Enjoying these activities on occasion—cooking a special dinner or cleaning the house after a long project is completed—is not the same as accomplishing these tasks every day.) Women with the means to hire another woman to take over the regular performance of this work have done so since the nineteenth century. Women without such resources seek to contain these tasks within a limited portion of their days. And the poorest women in this society must not only carry out these tasks for their own households but also do them for a living, in private homes during the period covered by this book, and in public spaces—child care centers, nursing homes, hospitals, office buildings, and restaurants—during the 1980s.
Humans need the services assigned to homes. Bourgeois ideals developed in the nineteenth century (and refined in the twentieth century) of wholesome meals, cleaned and furbished clothes, pleasant surroundings, and children paid attention to are valuable increments in human life. Their attractiveness may be seen in the popular imagery of World War II, when war’s end for soldiers was symbolized by visions of clean beds, fresh clothes, and home-cooked meals. Popular appeals to “home” in the late twentieth century, seen in movies as disparate as E.T. and Tootsie, have psychological undertones of emotional acceptance, but home is physically represented by country cottage furnishings, big dinners, and closets of attractive clothes.
But the development of comfort as a bourgeois ideal was confined to the private home and did not become a public responsibility. Women became the caretakers of daily human life, while men presumably organized the larger social and economic framework that enabled this specialization. Men’s world of business and politics provided income, but men foreswore responsibility for the effects of business and politics on everyday domestic existence. And women’s caretaking work diminished in public esteem as it grew in sentiment.
Marxists and feminists have given numerous explanations for the devaluation of the labor and material required to care for human life. Marxists point to the obvious fact that housework does not produce commodities for exchange and remains outside the evaluative field of capitalist exchange. Feminists point out the universal denigration of female-identified work, which includes child care, cooking, and laundry.
These explanations stress women’s victimization and not their complicity. They do not take account of the differential experiences of various groups of women. In this study I seek to determine by what concrete historical processes women learned to do housework in certain ways and learned their places as mistresses and servants, and how these concepts fit into general social and legal attitudes toward women’s work and women workers. How did women come to accept arrangements that sustained the low value of the essential human work assigned to homes?
Why have we put up with the low value accorded to our central work role? Why have some women (op)pressed other women into service instead of protesting our exclusive responsibility and challenging men to work with us to reorganize how, where, and by whom housework is done?
My theoretical interest in housework and in the relation among women of different races and classes, coupled with training as a historian, led me to the topic of household work in the period from 1920 to 1945. In this book I am concerned with public debates in that quarter-century on the subject of paid household labor. The book examines the cultural perpetuation of romantic images of housewifery while social institutions simultaneously maintained a low value for housework and the personal services traditionally carried on where people live: cleaning, food preparation, and dishwashing, caring for children and the ill and aged, laundry, and the washing and cleaning of human bodies. This dichotomy is echoed in the division in household labor between women employers (primarily white and middle class) and the laboring-class women (black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, sometimes white) who worked for them, which is a major subtheme of the book.
The interwar years in the United States attracted me for three reasons. First, sharp racial and class distinctions existed between women hiring and women being hired to do housework in this period. As of the 1920 decennial census, women of color assumed central importance as household workers. The waves of white immigrants from eastern, southern, and northern Europe that had supplied the majority of domestic servants in previous decades had been halted by war; immigration restrictions adopted in 1921 and 1924 drastically curtailed any postwar resumption of immigration.
As early as 1920, at least two out of five of the 15.9 percent of American women workers employed in laundry and domestic work were black. Throughout the two decades before World War II, the racial balance in the occupation hovered at 50:50 (despite counting the numerous Mexican-American domestics in the Southwest as white). Within the black population, the occupation defined norms for adult working women. By 1920, 46 percent of black women workers were domestics and launderers, compared to 22 percent of employed foreign-born white women and eight percent of employed native-born white women, including Hispanics.
The second attraction of this period is the existence of abundant data about what women did in private households (which is usually outside public scrutiny and difficult to document in historical records). Middle-class women’s reform groups, continuing the Progressive tradition, focused on the improvement of conditions in domestic work: the largest and worst off of female occupations and the only one, to the reformers’ embarrassment, controlled by women employers. Dozens of reports, surveys, articles, and letters documented conditions as reformers, housewives, and domestics struggled to standardize the job, to win government regulation of its hours and wages, and to adopt voluntary contracts. The rich holdings in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Arthur and Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger and Sophia Smith Women’s History collections, and the National Board offices of the Young Women’s Christian Association yield a remarkably detailed record of work life in private homes.
The third reason for examining the subject in this period is the historiographical foundation laid in studies of nineteenth and twentieth-century housework and household technology. Thanks preeminently to the work of Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Faye Dudden, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, David Katzman, Vicki Ruiz, Mary Romero, Susan Strasser, and Daniel Sutherland, housewifery and domestic work are beginning to have a history. Pre-1920 employment trends and work relationships set the stage for studying the final era in which domestic work was a major job for women. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century trends in household technology and municipal services are the backdrop against which work in the home is done.
After 1945, live-in servants virtually disappeared and day work became the norm for domestic service that remained. Much of the work was taken over by the commercial service sector, where it continues to be done by low-wage workers who are usually women and often women of color, deprived of many labor protections and job benefits. I hope that this book provides a historical base for a better understanding of these contemporary relationships.
Finally, I hope this book illuminates why and how middle-class women have accepted the current design of housework, including its reliance on the labor of other women—often women of color, nearly always poorly paid, and usually relatively powerless because of age, immigrant status, race, and, in many cities in the late twentieth century, sexual preference. It is time for us to accept more responsibility for how housework took its current form and to work to change its design and raise the status of the valuable jobs required to care for human life.