Archive for the ‘housework’ Category

Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market”

December 1, 2010 4 comments

“The Bronx Slave Market”

Marvel Cooke

From The Daily Compass, 1950 [PDF]



I was a slave.

I was part of the “paper bag brigade,” waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to “buy” me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day.

That is The Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling Sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor.

It has its counterparts in Brighton Beach, Brownsville and other areas of the city.

Born in the last depression, the Slave Markets are products of poverty and desperation. They grow as employment falls. Today they are growing.

They arose after the 1929 crash when thousands of Negro women, who before then had a “corner” on household jobs because they were discriminated against in other employment, found themselves among the army of the unemployed. Either the employer was forced to do her own household chores or she fired the Negro worker to make way for a white worker who had been let out of less menial employment.

The Negro domestic had no place to turn. She took to the streets in search of employment-and the Slave Markets were born.

Their growth was checked slightly in 1941 when Mayor LaGuardia ordered an investigation of charges that Negro women were being exploited by housewives. He opened free hiring halls in strategic spots in The Bronx and other areas where the Slave Markets had mushroomed.

They were not entirely erased, however, until World War II diverted labor, skilled and unskilled, to the factories.

Today, Slave Markets are starting up again in far-flung sections of the city. As yet, they are pallid replicas of the depression model; but as unemployment increases, as more and more Negro women are thrown out of work and there is less and less money earmarked for full-time household workers, the markets threaten to spread as they did in the middle ’30s, when it was estimated there were 20 to 30 in The Bronx alone.

The housewife in search of cheap labor can easily identify the women of the Slave Market. She can identify them by the dejected droop of their shoulders, or by their work-worn hands, or by the look of bitter resentment on their faces, or because they stand quietly leaning against store fronts or lamp posts waiting for anything – or for nothing at all.

These unprotected workers arc most easily identified. however, by the paper bag in which they invariably carry their work clothes. It is a sort of badge of their profession. It proclaims their membership in “the paper bag brigade”-these women who can be bought by the hour or by the day at depressed wages.

The way the Slave Market operates is primitive and direct and simple-as simple as selling a pig or a cow or a horse in a public market.

The housewife goes to the spot where she knows women in search of domestic work congregate and looks over the prospects. She almost undresses them with her eyes as she measures their strength, to judge how much work they can stand.

If one of them pleases her, the housewife asks what her price is by the hour. Then she beats that price down as low as the worker will permit. Although the worker usually starts out demanding $6 a day and carfare, or $1 an hour and carfare, the price finally agreed upon is pretty low-lower than the wage demanded by public and private agencies, lower than the wage the women of the Slave Market have agreed upon among themselves. Read more…


Lynn Prince Cook, “The Politics of Housework”

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

“The Politics of Housework”

Lynn Prince Cooke

Chapter Four, Dividing the Domestic: Men, Women, and Household Work in Cross-National Perspective, Edited by Judith Treas and Sonja Drobnic, Stanford University Press, 2010. [PDF]

Love occurs in context, yet the dominant theories of how couples divide up housework model the interactions between two adults as if they occurred in a social cocoon. For example, bargaining or social exchange theories focused on the power derived from paid work and predicted women’s increasing employment would lead to men performing more domestic tasks.1 However, an increase in men’s domestic share during the past decades stems primarily from the dramatic decline in women’s housework hours, not substantial increases in men’s.2 The persistence of the gendered division of housework regardless of a woman’s employment supports the gender perspective that our daily activities reflect and reinforce normative expectations of masculine and feminine behavior (West and Zimmerman 1987). These normative expectations vary across social classes or ethnic groups, as well as across countries, reflecting gender regimes (Connell 1987) or cultures (Pfau-Effinger 1998). Norms also evolve over time, albeit more slowly and less spectacularly than we had first anticipated. In sum, how couples might divide paid and unpaid labor in the household varies across class, ethnic, temporal, and country contexts.

Only recently, however, have researchers begun to explore how couples’ sharing of housework varies within its sociopolitical as well as temporal contexts. This research has yielded somewhat conflicting evidence, in part because theory development linking context with individual behavior lags behind the available international data. Most analyses to date have focused on policy effects on women’s equality in the public spheres such as education, employment, or political representation (Baxter 1997; Fuwa 2004). Equally important and intertwined with equality in the public sphere is whether policies reinforce women’s normative responsibility for the private sphere. In this chapter I outline how a broad range of policies influences women’s access to paid work as well as their continued responsibility for unpaid domestic activities, illustrated with examples from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These three countries are based in British common law and share a liberal political ideology vis-à-vis reliance on the market over state provision of welfare, similarities that would lead us to expect common policy effects on the gendered division of labor across them. When comparing specific policies, however, the countries vary more in the degree to which the state shapes gender equality, so that we might find greater variation in how housework is divided within and across couples. Read more…

Categories: housework

Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Slave Market”

November 24, 2010 3 comments

“The Slave Market”

Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke

From The Crisis 42 (Nov. 1935).

The Bronx Slave Market! What is it? Who are its dealers? Who are its victims? What are its causes? How far does its stench spread? What forces are at work to counteract it?

Any corner in the congested sections of New York City’s Bronx is fertile soil for mushroom “slave marts.” The two where the traffic is heaviest and the bidding is highest are located at 167th street and Jerome Avenue and at Simpson and Westchester avenues.

Symbolic of the more humane slave block is the Jerome avenue “market.” There, on benches surrounding a green square, the victims wait, grateful, at least, for some place to sit. In direct contrast is the Simpson avenue “mart,” where they pose wearily against buildings and lampposts, or scuttle about in an attempt to retrieve discarded boxes upon which to rest.

Again, the Simpson avenue block exudes the stench of the slave market at its worst. Not only is human labor bartered and sold for slave wage, but human love also is a marketable commodity. But whether it is labor, or love that is sold, economic necessity compels the sale. As early as 8 a.m. they come; as late as 1 p.m. they remain.

Rain or shine, cold or hot, you will find them there – Negro women, old and young – sometimes bedraggled, sometimes neatly dressed – but with the invariable paper bundle, waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours, or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, or, if luck be with them, thirty cents an hour. If not the wives themselves, maybe their husbands, their sons, or their brothers, under the subterfuge of work, offer worldly-wise girls higher bids for their time.

Who are these women? What brings them here? Why do they stay? In the boom days before the onslaught of the depression in 1929, many of these women who are now forced to bargain for day’s work on street corners, were employed in grand homes in the rich Eighties, or in wealthier homes in Long Island and Westchester, at more than adequate wages. Some are former marginal industrial workers, forced by the slack in industry to seek other means of sustenance. In many instances there had been no necessity for work at all. But whatever their standing prior to the depression, none sought employment where they now seek it. They come to the Bronx, not because of what it promises, but largely in desperation.

Paradoxically, the crash of 1929 brought to the domestic labor market a new employer class. The lower middle-class housewife, who, having dreamed of the luxury of a maid, found opportunity staring her in tee face in the form of Negro women pressed to the wall by poverty, starvation and discrimination.

Where once color was the “gilt edged” security for obtaining domestic and personal service jobs, here, even, Negro women found themselves being displaced by whites. Hours of futile waiting in employment agencies, the fee that must be paid despite the lack of income, fraudulent agencies that sprung up during the depression, all forced the day worker to fend for herself or try the dubious and circuitous road to public relief.

As inadequate as emergency relief has been, it has proved somewhat of a boon to many of these women, for with its advent, actual starvation is no longer their ever-present slave driver and they have been able to demand twenty-five and even thirty cents an hour as against the old fifteen and twenty cent rate. In an effort to supplement the inadequate relief received, many seek this open market.

And what a market! She who is fortunate (?) enough to please Mrs. Simon Legree’s scrutinizing eye is led away to perform hours of multifarious household drudgeries. Under a rigid watch, she is permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads and furniture covers.

Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets the full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay. More often, the clock is set back for an hour or more. Too often she is sent away without any pay at all.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “Women’s Autonomy and Remuneration for Care Work in the New Emergencies”

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

“Women’s Autonomy and Remuneration for Care Work in the New Emergencies”

Mariarosa Dalla Costa

PDF posted on The Commoner Oct. 2010

This paper has been presented at the international Conference on: “La
autonomia posible” (The Possible Autonomy). Universidad Autonoma de la
Ciudad de Mexico, October 24-25-26, 2006. It has been translated from Italian into
English by Silvia Federici.



Every construction of autonomy has its own history that evolves in a specific context
and must face specific obstacles and battles. Yesterday I mentioned the first stages of
this history through the initiatives of that feminist movement in which I directly
participated—initiatives necessary for women to regain the availability of their body.
I have also recalled how, on a planetary level, this battle is far from being concluded.
Here I would like to consider other aspects of this history, starting again from the
initial moments of that political experience, to assess what is the relation between
women and autonomy today with respect to some emergent problems, and also to
ask, in relation to the latter, what has happened to both the demand that housework
(or care work) be remunerated and to women’s economic autonomy. Read more…

Gwendolyn Mink, “The Lady and the Tramp (II): Feminist Welfare Politics, Poor Single Mothers and the Challenge of Welfare Justice”

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

“The Lady and the Tramp (II): Feminist Welfare Politics, Poor Single Mothers and the Challenge of Welfare Justice”

Gwendolyn Mink

Feminist Studies, Vol. 24 No. 1 (Spring, 1998). pp. 55-64.

I have worked in various political venues on welfare issues for ten years-for about as long as I have been researching and writing about women and U.S. social policy.’ Most recently, I worked as a Steering Committee member and cochair of the Women’s Committee of 100, a feminist mobilization against punitive welfare reform. I signed up with the Women’s Committee of 100 in March or April of 1995-roughly a year after completing a book on welfare policy history and around the same time as the book’s publication.2

I have always done both politics and scholarship, so directing my activism toward my field of professional expertise at first did not seem especially odd or problematic. However, I had just published a book critical of experts like me-a book which, among other things, faulted solipsistic women welfare innovators of the early twentieth century for building a welfare state harmful to women and to gender equality. The book was barely between covers, and I had already embarked on a path of policy advocacy that veered disturbingly close to the reformers I had criticized. There I was, consorting with a group of supereducated, do-good feminists, most of whom would never need a welfare check. And there we were, using our social and professional positions to gain entry into congressional offices, where we spoke against reforms that would affect not us but poor women. It seemed to me that maybe I hadn’t really internalized the lessons I had drawn from early-twentieth-century welfare history. Read more…

Categories: Feminisms, housework, race, welfare

Francis Wheen, “The Megalosaurus” (excerpt)

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

“The Megalosaurus” (excerpt)

Francis Wheen

Excerpt from Karl Marx: A Life, p. 169-177

His living conditions might have been expressly designed to keep him from lapsing into contentment. The furniture and fittings in the two-room apartment were all broken, tattered or torn, with a half-inch of dust over everything. In the middle of the front living room, overlooking Dean Street, was a big table covered with an oil cloth, on which lay Marx’s manuscripts, books and newspapers, as well as the children’s toys, rags and scraps from his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an inkpot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes and a thick veneer of tobacco ash. Even finding somewhere to sit was fraught with peril. ‘Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children have been playing at cooking  – this chair happens to have four legs,’ a guest reported. ‘This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away; and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.’

One of the few Prussian police spies who gained admission to this smoke-filled cavern was shocked by Marx’s chaotic habits:

He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.

Marx’s reluctance to go to bed seems eminently reasonable, since his whole menage – including the housekeeper, Helene “Lenchen” Demuth – had to sleep in one small room in the back of the building. How Karl and Jenny ever found the time or privacy for procreation remains a mystery; one assumes that they seized their chances while Lenchen was out taking the children for a walk. With Jenny ill and Karl preoccupied, the task of preserving any semblance of domestic order fell entirely on their servant. ‘Oh, if you knew how much I am longing for you and the little ones,’ Jenny wrote to Karl during her fruitless expedition to Holland in 1850. ‘I know that you and Lenchen will take care of them. Without Lenchen I would not have peace of mind here.’ Read more…

Mariarosa Dalla Costa, “A General Strike”

October 20, 2010 1 comment

“A General Strike”

Mariarosa Dalla Costa

Originally published in All Work and No Pay: Women, Housework and the Wages Due. Falling Wall Press. [1975]

[Dalla Costa gave the following speech at a 1974 celebration of International Women’s Day in Mestre, Italy.]


Today the feminist movement in Italy is opening the campaign for Wages for Housework. As you have heard from the songs, as you have seen from the photograph exhibition, as you have read on the placards, the questions we are raising today are many: the barbarous conditions in which we have to face abortion, the sadism we are subjected to in obstetric and gynaecological clinics, our working conditions – in jobs outside the home our conditions are always worse than men’s, and at home we work without wages – the fact that social services either don’t exist or are so bad that we are afraid to let our children use them, and so on.


Now at some point people might ask, what is the connection between the campaign we are opening today, the campaign for Wages for Housework, and all these things that we have raised today, that we have exposed and are fighting against? All these things that we have spoken about, that we have made songs about, that we have shown in our exhibitions and films?


We believe that the weakness of all women – that weakness that’s behind our being crossed out of all history, that’s behind the fact that when we leave the home we must face the most revolting, underpaid and insecure jobs – this weakness is based on the fact that all of us women, whatever we do, are wearied and exhausted at the very outset by the 13 hours of housework that no-one has ever recognized, that no-one has ever paid for. Read more…

Categories: child care, housework