Working in public and in private : domestic service, women's reform, and the meaning of the middle-class home in New York City, 1870-1940

May, Vanessa Harkins, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation weaves together three narratives to form a political history of domestic service, the largest sector of women's employment into the 1940s. First, this project traces the history of t4e workers who toiled in middle-class homes. While many labor historians have preferred to focus on the unionism of industrial workers on the factory floor, I argue that working-class consciousness could be, and was, maintained within middle-class communities. Although the immigrant domestics who lived and worked in middle-class homes at the tum of the twentieth century usually did not participate in the formal unions of their industrial sisters, they found various ways to build a sense of working-class community and solidarity and to resist the harsher conditions of service. Second, this dissertation recounts the story of middle-class' both ordinary housewives who employed domestics in their homes and organized women who created, lobbied for, and debated protective labor legislation for women workers. Women reformers were on the forefront of labor activism and key architects of the welfare state ministering to women and children. Reformers of domestic service, however, faced a difficult choice between aiding poor working women and protecting their own privacy. I reveal the divisions among women's organizations as they struggled to reconcile their humane ideals with the realities in their kitchens. Finally, this dissertation explores the concepts of public and private and how they affected both the ideology of middle-class women reformers and the possibilities for resistance among domestic workers. I argue that ideas about what was private and what was public were in constant tension with each other as middle-class housewives, women reformers, domestic experts, legislators, and household workers debated domestic service during this period. Although domestics were not included in wage and hour protections until 1974, the occupation did not lack for legislation or reform. While we often think of domestic service as hidden from public view in middle-class homes, and hence forgotten by legislators, it was in fact a major topic of public conversation and reform throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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