Domesticity And Dirt

Domesticity And Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945

Copyright Date: 1989
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Domesticity And Dirt
    Book Description:

    In the era after Suffrage, white middle-class housewives abandoned moves toward paid work for themselves, embraced domestic life, and felt entitled to servants. InDomesticity and Dirt, Phyllis Palmer examines the cultural norms that led such women to take on the ornamental and emotional elements of the job while relegating the hard physical work and demeaning service tasks to servants-mainly women of color. Using novels, films, magazine articles, home economics texts, and government-funded domestic training course manuals, the author details cultural expectations about middle-class homelife.

    Palmer describes how government-funded education programs encouraged the divisions of labor and identity and undercut domestic workers' organized efforts during the 1930s to win inclusion in New Deal programs regulating labor conditions. Aided by less powerful black civil rights groups, without the assistance of trade unions or women's clubs, domestics failed to win legal protections and the legal authority and self-respect these brought to covered workers. The author also reveals how middle- class women responded ambivalently to the call to aid women workers when labor reforms threatened their domestic arrangements.

    Throughout her study, Palmer questions why white middle-class women looked to new technology and domestic help to deal with cultural demands upon "the perfect housewife" rather than expecting their husbands to help. When the supply of servants declined during the 1950s, middle-class housewives were left isolated with lots of housework. Although they rapidly followed their servants into paid work outside the home, they remain responsible for housework and child care.In the seriesWomen in the Political Economy, edited by Ronnie J. Steinberg.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0554-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. One Domestic Work Between the Wars
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book describes housework in middle-class homes, and especially relations between housewives and servants, from 1920 until the end of World War II—the final moment when housewives in large numbers could hope to hire another woman to do part of the work designated as “theirs.” In contrast to most accounts of women’s lives in the 1930s, mine stresses that a large group of women continued to employ domestic servants and to define themselves as mistresses, while large numbers of working-class women, especially women of color, saw domestic work as their most likely paid job.

    A conservative era so far...

  6. Two The Housewife in a Modern Marriage
    (pp. 17-40)

    Middle-class housewives (MCHs) had a moral vision of housework at the center of life.¹ MCHs believed they could cherish and impart positive values through homemaking: caring for the young or frail, learning to share responsibilities with a partner, raising aesthetic standards, using physical resources sensibly, and nurturing spirit. Statements and depictions of these aspirations will help us understand what social improvements “good” women thought they could achieve through housewifery. Equally important, domestic success often depended on exploitation of other women, denial of physicality, and limitation of self-development—controlling “bad” impulses.

    The dominant vision of twentieth-century domestic life was created during...

  7. Three The Businessman’s Wife at Work
    (pp. 41-64)

    Husbands and children expected to find the home a healthy, sustaining retreat from the outside world, as it had been depicted in popular culture since the mid-nineteenth century. At home, one found appropriately cooked food, charmingly served; clean clothes; clean, orderly, and refreshing spaces for bathing, sleeping, eating, and socializing; and happy, well-mannered children. The time-consuming tasks required to meet this ideal represented a labor of love—of service to the family’s members.¹

    Physical labor, hundreds of diligently performed tasks, made possible this pleasant existence. These were not, as we saw in Chapter Two, to require that the wife sacrifice...

  8. Four The Domestic Does Her Job
    (pp. 65-88)

    The domestic’s workplace was the housewife’s home, and conflicts were inherent in the culture’s dichotomous vision of work and home.¹ In the period 1920 to 1945, domestics conceived of housework as a job. Like other workers, they devised schemes to make it easier and more efficient, sought employment at the best wages for the shortest hours obtainable, and sporadically organized to press for inclusion within proliferating laws regulating conditions of labor.

    Unlike most other wage laborers, however, domestics were expected to feel the same interest in their jobs as in their own homes and families; indeed, throughout the period, the...

  9. Five Education for the Vocation of Housework
    (pp. 89-110)

    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...

  10. Six Negotiating the Law of Service
    (pp. 111-136)

    In the mid-1930s, household workers sang this song at YWCA summer camps, wrote letters to members of Congress and the president, and collected data to bolster demands for inclusion of domestic workers in labor protections sponsored by the New Deal. Domestics, sometimes organized in clubs and union chapters, found allies among such women’s reform groups as the YWCA, the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL), and the National Consumers’ League (NCL), in civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, and among union affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial...

  11. Seven Dirt and Divisions Among Women
    (pp. 137-152)

    When the musical comedy heroine Annie Oakley heard Frank Butler sing “The Girl That I Marry,” she became desperate at the distance between his image of an ideal mate and her evident unsuitability: she was a sharpshooter wearing buckskin and boots, rather than satins and laces. Annie and Frank finally united, but the message was clear. If a woman wanted matrimony, she had better learn to clothe herself in the paraphernalia of femininity. The woman about to embark on keeping house had better look and smell as if she never saw a dirty dish or dirty floor, much less scrubbed...

  12. Afterword
    (pp. 153-162)

    In concluding, I want to glance at what happened to domestic service and housework between 1945 and 1980 from the perspective of the late 1980s, to assess how household work is done now, and to offer a vision of what housework might become. I hope to clarify how the issues of the book remain alive for us to confront.

    As the end of World War II approached, middle-class housewives around the United States began to hope that women workers would leave industrial jobs for domestic service. Peace, they wistfully assumed, would bring domestics back into the home as well as...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 163-206)
  14. Index
    (pp. 207-214)