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Women and Domestic Help

The topic of "women and their maids" was heatedly discussed on WMST-L for
several weeks in June/July 2010.  The following file includes some of those
messages.  Most of the messages chosen offer resources for the classroom.
For additional WMST-L files available on the Web, see the
WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2010 13:18:49 -0400
From: Loraine Hutchins <lorainehutchins AT STARPOWER.NET>
Subject: women & their maids

this is a fascinating photo exhibit study, a great resource for women's
studies classes re: socio-economic issues, roles, etc.

good for some other classes too . pass it on

Loraine Hutchins
Montgomery College
Takoma Park, MD
Date: Sun, 20 Jun 2010 21:23:40 +0200
From: Katha Pollitt <katha.pollitt AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
It's interesting that people always think the cleaner or housekeeper is
working for the woman, and not for the couple, although it is the couple who
pays her, and she is cleaning/cooking/ whatever for the man as well, and
enabling him, as well as the wife, to come home to a neat and attractive
house. To say nothing of single men who have cleaners, as some in that
social class do.

Katha Pollitt
The Nation
kpollitt  AT  thenation.com

Just out from Random House:
"The Mind-Body Problem: Poems" here at
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 09:58:13 -0400
From: "Bean, Kellie" <bean AT MARSHALL.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
It's also a telling demonstration of gender bias. Only women run, or
pay people to run, households? Women are exclusively implicated in
these photos and their ideological implications--shielding every other
member of the family who benefits from the work done one their behalf
from responsibility.

It's a great teaching tool, for many reasons.
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 10:40:05 -0700
From: Penka Skachkova <pskach7 AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Katha, these are important points.

I was wondering though how much feminist work (activist, academic,
administrative, creative, etc.) is done thanks to the help of female maids
(cleaners, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, babysitters, pet sitters,
caregivers, shoppers, personal assistants, etc.) It would be interesting to
see the relationship between feminists and their maids.

~ Penka
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 18:48:14 +0100
From: Roona RE Simpson <Roona.Simpson AT ED.AC.UK>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Does anyone know of work done on the discourses around domestic servants
being depicted/accounted for as 'one of the family?'. I believe I read
something on this a few years ago, and on how the 'one' was substituting for
the person otherwise doing the cleaning, caring, etc. - highlighting
inequalities within the cosy terminology of 'the family' -  however cannot
now identify the reference.

Roona Simpson
Associate Researcher
Centre for Research on Families and Relationships,
The University of Edinburgh,
23 Buccleuch Place,
EH8 9LN.
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 13:52:01 -0400
From: "Shively, Kim" <shively AT KUTZTOWN.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
There's a nice article I use with my undergrads: "Just Another Job?
The Commidification of Domestic Labor" by Bridget Anderson.  It does a
good job laying out the social complexities of domestic help and the
role of this labor in the family.

Kim Shively, PhD
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology/Sociology
Kutztown University
Kutztown, PA  19530
shively  AT  kutztown.edu
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 18:06:49 GMT
From: Naomi Graetz <graetz AT BGU.AC.IL>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help" which is set in early 1960's
Mississippi is an eye opening book.

Naomi Graetz 
Ben Gurion University of the Negev 
graetz  AT  bgu.ac.il 
Author of 
The Rabbi's Wife Plays at Murder (Shiluv Press, 2004) 
Orders: graetz  AT  bgu.ac.il 
Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and
God (Gorgias Press, 2005)
Online orders: www.gorgiaspress.com 
S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Tales (Gorgias Press, 2003) 
Online orders: www.gorgiaspress.com 
Silence is Deadly:Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (Jason Aronson, 1998) 
Online Orders   http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 14:13:27 -0400
From: Karen Alexander <kalexander AT SIGNS.RUTGERS.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
An article published in Signs last year deals with this topic in a
Swedish context: John R. Bowman and Alyson M. Cole, "Do Working
Mothers Oppress Other Women? The Swedish "Maid Debate" and the Welfare
State Politics of Gender Equality," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture
and Society, vol. 35, no. 1 (Fall 2009), pp. 157-84.

Karen Alexander PhD 
Senior Editor 
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 

kalexander  AT  signs.rutgers.edu 
Rutgers University 
Voorhees Chapel 
5 Chapel Drive 
New Brunswick, NJ 08901 
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 14:27:36 -0400
From: Ruthann Robson <robson AT MAIL.LAW.CUNY.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
A great book on this topic, especially useful for literary studies, is Mrs.
Woolf and The Servants by Alison Light.  It looks not only at Virginia
Woolf, but also the histories of "domestic service" especially in England.

I've a review/essay of it, combining it with two recent legal cases, one
from the US Supreme Court not recognizing domestic service as work entitled
to fair labor standards, even when the employer is a company, and the other
about a domestic servitude/slavery criminal trial on Long Island.  The essay
looks at various feminist arguments and is available for download here:


Ruthann Robson
Professor of Law
University Distinguished Professor
City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law
65-21 Main Street
Flushing NY 11367 USA
robson  AT  mail.law.cuny.edu
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 14:28:42 -0400
From: Mandy Van Deven <mandyvandeven AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Yet another resource to add to the mix:

Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language
By Aøfe Murray
University of New Hampshire Press

Review here:

Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 11:42:55 -0700
From: Max Dashu <maxdashu AT LMI.NET>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
>  It would be interesting to
> see the relationship between feminists and their maids.

Equally important, between feminists and their household-work employers.

I think however that Katha is quite right about men's responsibility being
entirely overlooked in the way this gets framed.

Max Dashu
Suppressed Histories Archives: Real women, global vision

Women's Power DVD
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 20:02:22 +0000
From: Victoria Marinelli <vmarinelli AT gmail.com>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
[NOTE: some paragraphs have been omitted]

I would highly recommend certain poems by Chrystos (see further below)
as well as Marge Piercy's novel, _The Longings of Women_, whose
characters include Mary, the secretly homeless housekeeper of Leila, a
college professor.

Chrystos has some wonderful poems about working as a maid, such as 
"Excuse Me Ma'am" in _Dream On_, and "You Can't Get Good Help These Daze" 
in _Not Vanishing_. The latter piece includes these lines:

"Hey          Hey          Mrs. Robinson I'm keeping
your toenails & hair
I've got plans for you
as I scrub your French Blue bathroom floor..."


"Listen          I want a trust fund too
I'm as intimate as your daughter          don't I know
your husband's pubic hair          his piss outside the bowl..."

- Victoria Marinelli
Richmond, Virginia
vmarinelli  AT  gmail.com
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 16:54:03 -0500
From: "jecdrc1 AT earthlink.net" <jecdrc1 AT earthlink.net>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
well, at some point, the discussion in the womens studies' classroom
surely becomes more broadly one about class -- yes, there are specific
considerations re "personal" work in the home, which is different in
many ways from work that takes place outside the home (including that
so close to the home as lawn work), but since almost all of us
outsource some work (we aren't, most of us, growing our own food,
producing our own electricity, sewing our own clothes, building our
own shelters etc....), I'm not sure the discussion can stay at the
level of individuals' relationships.
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 10:37:36 +1000
From: Bronwyn Winter <bronwyn.winter AT SYDNEY.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
There is of course the legendary documentary Maids and Madams, made in the
1980s about apartheid-era South Africa.  Still disturbing viewing. And
still, I believe, relevant to more than that place and time.

Like Katha, however, I am concerned by the frequent framing of this topic
that makes it a woman-exploiting-women issue.
It re-naturalises domestic work as "women's work" and so it is necessarily
always women who are perceived as delegating this work to other women (male
maids being unthinkable). (c.f. men arguing themselves out of responsbility
for FGM because it's 'women's business' - itself part of a more general
masculinist delegation of responsibility to mothers for passing on male
supremacist logic to their daughters and sons. There is a lot of literature
on this, including my Signs article from 1994).

Yet I am similarly concerned by liberal feminist pushes for workplace &
career equality in which phrases such as "we need more childcare" or "we
need home help" are deployed, without any attention paid to the working
conditions or incomes of such "care"  or "help".

While we are at it, we could also discuss aged care (how many of us now have
partial or total carer responsibility for an aged parent?), and while we're
at it, "leisure".  who cleans our hotel rooms when we vacate them?  those
women are also called "maids"  and unlike the porters and concierges who are
visible and usually get tips, the maids are invisible and do not (and are
probably worse paid in the first place).  I discussed this (and asked the
question of what circs, pay and politics are required for home help to
become exploitative ¡ or not) circa 2 decades ago in a piece I wrote on work
for off our backs but couldn't now tell you which issue it was, I donated my
oob collection to a womens library years ago.

My point being that "work"  is gendered and whenever women work in service to
men (as maids, nannies, secretaries, nurses) it is naturalised, and when
women work in service to women there is something unnatural or by-definition
exploitative about the women who delegate domestic or care labour.
(btw Care labour is a fairly big topic among feminist economists, searching
back issues of Feminist Economics might turn up useful analyses [even though
I believe most of the research looks at such labour in an institutionalised

Not to say that there are not race and class issues among women, of course
there are.  Women did not, however, generate those structures even if we
have a responsibility as feminists to challenge them.  How often do we buy
into the woman-hating male-supremacist game of woman-blaming,
mother-blaming, feminist-blaming?  What is worse about a feminist employing
a cleaner or other form of home help than Condi Rice or Sarah Palin doing
so?  setting aside pay or condtions - just the fact in itself:  what is
*intrinsically*, *by definition*, worse?  and why?  (I am not going to
suggest an answer, I am seeking to disclose a tacit attitude).

[paragraphs omitted]


Dept of French Studies
School of Languages and Cultures | Faculty of Arts

Room 747 Brennan MacCallum Building A18
The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006 | Australia

E  bronwyn.winter  AT  sydney.edu.au
W http://sydney.edu.au/arts/french/staff/bronwyn_winter.shtml
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2010 20:42:14 -0400
From: Mandy Van Deven <mandyvandeven AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Another relevant resource is the current Scholar and Feminist Online:
Valuing Domestic Work:
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 08:30:01 +0200
From: Katha Pollitt <katha.pollitt AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
I don't see anything wrong with hiring household help as long as you pay
them well and provide good working conditions etc. Everyone in our society
pays for services once provided within the family.  We don't sew our own
clothes, either, or put up our own preserves. If work is honorable when you
perform it yourself, it's honorable to pay someone else to perform it.  For
me it's all about the working conditions.

 That hiring a cleaner is the target of such scorn is interesting, given
that everyone, one way or another, buys without a thought services from
people probably worse paid for and worse treated--and maybe with less of a
future.  For example, the guy who delivers your takeout in NYC is a chinese
or mexican/central american immigrant who probably had to pay a kickback to
even get the job and may be working only for tips. He has no workers' rights
to speak of (hours, minimum wage, etc). But nobody says you should walk to
the restaurant and pick it up yourself... much less that restaurants are
immoral and everyone should just cook at home.

Katha Pollitt
the Nation
kpollitt  AT  thenation.com
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 09:04:31 -0400
From: "Gilbert, Charlene" <cgilber7 AT UTNET.UTOLEDO.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Dear All,

The conversation on women & their maids has been interesting to read on
many levels.  For those of you who might be looking for resources
regarding this topic, I highly recommend the "Blanche on the Lam"
series by Barbara Neely.  Neely is a feminist whose narrative work
interrogates race, class, gender and sexuality through the story of its
main character, Blanche White.  The work is provocative, interesting,
well-written and easy to read.  



Charlene Gilbert, Professor
Women's and Gender Studies
The University of Toledo 
2801 West Bancroft Street, MS 502
Toledo, Ohio 43606-3390
Charlene.Gilbert  AT  utoledo.edu
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 11:19:53 -0400
From: jennifer baumgardner <jenniferbaum AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: women and their maids
I loved the Kathryn Stocket book. Another way to pose the question of "Do
Working Mothers Oppress Women?", though, is: Do Working Mothers Employ
People? I don't see why the positive side of employment (money, creating
jobs, things most people need in order to live) is not foregrounded in this

Oppression means keeping someone down. I think one could be an oppressive
employer, and certainly domestic work doesn't have a lot of room for
promotion or benefits, but is doing labor in someone's home inherently
oppressive? If it is, is it because it isn't culturally valued or is there
something particularly demeaning about cleaning someone else's home, cooking
for money, or childcare?

Jennifer Baumgardner
Soapbox/The New School
jennifer  AT  manifesta.net

Jennifer Baumgardner
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 11:51:30 -0400
From: "Bean, Kellie" <bean AT MARSHALL.EDU>
Subject: women and maids
Jennifer makes a good point, but I think it's more that domestic work
is inherently undervalued, and seen as demeaning to anyone doing it
who isn't considered its "proper" owner--the "woman of the house." Men
are demeaned by housework, so is anyone paid to clean someone else's
home. Tacit in that assessment is a critique of the woman *not* doing
her own chores.
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 12:01:35 -0400
From: "Bauer-Maglin, Nan" <NBauer-Maglin AT GC.CUNY.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
An excellent article about race and class and women workers in hotels
is June Jordan's "Report from the Bahamas." I have often used this
in my courses; it stimulates good discussions.

Dr. Nan Bauer-Maglin
Professor Emerita
The City University of New York
nbauer-maglin  AT  gc.cuny.edu
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 09:32:51 -0700
From: Ophelia Benson <opheliabenson AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Katha's point is suggestive.

"That hiring a cleaner is the target of such scorn is interesting, given
that everyone, one way or another, buys without a thought services from
people probably worse paid for and worse treated--and maybe with less of a

My guess is that the specialness of the category is because it's up
close and personal. Going outside and buying something - an object or
a service - has a different feel from having someone come into your
living space to do work for you. Even garden work is less fraught (I
think), because it's outside the house. 

opheliabenson  AT  msn.com

Ophelia Benson, 
Editor Butterflies and Wheels 
Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 20:01:17 -0700
From: Max Dashu <maxdashu AT LMI.NET>
Subject: Re: household workers
For those interested in this issue, I just heard that at the US Social Forum
in Detroit, starting soon, next Wednesday is dedicated to "Excluded
Workers," among them  household workers, and will have testimony from same,
including translations from five languages.

Also, I forgot to mention before that good pay must include Social Security,
which is rarely included. It primarily comes into play for the worst-paid
workers who are employed by agencies which take half the earnings. These
workers are paid under-survival wages, as Barbara Ehrenreich discovered in
Nickel and Dimed.

Social Security was expressly denied to household workers in the New Deal,
and is still informally ignored in the marketplace. This translates to
future poverty because most employers balk at paying it, and most workers
prefer under-the-table to increase their inadequate takehome pay. The
combination of good pay plus social security, sick pay, and health benefits
is a rara avis in this field of work.

Max Dashu
Suppressed Histories Archives   Real Women, Global Vision

Female Icons, Ancestral Mothers poster
Date: Wed, 23 Jun 2010 08:13:42 -0400
From: Alice Goode-Elman <goodeea AT SUNYSUFFOLK.EDU>
Subject: Re: women & their maids
Below is a link describing a photography exhibit of 50 pairs of
women,-- maids and their employers-- from Argentina, Chile and
(Apologies if this post has already been shared).
Alice Goode-Elman, Ph.D
Humanities/Women's Studies
Suffolk County Community College
533 College Rd.
Selden, NY 11790
Date: Wed, 23 Jun 2010 10:14:39 -0400
From: Meryl Altman <maltman AT DEPAUW.EDU>
Subject: Re: WMST-L Digest - 21 Jun 2010 to 22 Jun 2010 (#2010-163)
dear all.

This is an interesting discussion. I've been sending my intro students to
watch a short video, "Women and Work: Feminists in Solidarity with Domestic
Workers," which is on the Barnard Center for Research on Women website at
http://vimeo.com/5185988 . I like this video because it combines both
personal ethical statements from well-known feminists and a focus on labor
organizing. (The Barnard site, http://www.barnard.edu/bcrw/ now has a lot of
useful stuff on this and other topics.)

Katha's point is, I think, very much on target ~V there is no reason why
either housework or childcare has to be thought of as women's work: that's a
mystification we need to fight against. And yet, the widespread assumption
that it *is women's work continues to have all sorts of real-world effects,
including keeping women's wages low (in many sectors) and encouraging
certain patterns of global migration. I found the photo essay a really
provocative exploration of our assumptions about two groups of women and (as
the artists put it, I think quite well), "the hierarchical relationship that
unites them": the artwork seemed to be calling for a kind of feminist
solidarity across class lines while also engaging us in a process of active
reflection on why that is difficult. (The artists seemed to be asking us to
ask questions rather than presupposing what the answers might be. Art is
good for this.) Nonetheless I'd argue there are broader economic and social
policy issues here which we can't fix *just by changing what's in our
(individual) heads or our individual relationships.

Two books I've found especially helpful in thinking through these issues are
Bridget Anderson, "Doing the Dirty Work: the Global Politics of Domestic
Labor," and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, "*Domestica: Immigrant Workers
Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence." If anyone has the
patience, there's a longer bibliography in something I wrote with an
economist colleague, Kerry Pannell, on-line at
http://urmis.revues.org/index810.html -- we're still working on this, so any
comments would be very much appreciated. *

* *


*Meryl Altman*
Date: Wed, 23 Jun 2010 21:34:07 -0700
From: Eileen Boris <boris AT FEMST.UCSB.EDU>
Subject: Intimate Labor (was Maids)
For academic research on domestic, care, and sex work, check out my new
co-edited collection with Rhacel Parrenas, Intimate Labors: Technologies,
Cultures, and the Politics of care, coming out at month's end from Stanford
University Press in paperback as well as hard cover. Perfect for classes.

We consider household labors of paid and unpaid kinds in terms of power,
relationships, locations of providers and receivers, race and class, in past
and present, under globalization.

Also see Evelyn Nakano Glenn's new book from Harvard University Press on
domestic labor, coerced labor.

There is a vast feminist and labor scholarship on these issues that really
complicates the meaning of 'maid' and how activists in domestic rights
movements and union campaigns use such terms as well.

Eileen Boris
Hull Professor and Chair
Department of Feminist Studies
Professor of History, Black Studies, and Law and Society
Feminist Studies--South Hall
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106

boris  AT  femst.ucsb.edu
Date: Wed, 7 Jul 2010 08:52:38 +0100
From: Deborah Boardman <Deborah AT BOARDMAN.NET>
Subject: Women & their maids
Dear All,

I'm really busy right now but thought I would share this re:our dialogue
about domestic workers.
New York governor "David Paterson said in a statement that he "will be
pleased to sign it into law."
The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights bill creates guidelines for employers
of housekeepers, nannies and other workers in an industry that is
unregulated and without clearly defined work benefits.
The bill includes standardized work weeks, one day off each week, three paid
days off each year and overtime pay, said Bryan Clenahan, an Albany County
legislator. "
I found it quite odious that they didn't even give the employees a week's

Deborah Zucker-Boardman
Deborah  AT  Boardman.net
Date: Wed, 7 Jul 2010 14:34:26 -0400
From: "M. Breschard AT 52 Women" <mt AT 52WOMEN.ORG>
Subject: Re: Women & their maids
The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights that Deborah Boardman refers to was a
bit of political dodge and I seriously doubt this is an overall win for
women.  Women's advocates should not celebrate this without some seriously
mixed feelings.   I posted about it today at www.52women.org

Maryann Breschard
mt  AT  52women.org
American Catfight:  Political Wisdom for Women
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 2010 01:38:05 -0400
From: Dr. Rosie Pegueros <drpegueros AT GMAIL.COM>
Subject: Women and their Maids
Are you interested solely in contemporary U.S. history?

If you are interested in a more international perspective, there is one on
19th century Brazil:

House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in
Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro [Paperback]
Sandra Lauderdale Graham (Author)
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: University of Texas Press (1992)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0292727577
ISBN-13: 978-0292727571
Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros, J.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of History
& Women's Studies Program
University of Rhode Island, RI 02881-0817
E-mail: pegueros  AT  uri.edu
Professing History:
NEW!  http://operalovers-ri.blogspot.com/

"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate
the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who
feels pride. And you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid
anymore." -Cesar E. Chavez
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 2010 10:00:58 -0700
From: Kasturi Ray <kasturiray AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Women & their maids
Shireen Ally's wonderful new book, From Servants to Workers: South
African Domestic Workers and the Democratic State (Cornell UP, 2009)
shows the mixed blessings of state reform of household labor. Despite
changes in South African law, behind closed doors, employers still
negotiated down when dealing with employees' claims. (And many
domestic workers themselves felt insulted by the terms of the law
because it didn't take into account the strategies with which they had
historically dealt with recalcitrant employers.) But at least the law
provided a new baseline, and domestic workers ended up doing better
than before.

Hopefully the NY State law will at least provide some support for
employee demands. But panics over the hardship it may cause middle
class families underestimate the ways coercion works in the private
household such that domestic workers don't fully take advantage of
their rights (due to sentimental or other ties); don't take into
account how information about available rights actually gets
disseminated; or indeed, how enforcement of laws is still filtered
through race and class privilege.

Worse case scenario -- maybe we'll realize that not everyone can
afford private household care ... which may lead to useful political
pressures and unexpected solidarities ...

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