Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Business of Housekeeping: The Mistress, the Domestic Worker, and the Construction of Class

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Business of Housekeeping: The Mistress, the Domestic Worker, and the Construction of Class

Article excerpt

At the outset of A Treatise on Domestic Economy, Catharine Beecher, one of the most prominent of American domestic economists, explains the political structure of America in order to lay the groundwork for her prescriptions for the American home. She explains that, as both the principles of democracy and Christianity have established, "each individual of our race shall regard the happiness of others, as of the same value as his own; and ... forbid any institution, in private or civil life, which secures advantages to one class, by sacrificing the interests of another" (2). "The institutions of monarchical and aristocratic nations," Beecher adds, "are based on precisely opposite principles" (3). American women have the power to choose their husbands, and domestics, artisans, and laborers the power to choose their employers. Americans choose their superiors: "Each subject ... has equal power with every other, to decide who shall be his superior as a ruler" (3). In "private or civil life," dependence on and deference to superiors is voluntary, and "each individual may pursue and secure the highest degree of happiness within his reach, unimpeded by the selfish interests of others" (2). Beecher places the American home firmly within the political context of the nation, its economy not only reflecting but also determining the social and civic relations of the nation. Accompanying these "valuable civil blessings" which allow us to "escape from the untold miseries and oppression" that are necessary elements of aristocracy, Beecher instructs her reader, are trials peculiar to the American housewife (Treatise 197). (1) The need for manuals of domestic economy and the instruction provided by domestic novels is driven by the political economy that has allowed the freedom of this unprecedented class mobility.

One of those great trials of the American housewife is the training and care of her domestics, which is a trial precisely because there is no permanent class of workers. Beecher argues consistently throughout the Treatise that while all must be treated as we would like ourselves to be if we were in the same position, we can and should train the domestic into her proper place in the hierarchy of the home. Furthermore, the housekeeper must consider that the wages of the worker must be consistent with those determined by the laws of supply and demand and that the working conditions of the domestic are very much part of those laws. A good domestic will work where she finds those conditions most agreeable and most respectful of her rights as guaranteed in America. Beecher therefore recommends creating a work environment that will welcome a domestic and promise to instruct her in the matters of domestic economy. Providing such a workplace would not only secure the labor of the domestic but would also contribute to "the welfare of society" (Treatise 203). At the end of this chapter, entitled "On the Care of Domestics," Beecher recommends Catharine Maria Sedgwick's domestic novel Live and Let Live; or, Domestic Service Illustrated: "The excellent little work of Miss Sedgwick, entitled 'Live, and Let Live,' contains many valuable and useful hints, conveyed in a most pleasing narrative form, which every housekeeper would do well to read" (206, n.). Like Beecher, Sedgwick addresses domestic economy as a form of political economy, attributing changes in the structure of the home to the introduction of democratic ideals and the laws of capitalism into American economy, society, and culture. Both Beecher's Treatise and Sedgwick's Live and Let Live are preoccupied with the political implications of the new class relations.

When women debated class relations in America, they often did so by examining how class worked within the home, which meant a particular examination of the relationship between the housekeeper and the domestic servant. (2) Although the theory of separate spheres has been rightfully and effectively dismantled, it was, however, certainly the case that women were primarily responsible for the care of their homes and it was likely that women--and children--encountered paid labor and the distinctions of class for the first time within a home or within the context of home, as part of an employing family, as a wage earner, or as a member of the wage earner's family. …

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