Domestic Workers in U.S. History
Summary and Keywords
Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.
Domestic service consists of performing reproductive labor, including cooking, cleaning, and child care, for other people’s families, usually in return for a wage. In the United States, this work has been performed by a mostly female and nonwhite labor force in the service of middle-class and wealthy families. In some ways, the history of domestic service fits neatly with other kinds of labor and working-class histories. It reveals, as do other labor histories, hierarchies of race, class, and gender at work in American life. Domestic work, however, also stands on the margins of traditional fields of labor history. Domestic workers’ labor was not only manual but also emotional. Workers nurtured children and witnessed the most intimate moments of family life. Domestics’ presence in the middle-class private sphere meant that their occupation was shaped as much by gendered family roles and notions of domesticity as it was by the labor market. Meanwhile, labor leaders viewed domestic workers as unorganizable and did not offer them the same assistance they gave to industrial workers in forming unions. Domestic workers were also specifically excluded from the labor legislation that regulated other occupations, especially after the New Deal in the 1930s. Given these circumstances, as well as the ways that race and gender structured the occupation, domestic worker movements for higher wages, humane working conditions, and occupational respect had as much in common with movements for Civil Rights and women’s rights as they did with labor movements for workplace justice.
Domestic Work in the 19th-Century North
Since the early 19th century, paid domestic labor has been in constant tension with ideals of domesticity. As the United States began to industrialize at the turn of the 19th century, paid labor increasingly took place in factories, shops, and offices. The home thus became a private space for nurturing families. During this period, Americans developed a concept of the home as private, endowed with distinct and gendered values. Public places of work and commerce were competitive, prizing ingenuity and hard labor. The home, on the other hand, appeared in prescriptive literature as a haven from the competitive public sphere, offering nurturance and lessons in virtue.1 Men, who earned wages, identified themselves as breadwinners; women, regardless of how much hard domestic labor they completed, were politically and culturally defined as dependents. Over time, women’s work in the home, divorced as it was from wage earning, came to be seen not as real work but as a “labor of love” that wives and mothers performed for their families. By the middle of the century, housework had been, in the words of historian Jeanne Boydston, “pastoralized,” and the work of keeping a house and clothing and feeding a family was culturally erased.2 Housework became so invisible that after describing a long list of tasks she had accomplished, including varnishing furniture and painting rooms, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to her sister-in-law that “‘I am constantly pursued and haunted by the idea that I don’t do anything.’”3
For middle-class and wealthy women, achieving domesticity, which demanded hours of heavy labor while appearing not to “do anything,” required help. In rural areas, this help often came in the form of the “hired girl,” usually a young woman from a neighboring family who performed housework alongside her employer, as well as producing goods for market.4 The hired girl might help with laundry, churn butter, produce homespun, or collect eggs. She performed much of the same labor that would later be taken up by domestic servants, but her status in the rural household was quite different. Hired girls were usually the younger daughters of neighboring families and were often of the same class as their employers. While they received a wage, they were motivated as much by a sense of neighborly reciprocity as a need for money. The shared status of farm wives and hired girls was also evident in the way they performed their work. Hired girls ate at the family table and often worked alongside their employers.5 Moreover, hired girls were temporary workers who could return home if working conditions did not suit them.
As industrialization began to draw more people to cities, domestic service lost its ties to rural patterns of mutual assistance and began to take on the contours of wage work. Domestic workers no longer came from the same class as their mistresses but instead from a permanent working class that depended on their wages for survival. Employers found these workers by placing an ad in the newspaper or traveling to domestic employment agencies in tenement sections of the city.6 No longer neighbors but strangers, domestic workers were also almost always immigrants. In northeastern cities, they were most often Irish women, who came to the United States beginning in the 1840s to flee the potato famine.7 Especially in the Midwest, German and Scandinavian women also took domestic jobs. In the 19th-century, domestic workers usually lived with their employers, which suited Irish women who used their wages to support relatives in Ireland. For middle-class employers, this new intimacy with ethnic strangers made the changes brought by industrialization and urbanization all the more jarring.
The new status of domestic workers was readily apparent in the kinds of labor that they performed and the conditions under which they worked. Domestics no longer ate at the table or worked alongside their employers. Employers’ household roles were strictly supervisory. Domestic workers lived in the household, but employers made it clear that they were not family members. Their movements were relegated to back stairways and basement kitchens.8 They wore uniforms, which visually marked them as workers, and showed off the family’s class status by answering doors and serving at table.
This new market relationship between workers and employers made workers less likely to feel emotional ties to their employers and much more willing to quit on short notice or demand a higher wage.9 Negotiations between employers and domestic servants took place in so-called intelligence offices, or domestic employment agencies, where wrangling over wages and working conditions could be intense. Reformer Frances Kellor reported visiting one agency at the turn of the 20th century where workers who agreed to a lower wage were accused by “listening ‘pals’” of having “a ‘weak back’ or a ‘broken spirit.’”10
Although wages remained relatively low, workers’ refusal to accept basement wages for heavy labor caused resentment among employers. In a multitude of print sources throughout the 19th century, middle-class and wealthy employers, as well as cultural pundits, complained about the so-called servant problem, a term that stood in for the laundry list of complaints that employers began to lodge against household help.11 Domestic workers, they argued, were slovenly, drunk, lazy, sexually promiscuous, or dishonest. Many of these stereotypes were tied to workers’ ethnicity. Employers and cultural critics routinely referred to Irish domestic workers as “Biddies,” or “Bridgets,” regardless of their given names.12 Cartoonists drew these workers as apelike and mannish, in clear contrast to the refined ladies who employed them. Thus, even as domestic workers performed the labor of the home, their presence was used to reaffirm the domesticity and refinement of the white middle-class and wealthy women who employed them.
Domestic Work in the Slave South
In the pre–Civil War South, slaveholding families used enslaved African American women and girls, as well as some men, to perform domestic work. Unlike northern homes and apartments, southern plantations were not only homes but also businesses engaged in commercial agriculture. Enslaved women performed all kinds of labor in order to meet the needs of the white family but also to support the plantation economy. Black women grubbed and hoed, mended and raised fences, raked manure, picked cotton, and cut down cornstalks.13 Enslaved women also did housework. In some ways, this work was similar to Irish women’s work in northern middle-class homes. Slave women served at the family table, nursed and cared for children, answered the door, and cleaned the house. But even this work was tied to the larger plantation’s participation in the market economy. Enslaved women, for instance, spent much of their time spinning and weaving clothing for the plantation’s slave labor force.14 The privacy of northern homes was at least partly imaginary, but plantation households played a conspicuous role in the capitalist economy.
White plantation women often wrote proudly in their diaries about the work that their households performed, but they rarely explicitly credited that work to slave women. Just as in northern households, the work required to meet the needs of elite white southern families remained culturally invisible. As historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese explained, southern mistresses’ “papers abound with acts of barrels of flour opened, gardens tended, clothes washed, candles made—all as if done on their own.”15 In fact, white women’s status as mistresses in plantation households depended on the fact that they did not perform manual labor. Their role was as supervisors of slave labor, a role symbolized by the large set of keys that mistresses carried to open storerooms and pantries.16
White southern mistresses aspired to ideal domesticity, but slavery created contradictions in plantation households that made achieving it impossible. Slaves were vital for maintaining the refined domesticity of southern plantation households because of the labor they performed.17 As the managers of household slave labor, the mistresses understood their job as transforming enslaved African American household workers, who were depicted in southern literature as flighty and disordered, into “better girls.”18 This civilizing mission, however, was mired in paradox; according to southern racial ideology, it was impossible for black women to become civilized or refined. Elite southerners’ claims to domesticity were further undermined by the blurry boundaries between the work slaves performed in the house and the work they performed to support the commercial plantations. Southern plantations just did not qualify as private homes. The very presence of slave workers clearly marked southern households as different from the northern domestic ideal.
Slavery’s dependence on violence to coerce black labor further undermined elite southern white women’s claims to ideal womanhood. Elite white southern men had a national reputation as hot tempered, epitomized by frequent duels and slave whippings. But southern gender prescriptions required elite white southern women to be dependent and refined, exuding a gentle influence over the plantation household in order to counterbalance the master’s violence.19 Southern white women took great pains to avoid the subject of violence in their diaries. Drawing on those diaries, some historians have depicted southern mistresses as a civilizing force in an otherwise brutal slave system. Historians like Thavolia Glymph, however, criticize such interpretations as discounting slave narratives, which abound with descriptions of brutal violence inflicted by mistresses.20 This violence conflicted with ideal depictions of southern ladyhood, despite its centrality to southern women’s practices of slave ownership. Many young women received gifts of slaves as young girls and spent a lifetime learning how race and mastery worked, a process that included inflicting physical violence on slaves.21 Antebellum southern plantations maintained a fraught relationship with domesticity, not just because they were embedded in commerce and harbored an enslaved black workforce but also because they were sites of brutal violence.
African American Workers after Emancipation
After the Civil War, as legislators in Congress rethought the constitutional meaning of citizenship, newly freed African American slaves did their own thinking about the differences between slavery and freedom. The period after emancipation witnessed intense negotiation between former slave owners and former slaves. White employers hoped to duplicate the slave relationship with paid workers and expressed outrage when African Americans refused to show deference and insisted on defining the limits of their labor. Black workers refused to live with their employers and instead returned to their own homes and families at the end of the day. African American household workers clearly delineated the tasks they would and would not perform. While slaves had been at the beck and call of whites, domestic workers after the Civil War insisted on clear job descriptions and rejected certain tasks.22 For example, one former slave named Hagar accepted a domestic service position at a plantation house. She agreed to clean but insisted that she was “not strong enough” to do the laundry, and refused to wash “even a towel.”23 In response, white families were often forced to hire several workers to perform the household’s varied tasks. Most newly freed African American women had to work to survive, but many insisted on choosing the conditions under which they labored.
Workers gravitated to jobs that maximized their leverage in labor negotiations. Some domestic workers aspired to become cooks. Producing edible—never mind delicious—food on 19th-century stoves required careful tending of fires and dampers, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of foods and flavors.24 Cooks also sometimes did the shopping, which required knowing how to find quality produce within the budget set by employers. A good cook brought value and skill to white households in which employers often lacked basic cooking skills. Paid cooks took pride in their culinary skills and used them to gain higher pay and better working conditions. Other African American women chose laundry work for the flexibility and autonomy it offered. Laundry workers typically picked up dirty laundry from white families and then returned the clean clothes when they were finished. Many African American women preferred laundry work to other kinds of domestic work because washerwomen could work in their own homes and communities, often in the company of other workers, while caring for their children.25
Indeed, a key aim for African American women in negotiating their labor relationships was asserting the primacy of their own children and families over those of their employers. “Pan-toting”—domestic workers’ practice of taking home leftovers after serving meals in white homes—is just one example of how black domestics used their work to care for their own families. White employers viewed pan-toting as thinly veiled theft but, African American cooks insisted on their right to feed their own families with food they had cooked, especially given the very low wages they earned.26 This is not to say that black women’s work in white households did not sometimes take a toll on their own children and families. African American nurses, cooks, and maids left home early in the morning to attend to white families, relying on grandparents and older siblings to care for their own children. They did so hoping that their work would keep their children fed and provide for their families’ survival.
Despite these efforts to determine the conditions of their labor, as Jim Crow took hold at the end of the 19th-century, southern domestic workers found themselves working for very low wages with few other employment options. One historian estimates that employers spent more on chewing gum and donations to panhandlers than on domestic workers’ wages.27 Even cooks, skilled workers who were difficult to replace, earned only about $2.50 per month in the South—less than employers paid for their household’s monthly supply of walnuts or potatoes.28 In comparison, European immigrant workers in the North earned a comparatively queenly sum of $4.76 per week.29
Sexual abuse was as important as labor exploitation in shaping the working conditions of domestic workers who spent long hours with men in private homes. Black women in the South, however, were particularly at risk. Rape had long functioned as a tool of racial oppression. White slave masters had demonstrated ownership and mastery over slaves’ bodies by raping black women. After emancipation, white men’s rape of black women was technically illegal, but the Jim Crow legal system rarely prosecuted it as a crime. Black mothers recognized the danger that sexual assault posed to household workers and counseled their daughters to be wary of white men. Many tried to keep their young daughters at home as long as possible. Like lynching, voting restrictions, and segregation, rape played a central role in the systemic oppression of African Americans in the pre–Civil Rights South.30
Indeed, race shaped every aspect of domestic work in the South. Black women’s predominance in domestic service became a powerful cultural tool that supported segregation. Southern whites caricatured African Americans as “mammies,” depicting them as dim-witted but loving, overweight but happy.31 They supposedly loved white families more than their own, and white children loved them back. Southern whites wrote poems about their mammies and proposed building memorials to them on the National Mall. Most importantly, they held up the relationship between mammies and their employers, characterized by love but also inequality, as an ideal model of modern race relations.32 Thus, the mammy figure served white interests in legitimating segregation and obscuring the often exploitative and sometimes violent relationship between black workers and white employers.
Worker Resistance in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
Domestic workers enjoyed limited options in resisting exploitative working conditions in both the North and South. Unlike industrial workers, domestic workers had neither a shop floor on which to organize nor a common employer with whom to bargain collectively. Workers earned extremely low pay, making it difficult to establish savings or pay union dues; long hours often left them with only one afternoon off a week, providing little time to organize other workers. Nevertheless, the historical record is rife with evidence of labor conflict between domestic workers and household employers.
Quitting provided workers with a strategy for dealing with poor working conditions or low wages. The constant demand for household workers made finding another position a relatively easy task, and evidence suggests that domestic workers frequently changed jobs. Employers in both the North and South complained that workers quit without notice. Often, workers chose a critical moment, perhaps just before a dinner party, to walk out. This tactic proved especially effective because employers, particularly those who had grown up with paid household workers, often did not know how to perform domestic tasks themselves.33
Because domestics worked in the private sphere, employers demanded control over not just their labor but also their leisure. In both North and South, employers believed that the morality of their own homes required them to police the leisure time of their employees. Ethnic and racial differences between employers and domestic workers only confirmed for employers that domestic workers tended to behave immorally and needed strict supervision. Domestic workers, however, rejected the idea that they needed moral guidance or that their free time belonged to anyone else. Some domestic workers asserted bodily autonomy by means of dancing. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, household workers in both North and South headed to dance halls on their nights off. There, they mingled with other working-class people and claimed control over their leisure time. Dancing allowed workers to reject middle-class notions of propriety. They did not waltz. In Coney Island dance halls, workers danced “the Charlie Chaplin wiggle” and the bunny hop.34 In southern “jook joints,” domestic workers did the Fanny Bump and the Shimmy.35 Dancing provided an escape not just from the burdens of work but also from the oppression of Jim Crow segregation, a system designed to coerce and order black bodies. Southern blacks conformed to white behavioral expectations or risked their lives. Domestic workers, who worked in white homes, lived under near constant surveillance from employers. Dancing allowed black workers literally to “shake off” those expectations, if only for a few hours.
Some domestic workers resisted intolerable working conditions collectively. For example, in July 1881, a group of Atlanta washerwomen met in a church and formed a trade organization. They established a standard rate of one dollar for every twelve pounds of wash and then visited houses throughout their neighborhood to recruit new workers. When employers refused to pay the new rate, workers went on strike. Unionism, especially for black workers in the Jim Crow South, was risky. During the Atlanta strike, many of the women were arrested. Landlords retaliated by raising workers’ rent. Eventually, the strike ended and wages remained low.36 Without support for these domestic workers from labor leaders and reformers, the white southern power structure and the demand of white families for cheap household labor prevailed.
The Great Migration
Given these conditions, many women chose to leave the South. Especially after the turn of the 20th century, African American women left the South in droves, hoping to find higher wages and escape violence and the oppression of legal segregation.37 Migrating north was a matter of family survival. Poverty-stricken families, often decided strategically which daughter to send north and when. To prepare them for domestic work, mothers took their daughters to work in white households or sent them to care for white children after school.38 Some mothers left their children behind in the care of grandparents or relatives in order to earn better wages in the North. While the Great Migration also brought men north looking for work, women workers faced somewhat brighter job prospects. Employment bias denied black women equal opportunity in factories and shops, but domestic work, however poorly paid, was almost always available. Moreover, domestic work, unlike many jobs for men, was not seasonal and offered women a steady job to support their families.
Like Irish immigrant women before them, African American women who migrated to northern U.S. cities traveled as part of long immigration chains. The migration wave began in mid-Atlantic cities like Washington and Philadelphia, but soon African Americans began to stream into New York. Chicago, and other northern cities. Black women often joined sisters or family friends who had gone before them, staying with kin while they looked for work and finding jobs through word of mouth. 39 The transition from small towns in the rural South to large cities in the North could be jolting. Many migrants enjoyed the anonymity and dynamism of places like Harlem and Chicago but found it difficult to create a sense of community. Initially, migrant household workers fit themselves into the prevailing domestic labor market, which required live-in service. Living in an employer’s home in a new city, however, could prove isolating. To build community and create a financial safety net, many formed mutual-aid associations and penny-saver clubs. These clubs provided a sense of camaraderie and community and offered emergency insurance and death benefits.40
African American women established a foothold in the northern domestic labor market, reshaping it in the process. Irish women had accepted live-in positions because living in allowed them to save on room and board and thereby send more money home to their families. Irish women also tended to be young and unmarried; for them, domestic work was a temporary occupation. African American women, on the other hand, expected to work throughout their lives. Many were already married and had children and husbands at home to care for. Others chafed at the isolation of living in their employers’ homes and at the deference employers expected of them.41 Especially after World War I, domestic work in the urban north began to shift from live-in to live-out positions. Live-out workers resided in their own homes, traveled daily to domestic jobs, and enjoyed more autonomy, community, and time to care for their own.
While African Americans dominated the domestic labor market in the East, Japanese and Mexican American women, as well as some Chinese men, performed this labor in the West.42 Japanese and Mexican immigrant women often worked in domestic service while raising their own families. Their presence in the labor market hardened white Americans’ associations of paid domestic work with women of color. At the southern border, Mexican immigrant women found that they could increase their chances of admittance to the United States by claiming that they were domestic workers and confirming border agents’ ethnic and gendered expectations.43 Once these immigrants were in domestic jobs, employers expected deference that reflected both class and racial inequality.44
Day work, performed by racial “others” in middle-class homes, became a national norm by the 1920s. European immigrant workers had assimilated, and their daughters would move on to middle-class and pink-collar jobs as waitresses and office workers.45 Assimilation, and the accompanying transition from being considered nonwhite to merely ethnic, was impossible for women of color, however. Meanwhile, as housework in middle-class and wealthy white homes became the province of women of color, employers took only supervisory roles in the home, leaving the heaviest and dirtiest work to hired help.46 Domesticity itself now rested on a racial and class hierarchy. White women devoted themselves to “labors of love” like seeing to the needs of their husbands and nurturing their children, while designating cooking and cleaning to women of color.47
The Great Depression
As the nation sank into ten years of economic depression in the 1930s, working conditions for domestic workers declined precipitously. Like other industries, the domestic labor market contracted during the Great Depression. Many household workers lost their jobs or took pay cuts. Others assumed multiple responsibilities when employers reduced their household workforce from several to only one. Workers also endured racist abuse in order to keep their jobs. Cora Coker, a migrant from Louisiana, remembered being given the dog’s dish at dinnertime. At another job, Coker had to sleep on a camping cot in the basement.48 Another black worker, Bessie O’Banyon, realized that her employer had been “taking my money out of my pocketbook and . . . paying me with my own money.”49 Some women told of employers who insisted that they scrub floors on their hands and knees instead of using a mop. In better economic times, Coker or O’Banyon might have quit in the face of such abuse, but in the depths of the Depression, black workers had few choices.
As the Depression deepened and white women lost jobs in other industries, more white women turned to domestic jobs. This left black household workers struggling to find work in a newly competitive labor market. Two hundred “slave markets” appeared on street corners; here, African American women waited for day labor cleaning houses. Journalists and Civil Rights activists Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker detailed the plight of these women in a series of articles for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) magazine, The Crisis. They found poverty-stricken women laboring for wages as low as ten or fifteen cents an hour.50 In effect, Cooke and Baker publicized the exploitation of the workers they profiled. 51 Employers’ racism and greed, along with the workers’ obvious desperation, made street-market workers particularly vulnerable to abuse. Employers were notorious for lengthening workdays by secretly turning back their clocks or claiming that a domestic’s work was undeserving of pay. As activist journalists like Cooke and Baker publicized these conditions, the image of black women lining up to wait for domestic work on street corners became, in the words of one historian, “an alternative symbol” of the economic crisis of the Great Depression.
Despite the suffering of domestic workers, New Deal policies did not reach them as effectively as workers in other industries. In 1938, New Deal reformers, particularly Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, crafted and then lobbied for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Among other things, this bill required that workers engaged in interstate commerce receive a minimum wage and overtime pay. It specifically excluded domestics as well as agricultural workers, however. So did the Social Security Act, which provided covered workers with old-age pensions. President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to these exclusions because southern congressmen, whom he considered a vital component of the Democratic coalition in Congress, refused to extend federal benefits to black low-waged workers in the South. As a result, the largest category of women workers, and virtually all black women workers, received no benefit from New Deal federal labor standards.52
Some women’s organizations, notably the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), tried to include domestic workers in labor regulations on the state level, particularly in New York. They had help from a few other political organizations, including some leftists and Civil Rights groups. They also had the support of the New York Domestic Workers Union (DWU), an interracial group of workers led by Dora Jones, who viewed protective labor legislation as vital to DWU organizing efforts, as well as to improvements in the conditions of domestic work. Working closely with the DWU, the WTUL lobbied politicians and other reform organizations to support bills for a minimum wage and maxiumum hours. These bills failed, in part because of growing conservatism in the late 1930s, when anti–New Dealers began to achieve political gains, particularly on the state level. These bills also failed because progressive women reformers, who usually supported labor legislation for working women, resisted legislation that might treat their private homes as workplaces on a par with factories and shops.53
This debate was not limited to New York. Domestic workers were also excluded from political discussions of work and labor exploitation on the global stage. For example, the International Labor Organization (ILO), formed in order to enact the labor provisions of the Paris Peace Treaty after World War I, explicitly defined women as dependents, not workers. The International Congress of Working Women (ICWW), formed to protest women’s marginalization in the original ILO treaty, also ignored domestics. The ICWW focused its activism on women in industrial unions, over the protests of domestics and advocates for black working women who were concentrated in domestic service.54 During the 1930s, domestic workers and their advocates again tried and failed to get the ILO to include domestic workers in the treaty’s provisions.55 Indeed, over the course of the 20th century, the history of domestic work is one of political exclusion.
Organizing Efforts of Household Workers after 1945
World War II offered some respite for workers trapped in domestic work, which remained low-status and low-waged labor with no state regulation. Domestic workers eagerly left domestic service for war industry jobs that offered men’s industrial pay and New Deal labor protections to women workers for the duration of the war. When it ended, however, women of color, who were among the first fired from war industry jobs, had no choice but to return to domestic work.
In the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement offered domestic workers hope for change. Not only did the movement provide domestic workers with new perspectives on their racial and class position in the United States, but it also provided political organizing experience. For example, domestic workers were crucial to the success of the bus boycott that took hold in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955—the boycott that many historians identify as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement. Domestic workers filled the pews in church meetings and sold food to support the movement and, because they were frequent bus riders, their decision to walk to work kept the boycott afloat.56 These persistent efforts meant that domestic workers did not merely participate in the Civil Rights movement but formed its backbone.
Domestic workers’ activism naturally lent itself to labor organizing. Dorothy Bolden had been active in the Civil Rights movement before organizing the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA) in Atlanta. As a domestic worker, she had experienced both racism and labor exploitation. Once, when she had refused to wash dishes for her employer at the end of a workday, she was arrested for “talking back” to a white woman.57 Bolden was not alone: In Cleveland, Geraldine Roberts worked to organize domestic workers, forming the Domestic Workers of America (DWA) in 1965.58 Roberts had started working in domestic service at the age of eight with a white family in her childhood home of Ola, Arkansas. She eventually moved to Cleveland, where she became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its battle over school desegregation. Through this activism, Roberts began to view the low wages and poor working conditions that black women endured in domestic work as a product of racial discrimination. She applied her CORE experience to the DWA, which committed itself to interracial organizing of the city’s domestic workers.59 Groups like the DWA and the NDWUA sought to bring the experience and worldview of the Civil Rights movement to a largely African American occupation.
These organizations, along with others that emerged in cities around the country, remained committed to professionalizing domestic service, raising its pay, and winning inclusion in state labor protections. While employer groups had tried to “professionalize” domestic service in order to provide employers with more reliable workers, domestics’ organizations saw professionalization as a means of raising the status of domestic workers and emphasizing domestic work as skilled labor. They insisted that domestic work was “real” work exchanged for wages, not out of love or familial obligation to white families. In doing so, they challenged the pastoralization of housework that still contributed to the occupations’ low status. They also pushed back against the racism that still pervaded the occupation. They vocally critiqued “mammy” stereotypes and customs that required workers to call their employers by their surnames while employers called workers by their first names. They also demanded basic standards for domestic work by writing model contracts and publishing booklets delineating tasks, time off, benefits, and base pay rates. In doing so, they found new ways to organize workers for whom traditional union strategies, like collective bargaining and strikes, had not worked.
During this period, progressive reformers also came to the aid of domestic workers. At the behest of Esther Peterson, chief of the Women’s Bureau under the Kennedy administration, and Frieda Miller, former New York State industrial commissioner and a longtime labor activist, the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE) organized middle-class support for professionalization and higher pay. Peterson and Miller worked closely with such black feminists as Dorothy Height and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who eventually became the NCHE’s executive director. Especially after Sloan assumed leadership of the organization, the NCHE began to emphasize the voices of domestic workers, including activists like Bolden and Roberts. In doing so, the NCHE brought together the previously scattered efforts of activists around the country and formed, as historian Premilla Nadasen puts it, “a visible political movement.”60
These coalitions between middle-class reformers and workers found success when, in 1974, the Fair Labor Standards Act expanded to include domestic workers. The passage of this law required the herculean efforts of middle-class women’s organizations, labor, and Civil Rights leaders, as well as domestic workers themselves. Beginning in 1971, these groups had lobbied Congress, testified in congressional hearings, and organized locally to support the bill. Finally in 1974, the FLSA was amended to include domestic workers, making them eligible for a minimum wage and overtime pay.61
The passage of the FLSA amendments was a triumph for household workers, especially given that they required acknowledgment of domestics as workers by the federal government. Many employers, however, ignored the new law and continued to pay employees in cash while failing to enroll them in federal tax and benefit programs like Social Security. As opportunities for African Americans opened up in other occupations, thanks largely to Civil Rights legislation but also to economic trends, black workers left household employment. They were quickly replaced with undocumented immigrants, who were easier to exploit and harder for Department of Labor officials to track.
Domestic work, then, continues to be an occupation riddled with exploitation, even as more and more women enter the labor force and the demand for domestic workers increases. Worker organization efforts have achieved some political successes, including state-level labor protections in states like California, New York, and Massachusetts. Although the occupation continues to be unregulated and often exploitative, the politics of domestic work continues to be at the center of public debate.
Discussion of the Literature
The first history of domestic workers, Domestic Service, was written by Lucy Maynard Salmon in 1897.62 Salmon chronicled common disputes between workers and employers and proposed solutions to the systemic problems she associated with the occupation. Her work also represents an early contribution to modern historiography, periodizing domestic service into four historical “phases”: the rise of revolutionary republicanism, the entrenchment of slavery, emancipation, and the rise of mass Irish immigration. Salmon’s work bears the hallmarks of Progressive era reform literature by privileging the voices and ideas of middle-class reformers over those of workers. Her periodization is still reflected in modern scholarship, and her work continues to influence historical accounts of domestic service.
Domestic service began to reappear in the scholarly literature with the rise of social history and its commitment to narrating history “from the bottom up.” David Katzman’s Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America, published in 1978, marked the first entry in the modern historiography of domestic service.63 Katzman, whose work began a wave of scholarship on the topic, argued that domestic workers’ exploitation stemmed from the occupation’s casual, antimodern labor arrangements.64 In contrast, Faye Dudden argued in Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America that domestic work was not antimodern but, rather, had changed with industrialization from a personalized service that emerged within traditional patterns of mutual assistance to a market relationship between employers and employees.65
Other historians have shown how domestic work illuminates the intersection between racial and gender oppression and economic exploitation. These scholars struggle to balance examples of workers’ agency with accurate depictions of the occupation’s labor exploitation and racial oppression. Ira Katznelson has called domestic workers “the most exploited group of workers in the country.”66 Similarly, Phyllis Palmer shows that domestics’ working conditions declined between World War I and World War II as housework became increasingly associated with workers of color.67 Historians like Tera Hunter, Jacqueline Jones, and Rebecca Sharpless would not disagree with these assessments, but they also emphasize workers’ efforts to maintain a sense of autonomy and take pride in their work while caring for their own families. In the face of the racial and economic exploitation of Jim Crow, this was its own kind of resistance.68
Some scholars have seemed to reject these resistance narratives, arguing that domestic service provided European immigrant workers with an opportunity to learn middle-class housekeeping and encouraged them to aspire to middle-class status, a phenomenon these historians call “bridging.” These scholars see bridging as crucial to the class mobility that European immigrant families experienced, particularly in the second generation.69 Scholars of race, particularly Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Mary Romero, have criticized bridging theories. As Romero argues, scholars who propose bridging as a model for labor relations in domestic service ignore “the brute social fact that domestic workers are disproportionately women of color.”70 For women of color, who were excluded by systemic racism from the social mobility enjoyed by European immigrants, domestic service never provided a bridge to the middle class.
Recently, historians have made an effort to unite the history of domestic service with histories of policy and politics. Premilla Nadasen’s recent book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement demonstrates the connections between Civil Rights activism and domestic worker movements in the post-1945 United States.71 Lara Vapnek prominently includes domestic workers in her Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865–1920 on women’s self-identity as earners at the turn of the 20th century.72 Similarly, in Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1920, I argue that despite workers’ insistence that domestic work was “real” work and should be regulated accordingly, middle-class reformers left domestic work out of their reform campaigns throughout the Progressive era and into the New Deal.73
Because domestic work has historically been performed by low-status workers who left few records, finding primary sources on domestic workers is difficult, especially for the period before about 1920. It is possible, however, to find the voices of domestic workers in newspapers and government records, if one is willing to look carefully. For example, a group of washerwomen who went on strike in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1866 penned an open letter to the mayor asking for higher wages; it appeared in the local newspaper, the Jackson Daily Clarion.74 Finding the voices of domestic workers, then, often involves scouring sources like newspapers, government records, and the records of middle-class reform and Civil Rights organizations.
Historians working in this period have also relied on reports produced by middle-class writers, reformers, and Civil Rights activists. The publications of Progressive era reformers, who valued statistical research and first-person interviews, are especially helpful. These sources yield carefully gathered statistics and occasional quotes from domestic workers, albeit in the footnotes. Examples of these kinds of studies include Lucy Maynard Salmon’s 1897 treatise on the subject, Domestic Service.75 Salmon was a history professor at Vassar College who gathered hundreds of questionnaires from Vassar alumni and their household workers. Frances Kellor demonstrated a similar granular research approach in her investigation of domestic employment agencies, or “intelligence offices,” in Out of Work (1904).76
Other researchers focused specifically on the intersection of race and domestic work. In 1899, Isabel Eaton wrote a lengthy appendix to W. E. B. Dubois’s The Philadelphia Negro, which investigated the problems of African American workers in Philadelphia.77 Elizabeth Ross Haynes, who worked with the Young Women’s Christian Association and held a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University, published “Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States” in the Journal of Negro History.78 In 1940, leftist feminist and Civil Rights activist Esther Cooper Jackson wrote her master’s thesis, “The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism,” at Fisk University.79 This work used a variety of sources, including first-person interviews, to examine labor organizing among domestic workers. In the midst of the Great Depression, Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke also published a series of articles illuminating the New York City “slave markets” in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.80 Archival collections also reveal the contours of African American women’s labor in domestic service. The papers of the National Committee on Household Employment, led by Edith Barksdale Sloane in the 1960s, are held by the National Archives of Black Women’s History in Washington, DC. The papers of Mary McClendon, who led the Detroit Household Workers Organization, are located at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
The establishment of social history as a discipline after World War II created a self-conscious effort among historians to preserve the histories of worker movements. The Atlanta History Center makes oral histories of Dorothy Bolden available online.81 The National Domestic Workers Union records are available in the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University.82 These sources, taken together, allow historians to piece together a picture of domestic work in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Links to Digital Materials
Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market,” The Crisis (November 1935).Find this resource:
Frances Kellor, Out of Work: A Study of Unemployment (1915).
Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth. Living-in, Living-out: African American Domestics in Washington, DC 1910–1940. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Dudden, Faye E.Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.Find this resource:
Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. Issei, Nisei, War Bride: Three Generations of Japanese American Women in Domestic Service. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.Find this resource:
Hunter, Tera. To ʼJoy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.Find this resource:
Katzman, David. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.Find this resource:
May, Vanessa. Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Nadasen, Premilla. Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Boston: Beacon, 2015.Find this resource:
Palmer, Phyllis. Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.Find this resource:
Romero, Mary. Maid in the U.S.A. New York: Routledge, 1992.Find this resource:
Salmon, Lucy Maynard. Domestic Service. New York: Macmillan, 1911.Find this resource:
Sharpless, Rebecca. Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Vapnek, Lara. Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865–1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.Find this resource:
(1.) On “separate spheres,” see Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): 151–174; Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New York: Norton, 1976); and Linda K. Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History,” Journal of American History 75.1 (1988): 9–39.
(2.) Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), esp. 142–163.
(3.) Quoted in Home and Work, 163.
(4.) Faye E. Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).
(7.) On Irish women’s immigration and work as domestic workers, see Hasia Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); and Margaret Lynch‑Brennan, The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840–1930 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009).
(8.) Dudden, Serving Women, 119; David Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 183; and Daniel Sutherland, Americans and their Servants: Domestic Service in the United States from 1800 to 1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 115.
(9.) Dudden, Serving Women, 123.
(10.) Frances Kellor, Out of Work: A Study of Employment Agencies: Their Treatment of the Unemployed, and Their Influence upon Homes and Business (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904), 64.
(11.) Lara Vapnek, Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 102–128; Vanessa May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 17–42; and David Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 223.
(12.) Andrew Urban, “Irish Domestic Servants, ‘Biddy’ and Rebellion in the American Home, 1850–1900,” Gender and History 21.2 (2009): 263–286; and Lynch‑Brennan The Irish Bridget.
(13.) Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 173–174.
(17.) Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 63–96.
(19.) Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 192–241.
(20.) Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 18–31.
(21.) Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Mistresses in the Making: White Girls, Mastery and the Practice of Slaveownership in the Nineteenth-Century South,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, vol. 8, eds. Linda Kerber, Jane S. De Hart, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, and Judy Wu (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 139–147.
(22.) Tera Hunter, To ʼ Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 26–27.
(23.) Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 209.
(24.) Tera Hunter, “‘The “Brotherly Love” for which this City Is Proverbial Should Extend to All’: The Everyday Lives of Working-Class Women in Philadelphia and Atlanta in the 1890s,” in African American Urban Experience: Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present, eds. Joe W. Trotter, Earl Lewis, and Tera Hunter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 83; and Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 38–39.
(25.) Hunter, To ʼJoy My Freedom, 26.
(28.) Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens, 72.
(29.) Katzman, Seven Days a Week, 312.
(30.) Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2010).
(31.) Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 47–61.
(32.) Grace Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Vintage, 1998), 85–120.
(33.) Katzman, Seven Days a Week, 234–235; Dudden, Serving Women, 232–233; May, Unprotected Labor, 65–67; and Tera Hunter, To ʼJoy My Freedom, 28–29, 59–60.
(34.) Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 88–114; and May, Unprotected Labor, 51–54.
(35.) Hunter, To ʼJoy My Freedom, 175.
(37.) Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).
(38.) Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living-in, Living-out: African American Domestics in Washington, DC 1910–1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
(42.) Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Issei, Nisei, War Bride: Three Generations of Japanese American Women in Domestic Service (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Mary Romero, Maid in the U.S.A. (New York: Routledge, 1992); Andrew Urban, “Imperial Divisions of Labor: Chinese Servants and Racial Reproduction in the White Settler Societies of California and the Anglophone Pacific, 1870–1907,” in Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Workers, eds. Dirk Hoerder, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, and Silke Neusinger (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2015), 296–322.
(43.) Martha Gardner, The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870–1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 102–108.
(44.) Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 18.1 (1992), 1–43.
(45.) Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America.
(46.) Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 17–40.
(47.) Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt, 5.
(48.) May, Unprotected Labor, 122.
(49.) Quoted in Unprotected Labor, 123.
(51.) Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).
(52.) Alice Kessler-Harris, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 101–111; Suzanne Mettler, Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 203–206; and Jill Quadagno, The Transformation of Old Age Security: Class and Politics in the American Welfare State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
(53.) May, Unprotected Labor, 106–145.
(54.) Lara Vapnek, “The 1919 International Congress of Working Women: Transnational Debates on the ‘Woman Worker,’” Journal of Women’s History 26.1 (2014): 160–184.
(55.) Eileen Boris and Jennifer N. Fish, “Decent Work for Domestics: Feminist Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and the ILO,” in Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Workers, eds. Dirk Hoerder, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, and Silke Neunsinger (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2015).
(56.) Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon, 2015), 19.
(62.) Lucy Maynard Salmon, Domestic Service (New York: Macmillan, 1911).
(63.) David Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978).
(64.) On arguments for domestic work’s feudal nature, see Sutherland, America and Their Servants, 5; Donna Van Raaphorst, Union Maids Not Wanted: Organizing Domestic Workers 1870–1940 (New York: Praeger, 1988), 13; Susan Strasser, “Mistress & Maid, Employer & Employee: Domestic Service Reform in the United States, 1897–1920,” Marxist Perspectives 1.4 (1978): 64; and Clark-Lewis, Living-in, Living-out, 97.
(65.) Faye E. Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983).
(66.) Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 32.
(67.) Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
(68.) Hunter, To ʼJoy My Freedom; Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow; and Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens.
(69.) For more on the debate on “bridging,” see Silke Wehner, “German Domestic Servants in America, 1850–1914: A New Look at German Immigrant Women’s Experiences,” in People in Transit: German Migrations in Comparative Perspective, 1820–1930, eds. Dirk Hoerder and Jörg Nagler (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 267–293; Lynch Brennan, Irish Bridget; Diane M. Hotten-Somers, “Relinquishing and Reclaiming Independence: Irish Domestic Servants, American Middle-Class Mistresses, and Assimilation, 1850–1920,” in New Directions in Irish-American History, ed. Kevin Kenny (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 227–242; Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America, 94; and Glenn, Issei, Nisei, War Bride, 102–105.
(70.) Mary Romero, Maid in the U.S.A. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 93.
(71.) Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon, 2015).
(72.) Lara Vapnek, Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence 1865–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
(73.) Vanessa May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
(74.) Hunter, To ʼJoy My Freedom, 75; Jackson Daily Clarion, June 24, 1866, in The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Time to the Present, eds. Philip S. Foner and Ronald L. Lewis, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978–1984), 345.
(75.) Lucy Maynard Salmon, Domestic Service (New York: Macmillan, 1911).
(76.) Frances Kellor, Out of Work: A Study of Employment Agencies: Their Treatment of the Unemployed, and Their Influence upon Homes and Business (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904).
(77.) W. E. B DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899).
(78.) Elizabeth Ross Haynes, “Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States,” Journal of Negro History 8.4 (1923): 384–442.
(79.) Esther Cooper Jackson, “The Negro Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism”, Master’s thesis, Fisk University, 1940.
(81.) “Oral history interview of Dorothy Bolden, clip 1 of 2,” Atlanta History Center.
(82.) National Domestic Workers Union Records, Southern Labor Archives, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.