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

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

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

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


In the era after Suffrage, white middle-class housewives abandoned moves toward paid work for themselves, embraced domestic life, and felt entitled to servants. In "Domesticity 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 womens 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 series "Women in the Political Economy," edited by Ronnie J. Steinberg.



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 morn-

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