Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890-1950

Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890-1950

Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890-1950

Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890-1950


Focusing on literary authors, social reformers, journalists, and anthropologists, Francesca Sawaya demonstrates how women intellectuals in early twentieth-century America combined and criticized ideas from both the Victorian "cult of domesticity" and the modern "culture of professionalism" to shape new kinds of writing and new kinds of work for themselves.

Sawaya challenges our long-standing histories of modern professional work by elucidating the multiple ways domestic discourse framed professional culture. Modernist views of professionalism typically told a racialized story of a historical break between the primitive, feminine, and domestic work of the Victorian past and the modern, masculine, professional expertise of the present. Modern Women, Modern Work historicizes this discourse about the primitive labor of women and racial others and demonstrates how it has been adopted uncritically in contemporary accounts of professionalism, modernism, and modernity.

Seeking to recuperate black and white women's contestations of the modern professions, Sawaya pairs selected novels with a broad range of nonfiction writings to show how differing narratives about the transition to modernity authorized women's professionalism in a variety of fields. Among the figures considered are Jane Addams, Ruth Benedict, Willa Cather, Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Orne Jewett, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Ida Tarbell. In mapping out the constraints women faced in their writings and their work, and in tracing the slippery compromises they embraced and the brilliant adaptations they made, Modern Women, Modern Work boldly reenvisions the history of modern professionalism in the United States.


By the end of the nineteenth century, a variety of social commentators agreed that what characterized modern “civilization” was specialization. This agreement depended on assumptions about sexual and racial difference. Members of the professional-managerial class in particular historicized the rise of occupational specialization by citing the evidence of the “natural” evolution of the sexual division of labor from primitive homogeneity to modern differentiation. They defined modernity not only through the divided labor of distinct classes but also through the divided labor of women and men, of domesticity and modern professionalism. At the same time, these professionals posed the undifferentiated work of “primitives” against the highly differentiated work of “moderns.” the untrained, unspecialized homogeneous work of racial others, they argued, was quite distinct from the trained, specialized, heterogeneous work of modern professionals.

Such gendered and racialized progressive narratives about civilization conflate, but also separate, the sexual and occupational divisions of labor. As a result, women are included in modernity because they engage in differentiated labor—in other words, domesticity. At the same time, women are excluded from modernity along with other “primitives” because domesticity is part of the untrained, undifferentiated labor of the past. the conflation and separation of the sexual and occupational divisions of labor, and the racializing of both, raise a number of questions about the discursive construction of professionalism: What effect did ideas about modern civilization, about sex and race, have on the development of professionalism? How are we to understand the relation between the putatively modern “culture of professionalism” and the putatively primitive “cult of domesticity”? Furthermore, how did the first generations of black and white women professionals negotiate ideas about modern occupational specialization, ideas that depended on women and other “primitives” to prove the high status of specialized, trained labor and yet that placed these “primitives” (in different ways) outside such labor?

Modern Women, Modern Work addresses these questions about the relations between gender, race, and professionalism in the United States in the late nine-

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