Home > histories > Susan Thistle, “Support for Women’s Domestic Economy in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”

Susan Thistle, “Support for Women’s Domestic Economy in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”

“Support for Women’s Domestic Economy in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”

Susan Thistle

Chapter 2, From Marriage to the Market: The Transformation of Women’s Lives and Work [2006]

To fully grasp the striking changes that took place in women’s lives and the
American economy in the last half of the twentieth century, we need to step
back a bit from the present. In order to see the underlying connections between
these events, and their deeper causes, we need a larger perspective. To understand
why support for women’s work in the home has come apart in recent
years, for example, we must first gain a clear sense of what once held support
for such work together. 

In the early United States, both white and African American women were responsible
for an arduous set of domestic tasks essential to the survival of their
families. Women butchered hogs and hung them to bleed, cooked over wood
fires, and hauled water in and out of their homes as part of their daily chores.
The growth of a market economy brought changes to such work, but initially
these involved mainly new demands for labor rather than much reduction of
household tasks. African American women were subjected to cruel burdens
under slavery; the daughters of northern farmers filled the early textile mills. Yet
at the end of the nineteenth century, though African American women were
much more likely to work outside the home, most black women as well as white
women gave priority to their domestic chores. Miners and factory workers
staged fierce demonstrations for wages that could support their wives’ household
work, and in rural as well as urban areas, men married, even if very poor.
In the second half of the twentieth century, both African American and white
wives turned in large numbers to work for pay. Though the early advocates of
women’s rights had decided not to tackle “the differences in the male and female
contributions to take care of themselves,” in the years after World War II
women fiercely challenged this division of labor and the Supreme Court found
in their favor.1 Though some men resisted their wives’ employment, no great
demonstrations by male workers for a new family wage took place. Instead, by
the 1980s male college students scoffed at the idea of supporting a full-time
housewife, and marriage rates had plummeted among both rich and poor. Why
did men once fight for wages generous enough to support women’s work in the
home, but now no longer do so? Why did women once embrace their domestic
role and later challenge it?

To answer these questions, we need to broaden our understanding of the nature
both of the relationship between the sexes and of economic development
itself. Thus, I begin this chapter by looking at these two areas from a new angle,
focusing on the interactions between gender and a developing market society
and examining how and why such interactions changed over time. I then use
this analytic framework to provide a fresh perspective on the experiences of
white and African American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
in the United States, thereby setting the stage for a deeper understanding
of the dramatic changes that would follow.

Women’s Household Work and the Rise of the Market

The Gender Division of Labor
At the heart of gender, stretching back to earliest times, lies a separation of tasks
by sex, commonly referred to as the gender division of labor. However, this arrangement
has involved more than men and women’s performance of different
chores. We must also consider how this division of work was organized and sustained.
While both men and women engaged in productive tasks, men controlled
this arrangement and the land and homes in which women worked.
Though women’s work was crucial to their families, their access to much of
what they needed for survival lay in men’s hands. Thus, in essence, women
worked for men, who supported and benefited from such domestic labor. Marriage
was the primary institution formalizing this arrangement, giving men
legal and economic authority over women. In the nineteenth-century United
States, for example, husbands were expected to support their wives in exchange
for their performance of domestic chores, a bargain reinforced by many cultural
and political codes and practices.2

This gender division of labor has been central to agricultural life in almost all
regions of the world.3 Today, this term (or the sexual division of labor) commonly
refers to women’s continued responsibility for domestic chores and child care,
and men’s focus on paid work and avoidance of domestic tasks despite their
wives’ employment. The key issue, however, is whether the means of organizing
and supporting the tasks of family maintenance have altered. Do men still
continue to support such work through marriage? Do cultural and legal institutions
still reinforce women’s performance of domestic tasks? The difficulties
faced by growing numbers of women as they juggle work at home and for pay,
often entirely on their own, make clear how little support remains. Thus, we
must ask how and why this age-old arrangement of labor has broken down. Answering
this question requires a closer look at the interaction between gender
and a growing commercial and industrial economy in the United States.

The Industrial Revolution
Most accounts of the Industrial Revolution, focusing on the lives of white men
in Europe and the United States, have stressed the rapid and decisive remaking
of an earlier way of life. A central theme in this story is that men, no longer able
to support themselves on their land or through craft work, were forced to sell
their labor to survive. Recent historical research, however, has shown that this
turn to wages was a much more gradual event than first realized.4 Moreover, in
its narrow focus on one group of men, this approach has obscured and distorted
the experience of other groups. Though some men’s lives were indeed turned
upside down, many of the old ways of life persisted. As one theorist has put it,
“industrialization . . . bites unevenly into the established social and economic
structures,” dramatically altering some areas of work while leaving others
largely untouched.5 A closer look at this uneven process helps us understand
women’s experiences in the United States, and differences in these experiences
by race, over the past two centuries.

A clear grasp of the interaction between the market and women’s work also
requires another shift of focus, from Europe to other areas of the world claimed
as colonies. The intrusion of new commercial relations only rarely resulted in a
sudden and complete destruction of the old social fabric. Rather, the growing
group of merchants usually drew on and reinforced many of the existing
arrangements of work; only gradually did the market come to dominate. Even in
the United States, as one historian notes, “the early bourgeoisie did not emerge
as a bull in a china shop, smashing all in its path: it treaded very softly indeed.”6
However, as the market economy grew, it took over an increasing number of
tasks, undermining many of the old ways of producing goods and services. This
led, in the end, to the collapse of the earlier forms of labor, creating a pool of
potential workers for hire. Two well-known examples of this process are the dispossession
of tenant farmers by landowners who saw greater profits in grazing
sheep and the disappearance of many artisans’ guilds as factory production un-
dercut their craft work. Some have stressed the role of capitalism in determining
these interactions. In actuality, however, these were more open struggles,
shaped by a series of negotiations and alliances, as some resisted the market
while others welcomed its embrace.7

When we look at the relationship between a growing commercial and industrial
economy and the gender division of labor, or African American and
white women’s work within the home, we can see a similar pattern of change
over time. In the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States, both
African American and white women’s engagement in household work was first,
in different ways, reinforced in their encounters with the market. But over the
first half of the twentieth century, both women’s domestic tasks and the customs
and laws shaping such tasks were gradually eroded. In the decades after World
War II, as a rapidly expanding market took over many household chores, the old
arrangements for their accomplishment came to feel unnecessarily confining,
not only to many women but also to those supporting their labor. This brought
struggles to undo the framings of the gender division of labor, allowing and
then increasingly requiring women to rely on wage work.

Thus, the dramatic changes in gender roles in the years after World War II
cannot be attributed simply to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs,
men’s shifting economic fortunes, or even new options for women in the wage
economy. Rather, we must look at alterations in women’s domestic realm itself.
To prepare for that investigation, we need a fuller understanding of women’s
initial confrontations with an emerging market economy in the early United

This understanding requires a further shift of focus, a reversal of the emphasis
of many early studies, from women’s work for pay to their work within the
home. As other scholars have noted, such a shift exposes the space accorded
most white women but commonly denied to women of color for care of their
families.8 However, it also reveals important though previously overlooked similarities
between the market’s encounters with earlier arrangements of work and
women’s domestic realm.

Such encounters typically led to fierce struggles. At their heart lay efforts by
the market to impose new demands on people still very much engaged in meeting
their own needs for food and shelter. Such demands were resisted with varying
degrees of success. Some groups were able to fend off the encroachments
of the new economy at first, holding it at a distance. Others, as studies of Indonesia
and Africa have shown, were held in their old ways of work while also
forced to take on the production of goods for sale. They then faced serious problems,
as they had little time to grow their own food or carry out other tasks still
crucial to their survival. They managed only through intense effort. Yet such ex-
treme effort brought them not increased gain but deeper poverty, ever-greater
exhaustion, and even death.9

Such comparison provides a deeper understanding of women’s diverging experiences
in the early United States. Like others successful in resisting the intrusions
of the market, white women in the United States in the nineteenth century
were able to hold the demands of the new economy at bay, preserving space
for their domestic tasks. In contrast, a second set of burdensome chores was imposed
on African American women, bringing the “intense exploitation and prolonged
pauperization” that is the consequence of such doubled labor.10 Their
central struggle then became how to carve out space for the domestic tasks still
necessary to sustain their families. They managed through strategies seen elsewhere:
intertwining the required tasks, drawing on a wide network of kin, and
pushing themselves to their limits. Thus, the experience of African American
women provides a look at an alternative relationship between the gender division
of labor and a developing market, and the consequences when the demands
of the new economy could not be held off.

By looking more closely at African American and white women’s experiences
in the early United States, we can better grasp this process. We can also better
understand how and why the gender division of labor was sustained in differing
ways at the turn of the last century, only to collapse fifty years later.

Initial Encounters with the Market
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both white and African American
women carried out a clearly defined set of tasks involving the production
of food, clothing, and other items for use within their homes. Such work was
crucial to their own and their families’ survival. However, in this period, the demands
of the market were reshaping household production. “In this respect,”
historians have noted, “the slave plantations of the Old South and elsewhere had
much in common with the households and farms of the northern North American
colonies and states.”11 For women, the growing market did little to reduce
their domestic chores, while raising threats to their ability to accomplish such
tasks, with differing outcomes.

White Women
In northern farms and towns, households were organized around a sharp division
of tasks by gender. In rural areas, women tended gardens and poultry, prepared
meals, made and mended clothes, hauled water, stoked fires, and gave
birth to, in 1800, an average of seven infants, raising roughly five children to
adulthood. While some of these tasks were done outside the walls of the house,
and some women helped in the fields or sold their surplus eggs or butter,
women’s primary work centered on production for their own households.12
Men had clear need of, as well as control over, women’s domestic labor.
Wives were recognized as a source of wealth in the household economy. Single
men went to some effort to find women to live and work on their farms, recruiting
their sisters if they could not obtain wives. Children were also an important
source of labor, and women’s work in giving birth to, feeding, clothing,
and raising their offspring was great.13

As the commercial economy developed, many women’s interactions with the
market initially intensified, as they sold an increasing amount of the products
of their gardens, chickens, and cows. Still, men remained in charge of overall
farm or craft production for exchange, even when areas once considered
women’s province became the family’s main source of income. By the end of
the 1840s, when most household economies were oriented toward the market,
men were devoting their energies mainly to producing goods for sale, while
women remained primarily engaged in meeting household needs. Some young
women entered the early textile mills, providing a much-needed supply of inexpensive
labor, as men generally preferred farming their own land to working
for others. Only a handful of all women were mill workers, however, and most
worked little more than four or five years before leaving to marry and focus once
again on domestic tasks.14

The handling of women’s dairy work exemplifies both how women were
held in household work and how space for their domestic tasks was preserved
in their initial encounter with the market. As commercial and urban development
increased, women on many farms at first were pulled into greater production
for sale. As demand for their goods grew, many farmwives put more
time into making butter and cheese, hiring dairy maids as assistants. But as dairy
production became the farm’s main source of income, the male head of the
family took control of this work. Such a move lessened the workload of women
burdened with household chores but also kept them from economic gains of
their own. This outcome, the historian Marjorie Cohen notes, resulted from
“male control of capital and the primary responsibility of women to maintain
the family unit,” or the gender division of labor within the home.15 Men also
took steps to retain control in craft work, relegating women to menial tasks in
shoemaking, for example.16

Thus, the market did not simply transform men’s tasks first, freeing husbands
from the home before their wives. Rather, men kept control of any work that
had the potential to make money, while women were steered toward housework.
In this way, the existing division of labor between the sexes was sustained
in early encounters with the developing commercial economy.

However, women’s persistence in the home did not mean an end to their
work, as the doctrine of separate spheres evolving in the early nineteenth century
implied, except among a small elite married to wealthy merchants and
southern landowners. The view that women were left only with “reproductive”
tasks when men’s work moved outside the home reflected a devaluation of
women’s domestic labor as a market economy, focused on work for pay, grew
dominant. In actuality, while women gave less assistance to men’s tasks, they still
faced a strenuous set of chores that, while differing across the emerging classes,
filled their waking hours and were very necessary to survival. “Families were
still . . . critically dependent on a certain level of subsistence production in the
home,” Cohen states, “because alternative sources for the goods and services
supplied by females in the home were not available.”17 Young men were still advised
to marry if they wanted to do well.

Even women in the growing towns and cities were still burdened by many
household chores. Most women faced long days of strenuous labor, hauling
water and coal or wood for their stoves and shopping daily for food. Even
women in the emerging middle classes spent hours each day making and mending
clothes as well as cooking, baking, doing laundry with hired help, and cleaning
the house. “[I am] too busy to live,” a lawyer’s wife in one northeastern city
wrote to her sister in 1845, as so consumed by household tasks and the “filling
up” and other care of her six children.18

Despite their long hours of work, the great majority of women saw their interests
as lying within rather than outside the framework of their domestic economy.
The other avenues of support offered to women by the market were few
and easily blocked. Even those women organizing for greater rights decided not
to challenge the division of labor between the sexes. Instead, though they called
for political equality with men, they took steps to limit the market’s claims on
women’s time.19

In short, the domestic tasks done by women still needed doing. Until those
tasks could be accomplished in some other way, gathering supporters, the existing
configuration of interests worked to perpetuate the gender division of
labor, thereby reducing the possibilities of its transformation in the process.

African American Women
African American women, unlike most white women, were not spared the demands
of the market. Slavery crudely and brutally imposed a second set of tasks
on them. More than 90 percent of African American women on plantations in
the mid–nineteenth century worked eleven to thirteen hours a day in the fields
for most of the year.20 At the same time, they continued to carry out essential
tasks for their own families. Accounts by ex-slaves make clear that women re-
tained primary responsibility for child care and domestic chores. They prepared
meals, sewed and washed their families’ clothes, cleaned their households, and
tended their children. Such domestic tasks were not done by men, who strenuously
avoided tasks considered women’s work, such as laundry or the care of
infants. When assigned such chores as punishment by slaveholders, most endured
the lash rather than comply. Women were also punished in similar fashion.
One former slave, describing the capture of a young woman who had run
away, remembered: “When they got her back they made her wear men’s pants
for one year.”21 Thus a strong sense of gender roles prevailed. African American
men were denied direct support of their wives’ household work, though it
was primarily their labor in the fields that created their owners’ fortunes. However,
several historians provide evidence that black men still had authority
within their own homes.22

African American men had need of women’s household work. On Saturday
nights, according to one observer, the roads were full of men traveling to see
their wives on other plantations with bags of dirty laundry on their backs. As
one ex-slave testified to Congress, “The colored men in taking wives always do
so in reference to the service the women will render.”23 Though plantation owners
also relied on African American women’s domestic labor, they were far more
concerned with the production of their crops and gave African American
women little time to care for their husbands and children, with grave consequences.24

Slavery has commonly been seen as dealing a heavy blow to the two-parent
family. Even those scholars who argue that most children lived with their fathers
and mothers document the separation of many husbands and wives.25 However,
the African American family faced destruction in a more direct and devastating
sense, as the demands of slavery made it very difficult for women to carry out
the domestic tasks crucial to survival.

African American women succeeded in accomplishing their household
chores through strategies like those used in other places when the market imposed
new demands on an older economy. Like peasants in Indonesia forced to
grow sugarcane for the Dutch as well as rice for themselves, black women interwove
their different tasks, relied on a web of relatives for help, and worked
extremely long hours. Many women took their infants to the field each day,
nursing them while hoeing. Older women provided child care for those who
worked in the fields, and a number of other domestic tasks were carried out collectively.
Women also pushed themselves to the limits of endurance. Children
remembered mothers and grandmothers sewing their clothes late into the
evening. “Work, work, work . . . I been so exhausted working. . . . I worked till
I thought another lick would kill me,” one old woman told interviewers from
the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937. Plantation owners also ordered a brutal
communal handling of meal preparation and other chores, which serves as a reminder
that the collectivization of domestic tasks is not in itself freeing.26
Like other groups forced to take on new burdens while still engaged in other
tasks, their long hours of work did not bring black women themselves increased
wealth, but only greater hardship. Despite their efforts, their domestic realm
suffered. Lack of time to grow gardens, prepare meals, or tend to children resulted
in much sickness among young and old, and the heavy workload resulted
in many miscarriages, and early deaths among children and mothers themselves.
“My last old marster would make me leave my child before day to go to the
cane-field; and he would not allow me to come back till ten o’clock in the
morning to nurse,” remembered one ex-slave from Louisiana. “I could hear my
poor child crying long before I got to it. And la, me! my poor child would be
so hungry when I’d get to it!” Asked how her children had fared when she was
forced to spend long such hours in the field, this mother answered bluntly:
“They all died . . . they died for want of attention. I used to leave them alone
half of the time.”27

That the black family persisted at all is testimony to the efforts of African
American women. Second, slavery was followed by a form of work that drew
on and thus reinforced the gender division of labor, that of sharecropping.

The First Encounter with Industrial Capitalism
In the second half of the nineteenth century, an industrial economy was built
on the foundation laid by a growing market. Only about 5 percent of the population
worked in manufacturing in the United States in 1850. In the following
decades factories grew rapidly, powered by the increasing numbers of people
pushed off the land at home and, to a greater extent, abroad.28
This early moment of industrialization also did little to reduce women’s domestic
chores. Though the early textile mills took the arduous task of making
cloth out of the home, few further inroads were made into women’s household
tasks. Instead, initial emphasis was on creating an industrial base, through the
construction of transportation networks, and factories that could turn out the
powerful new machinery. However, the rise of industrial capitalism raised a second,
more intense challenge to women’s persistence in household work, in the
form of wage work.

Employers at first made heavy use of female workers. Cities in the Northeast
and Midwest were referred to as “hives of female and child labor.” Because most
women had access to some income from men in exchange for their domestic
labor, employers could escape paying the full cost of their upkeep. One em-
ployer explained that his rule was “never to hire a woman who must depend
entirely upon my support.”29 Low wages, however, not only consigned many
women to miserable poverty but also once again left them little time to carry
out their own household tasks. This led to a renegotiation of the relationship
between the gender division of labor and the market. Once again the outcomes
of these negotiations differed by race.30

White Women
Men’s efforts to exclude women from better-paying factory jobs and the emerging
professions due to fears of competition have been well documented. However,
there was another important side to this struggle. Women’s domestic work
was still much needed at the end of the nineteenth century. In rural areas,
household chores remained arduous. A farmer’s wife in North Carolina, for example,
estimated she carried close to a dozen buckets of water to her house and
back outside again each day, as well as emptying chamber pots. Women in the
growing towns fared little better. No homes in a typical Midwest town had running
water in 1885; five years later, a water tap in the front yard was considered
a grand thing.31

Some large houses with piped water and gas lighting were built in the growing
urban areas, but these new services were priced beyond the reach of most.
In 1912, only 16 percent of households had electricity. Even in the largest cities,
most families were still using outhouses. Women continued to collect coal or
wood for cookstoves and to lug water from city faucets, and making meals remained
time-consuming. While basic provisions could be purchased, women
still shopped every day for food, plucked and cleaned poultry, and made most
baked goods from scratch.32

Though the new machines of the Industrial Revolution did little at first to reduce
women’s household work, unequal distribution of the profits from such
production brought differences in the burdens of housework. Growing numbers
of women were able to hire help, while others took in boarders, laundry,
or sewing as household chores began to be converted to work for wages, much
as had occurred in agriculture. Still, even middle-class women had much to do
preparing meals, sewing clothes, and cleaning their homes. “I . . . am to[o]
tired to talk with [my children] much of the time,” one such mother confessed.33

Husbands, government officials, and female reformers recognized the importance
of women’s household work. “Those men in the iron mines in Missouri
need women to do the cooking and washing,” one woman summoned to
join her husband was told. Unmarried workers sharing living quarters often
pooled their wages to keep one woman at home. Male workers repeatedly de-
manded a “family wage” that could support their wives’ domestic labor, and
most working-class women preferred marriage and its duties over poorly paying
factory jobs.34 Middle-class women and their husbands also took steps to ensure
that women had sufficient time for care of their homes. Though individual
women, in their choices, often implicitly acknowledged the connection
between the performance of household tasks under men’s control and support
and exclusion from economic and political power, only a small and unpopular
minority raised this issue openly. Most women sought instead to preserve, defend,
and, among the more progressive, reform their domestic economy.35

Thus, at the start of the twentieth century, women’s organizations made up
of white middle-class housewives sought to shore up the domestic realm
against the threats posed by the developing industrial order. Some lobbied for
pensions for single mothers; others worked to improve the conditions of
women’s work in the home. Educated women living among the poor deplored
the hardships faced by employed mothers. Condemning the “wretched delusion
that a woman can both support and nurture her children,” Jane Addams raged:
“How stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves
in the coarser work of the world!” Rather than free women from household
tasks, these reformers fought to curtail employers’ access to women’s labor.36
Employers themselves fiercely resisted such restrictions, even though it was
women’s persistence in household work that made possible their low wages and
provided new generations of workers. However, the Supreme Court, declaring
the need to protect women “from the greed as well as the passion of men,”
ruled in favor of limiting women’s hours and regulating their conditions of

Thus, in the initial encounter between an emerging industrial economy and
the gender division of labor, women’s engagement in household tasks was sustained
for some families through such measures as the family wage, protective
labor legislation, and the creation of small pensions for single mothers. At the
same time, as some women fought to pursue the “careers open to talent” becoming
available to their brothers, and others were driven to work for wages to
ensure the survival of their families, women’s relegation to home and hearth
grew increasingly vulnerable to attack.38

Yet, much as men had often resisted the loss of control over their own land
or craft work and the new demands on their labor, so most women strove to defend
their old way of life. In the early stages of market development, women
fought to hold the demands of this new economy at bay and to shape the terms
on which they would enter its terrain. The most privileged among them envisioned
retaining control of the domestic realm while elevating it to greater
power within the new economic order, not recognizing the contradictions in
such an attempt. These efforts, however, were undertaken by white women for
themselves alone.

African American Women
As the United States underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization after
the Civil War, most of the African American population remained concentrated
in the rural South. For black women, emancipation initially meant freedom
from the additional work forcibly imposed on them by slavery, allowing them
to focus on the care of their own families. Blocked from owning land, many
African American men leased plots on which to grow cotton or tobacco.
Women’s domestic labor in bearing and raising children, making clothes, and
growing and preparing food was essential to these undertakings. “A wife and
children were assets in sharecropping,” one scholar notes.39 This arrangement
between southern landowners and black men thus built upon and shored up the
gender division of labor within the household.

However, African American families were soon caught in a financial vise by
southern landlords, who sold them seed and bought their crops, forcing an increase
in production, which drew black women back into farmwork. Their husbands
directed such labors, though, and kept control of any income that resulted.
Once, women’s work in the fields threatened their ability to accomplish
domestic tasks. And again they drew on the help of kin, worked long hours, and
did multiple tasks at once, as one oft-quoted description from the 1890s illustrates.
“It was not an unusual thing,” notes this observer, “to meet a woman
coming from the fields where she had been hoeing cotton . . . briskly knitting
as she strode along . . . [often with] a baby strapped to her back.”40
In towns and cities, some African American men gained access to skilled
work; but they were soon driven out of the better-paying occupations, forcing
many of their wives to seek jobs. Some worked as teachers or seamstresses, but
most could find only low-paid work in domestic service, earning far less than
their husbands. Despite such employment, black communities made concerted
efforts to sustain women’s engagement in household tasks and men’s authority
in the home. Women were urged from pulpits and from the editorial pages of
African American newspapers to obey their husbands.41

Black women themselves took pride in caring for their homes and families,
an interest reflected in the multitude of women’s clubs that sprang up in the late
nineteenth century. Though the National Association of Colored Women,
formed from these clubs in 1896, firmly asserted women’s equality with men,
it did not challenge their domestic and maternal role but sought instead to improve
conditions of work in the home. Many clubs put much effort into showing
women “the best way to sweep, to dust, to cook and to wash.” Women’s or
ganizations associated with the black Baptist church instructed poor African
American women in child care and household tasks, as white reformers did
among immigrants.42

However, blackwomen’s organizations also strove to improve rather than limit
women’s conditions of employment and to devise ways to ease the integration
of work at home and for pay. The NACW called for higher wages for female
workers, fought for married women’s right to teach, and sought to provide job
training and day care centers. This relationship between home and market was
not pursued by most women, however, causing hardships for some.43
The first wave of industrialization had even less impact on African American
women’s household chores than those of white women. Even professional
women found that the demands of their domestic role made working outside
the home difficult. “When there are two babies and a husband and a house to
look after, it keeps one busy,” noted one harried teacher. Many gave up their
jobs when they married; others collapsed from the strain of working at home,
for pay, and for the good of the community.44

The majority of African Americans in urban areas lived in crowded tenements,
and women devoted countless hours to collecting fuel, water, and food
every day, cleaning dark rooms, and making meals and clothing with limited resources.
Here as on the farm, working outside the home left little time for arduous
household tasks, forcing a resort to private strategies as in the past. However,
wage work raised a greater threat than sharecropping, in part as it could
not be interwoven with women’s care of their own families. Thus, black
women took in sewing, laundry, or boarders when possible and drew on help
from other female kin or neighbors if they could.45

Once again, this doubled workload took a harsh toll. At the start of the twentieth
century, one-third of black children died before the age of 10, and their
mothers often perished “before the youngest left home.” The mortality rates of
women in childbirth and their infants were approximately twice those of
whites.46 Such statistics have been attributed to poverty, poor diets, crowded and
dirty living quarters, and disease. While these factors played a role, the central
issue is that black women did not have sufficient time to do what was necessary
to keep their families alive. The squalid living conditions, low fertility, and high
death rates of African American women and their children are evidence that
their own domestic economy was near collapse.

Urbanization and an Expanding Industrial Economy
By 1920, about half of all Americans no longer lived in rural areas. In this
decade, the move to cities and towns and the continued growth of the indus-
trial economy did result in some reduction of domestic tasks. Early studies of
women’s time doing housework revealed savings of nine to eleven hours a week
on chores related to meal preparation, in large part because few urban housewives
were tending cows and chickens or growing vegetables. While farm families
still produced approximately two-thirds of the food they ate, urban families
purchased all but 2 percent of their food.47 The industrial economy had
begun to take on the production of consumer goods and services. Some of
women’s household work shifted to factories, and other tasks were mechanized
by new inventions, such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Gas, electricity,
running water, and sewage collection became more widely available in
urban areas.48

Yet the standard view of the 1920s as the key moment when the developing
industrial economy penetrated the home overemphasizes the actual change in
women’s lives. Although new services and appliances made a dramatic impression,
they were not available to all. Early researchers into housework were misled
in part by Siegfried Gideion’s Mechanization Takes Command, the classic account
of changes in household technology, which erroneously equated the entry of
new appliances into most households with the year of their patenting. Others
failed to recognize how existing arrangements of labor at home and in the larger
economy shaped both inventions and the time they freed.49

A more realistic view is offered by Robert and Helen Lynd’s study of Muncie,
Indiana. In 1925 they found that one-half of dwelling units had no furnaces and
one-fourth lacked water. While almost every home had electricity and an electric
iron, few had a refrigerator or an early washing machine. Domestic tasks
remained a substantial burden even for middle-class wives. Though many
women said they spent less time on household chores than their mothers had
done, the Lynds observed that for the typical housewife, “each day [was] a nipand-
tuck race to accomplish the absolute essentials between morning and bedtime.”
50 A pocket of time did open up for a small segment of wives, who set
aside the afternoon for children’s school activities or civic works before resuming
chores in the evening. However, these women represented less than 10
percent of Muncie’s female population. Moreover, their free time was channeled
within the traditional framings of the gender division of labor, into activities
that complemented rather than challenged their domestic role.51

The majority of American families, whether white or nonwhite, were not
middle class, however. In cities as well as towns, most endured rudimentary living
conditions. At the decade’s end, most urban families still relied on blocks of
ice for refrigeration, making shopping an almost daily chore, and few had central
heating. Even women in more modern homes faced a multitude of household
tasks, including sewing, ironing, and care of their children. “My work is
never done,” lamented one urban housewife in 1926. “I am tired enough to
drop when night comes and in the morning look with dread upon the day ahead
of me.”52 Furthermore, one-quarter of the population still lived in rural areas,
with limited access to basic utilities and services. In these homes, domestic
chores remained so arduous that government pamphlets for farmwives bore titles
like “Saving Strength.”53

Thus, although the potential of technology to lessen the housewife’s load was
clearly great, it was applied, as Heidi Hartmann has argued, within the existing
framings of the home and larger economy. In addition, most families lacked access
to the new appliances and services. During this period, the industrial economy
had only begun to reshape the home.54

African American Women
African American women in the 1920s were even less likely than white women
to enjoy a lessening of domestic chores. Only a handful of African American
homes in the coal-mining towns of West Virginia, for example, had indoor
plumbing of any sort. There, women still gardened, canned, raised pigs and
chickens, and made almost all their families’ clothing.55 Life in urban areas, to
which African Americans began migrating in large numbers after World War I,
was not much easier. Though a small elite in Harlem or on Chicago’s South Side
resided in elegant homes with steam heat and other modern conveniences, most
lived in poor neighborhoods, many of which still lacked running water or electricity.
A door-to-door survey of housing in five West Virginia cities in the mid-
1930s, for example, found that two-fifths of African American households in
one city had no electricity and more than one-third had only minimal plumbing.
Also, few black families could afford the new appliances. Thus, urban life
brought little reduction in burdensome household chores. As late as the 1940s,
poor African American families in Washington, D.C., had no indoor plumbing,
used kerosene lamps for lighting, and did their laundry in washtubs.56

As in earlier decades, their engagement in work for pay severely hampered
women’s ability to carry out domestic tasks.57 However, we need to look more
closely at the nature of African American women’s employment in the first half
of the twentieth century if we are to understand the traumatic changes that were
to come later. Studies emphasizing how black families differed from white families
have distorted the realities of black women’s experiences. Black women’s
higher rates of employment, for example, have encouraged the view that almost
all African American wives always worked for wages, and commonly provided
the bulk of the family income as well. This view is based primarily on anecdotal
evidence, in which the situation of the very poorest African Americans was
taken as the norm. “In the southern cities and towns,” one classic study of black
urban life in the early 1900s states, for example, “the masses of Negro men . . .
look to their women as the ultimate source of support.”58
In actuality, close reexamination of the data reveals that most black wives did
not work for pay in the first decades of the twentieth century. Instead they focused
mainly on domestic tasks for their own families, supported, however
minimally, by their husbands’ wages. Moreover, almost all of those who were
employed still depended heavily on their husbands’ earnings. African American
men played an important role in enabling their wives to care for the family and
maintain the household.

Though the 1910 census is often seen as overcounting women’s employment
by a large margin, it provides a way to look closely at the actual circumstances
of black women. In other decades, women’s work taking in boarders or laundry
or their unpaid labor on the family farm was often ignored. Census takers
in 1910, though, were firmly instructed to count women’s work in such tasks
as well as for wages, resulting in far better estimates of women’s work for pay.
In that year, 68.3 percent of black women between the ages of 22 and 54 were
married and living with their husbands. One-third of these wives were reported
as earning wages. In 1910 this number included “unpaid family workers . . .
who regularly assist[ed] the family head in running a family business or farm,
but who receive[d] no direct monetary compensation.” Another 8.6 percent
stated they were working “on their own account,” most frequently taking in
laundry. Overall, about two-fifths of black wives were engaged in work for pay
in some way.59

Thus, even when types of work overlooked in other decades were included,
the majority of black wives were not employed. To be sure, some of women’s
paid work undoubtedly remained uncounted, but clearly, many African American
women were able to focus primarily on caring for their own families. This
was true both in rural areas and in cities. On farms, where approximately twofifths
of married black women in their prime adult years still lived, less than half
of black wives stated they were engaged in more than household chores. In
urban areas, 27.8 percent of black wives worked for wages. Another 18.5 percent
worked “on their own account”—most did laundry, some were cooks, and
a small number were seamstresses. All in all, less than half were working for pay.
Moreover, almost every one of the husbands of these women was employed.
Even in urban areas, less than 5 percent of these husbands were unable to find
work, and two-thirds held blue-collar jobs in brick and tobacco factories, in
sawmills, on railroads, and the like.60 Further, although black men earned far
less than white men, they were much better paid than their wives. For example,
a study of unskilled workers in Chicago in the mid-1920s found that 47 percent
of black wives were employed, a figure in agreement with that of the 1910
census. Most were private domestic workers or did laundry. However, such
work was usually intermittent, and the vast majority of these women made less
than $600 per year. On average, black male workers earned more than twice that
amount. In one typical couple in the study, the husband made $1,032 per year.
Though his wife did domestic work “to supplement” his earnings, her wages
raised the total family income only marginally, to $1,208.61

We therefore find that, though many African American women engaged in
low-paid work at the margins of the industrial economy, unlike many men who
entered the paid workforce, they did not become wholly reliant on wages. Instead,
they were long involved in two forms of work. Most black women gave
their primary attention to domestic tasks for their own families, and family income
came largely from their husbands’ earnings. Thus, while black women received
much less support for their work in the home than did most white
women, black families also sustained their own form of the gender division of
labor as the industrial system developed.

Private Domestic Workers and the Persistence of the Gender Division of Labor

In urban areas, white and black women’s differing relationships with a developing
industrial economy converged in an arrangement that prolonged the gender
division of labor, much as slavery had slowed the transformation of the
southern economy.62

Market takeover of women’s household work involved more than factory
production of household goods or the invention of new appliances. As had happened
earlier in agriculture, women’s domestic tasks were also increasingly
turned into work done for wages, as a growing middle class hired domestic
workers or, in a form of “putting-out work” like that preceding factory labor,
sent out their laundry to be done.

By 1920, African American women made up more than two-fifths of domestic
workers, as an increasing number of white women found jobs in factories,
stores, and offices, while war stemmed the flow of labor from overseas. In
the following years, restrictions on immigration made black women a key
source of domestic labor. While the use of paid domestic workers decreased in
the early twentieth century, it was still seen as a common way to cope with the
more difficult household chores. The U.S. Bureau of Labor included the cost of
“Help—one day a week (or laundry)” in the minimum budget for a workingclass
family in 1920. Two-thirds of middle-class wives in the Lynds’ study hired
outside help for one or more days a week. In the early 1930s, one-third to fourfifths
of lower-middle-class families paid for laundry or help with other household

About half of the African American women working in private domestic service
were married. Once again, they faced the difficulties caused by the addi-
tion of a second set of tasks to an already heavy workload. One domestic worker
wrote in despair, “[We] don’t have time to work for ourselves or even to cook
a decent meal of food at home for our husband,” a complaint repeated in many
letters to the Department of Labor in the 1930s.64

We have seen how black women managed through strategies used by other
groups forced to work for little pay while continuing in tasks of subsistence.
Such comparison is illuminating in another way here. It is very difficult to keep
workers in very low wage jobs when better-paying work exists. Often emphasis
on supposedly “natural” attributes, as well as blatant racial discrimination,
has been used to tighten the hold on such workers.65 Such strategies also played
an important role in the case of domestic workers in the United States. White
housewives commonly stressed the strong maternal feelings of the women they
employed, conveniently ignoring these women’s own families, while racial discrimination
blocked domestics’ access to better jobs. While white women did
not necessarily work deliberately to create a captive supply of labor, they benefited
from its existence and resisted its alteration. “In general,” one scholar
notes, “housewives [tried] to pay as little as possible,” and they generally fought
efforts to improve the conditions of domestic work.66

Moreover, white women’s own confinement within the gender division of
labor encouraged racism, as they lacked the resources to carry out or profit from
the transformation of domestic work into employment paying higher wages. Instead,
during this period women’s household work took on an intermediate
form, as white, middle-class housewives exploited the labor of African American
women in a semi-wage relationship sustained in part by the ideological
mechanisms of gender and race and in part by a pause in the growth of the
larger industrial economy.

This arrangement was costly in several ways. First, the use of “hired help”
contributed to the persistence of the gender division of labor, as it lessened
pressures to alter this old form of work. Without the help of low-paid labor, as
Phyllis Palmer notes, middle-class women might have turned to paid work to
buy more appliances or begun earlier to challenge their relegation to household
tasks. Second, domestic workers, unable to move into better jobs, were excluded
from the gains won by most workers in the 1930s, such as the regulation of
hours and wages, the right to Social Security, and unemployment insurance.
Further, their separation from much of the working class lessened demands by
organized workers for policies better integrating women’s work at home and for

. . .
In sum, the emerging commercial and industrial economy in the United States
presented serious threats to the gender division of labor, or women’s domestic
economy, in its different forms. Most damaging was its attempt to place new demands
on women, thereby hampering their ability to accomplish tasks still essential
to the survival of their families. The fundamental issue was thus not
whether women could escape from the domestic role, but whether such new
claims on their time could be resisted.

These initial encounters between home and market took divergent paths for
African American and white women. While white women’s efforts to keep the
demands of the new economy at a distance were largely successful, African
American women were forced to take on another heavy load of work. However,
while over two-fifths of black married women worked for pay in the first half
of the twentieth century, this did not represent the loss of all support for their
own domestic chores and reliance solely on their own wages, but a stalled straddling
of two forms of production raising its own set of problems.

The main threat in this situation was that the demands of the new economy
left little time for tasks necessary to life. As elsewhere when the market added
new demands to earlier arrangements of labor, African American women coped
by combining their two sets of chores, using the help of young and old family
members and working to the point of exhaustion. Rather than leading to greater
wealth, however, their efforts resulted in overwork and the increasing impoverishment
common to such situations.

The situation of black women illustrates, in extreme form, the difficulties facing
all employed women. Women’s continued performance of domestic tasks in
their own homes allowed employers to escape paying the full cost of their upkeep,
while subjecting these women to long hours of work. In other words,
women’s work for their own families subsidized their labor at low cost in the
larger economy. Further, the use of African American women as private domestic
workers illustrates how two forms of discrimination—one based on race and
one on gender—intersected to hold black women in very low-paid work. The
availability of such extremely cheap labor enabled women’s domestic economy,
much like the southern cotton economy, to persist despite its inefficiencies.68
In short, whether through public policies or private strategies, the gender division
of labor was sustained in different forms through the first half of the
twentieth century, in the face of challenges by a developing market. Several
different moments of negotiation and reinforcement can be seen in the United
States: in the early 1800s, when women were shielded from increased production
for the market or exposed to its demands under slavery; in the late nineteenth
century, when women’s growing engagement in work for wages generated
a new set of tensions; and in the early twentieth century, when, despite
some reduction of household chores, women’s acceptance of their homemaking
role was maintained in part by the relegation of African American women
to low-paid domestic work.

Yet the new arrangements that kept women in household work were themselves
unstable and riddled with contradictions. As increasing numbers of
young women moved to the city to work for wages or pursue an education, as
private domestic workers demanded better working conditions, and as the market
lessened men’s dependence on women’s household labor, new nodes of tension
were created, which would eventually lead to the breakdown of the frameworks
supporting women’s work in the home.69

A severe contraction of the industrial economy around the world and the
vying for leadership of that economy resulting in World War II postponed the
moment of confrontation with women’s household work in the United States
until the latter half of the twentieth century. Production of consumer goods
stalled in the 1930s, slowing penetration of industrial technology into the
household. Also, few could afford such goods; 41 percent of the population had
only subsistence-level incomes in 1934. The process of urbanization also
slowed. The share of the population living in the countryside with limited access
to basic utilities barely altered over the decade; 23.2 percent of Americans
still resided on farms in 1940.70

At the same time, demand for women’s paid labor was sharply curtailed during
the Depression. Because of the high levels of male unemployment, businesses
commonly followed such practices as the “marriage bar,” refusing to hire
married women. Labor force participation of African American and white married
women alike dropped sharply over the decade, and most women engaged
in household work within their own homes. While industrial production expanded
during World War II, the focus was on weaponry rather than consumer
goods. An increased demand for labor did pull married women into the labor
force; but such employment ended for most women with the war, though it laid
the groundwork for future changes.71

In sum, developments in the first half of the twentieth century merely eroded
the frameworks sustaining women’s work in the home. Not until the decades
after World War II did the radical breakdown of this old arrangement of labor,
in its divergent forms, take place.

Categories: histories
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