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Unprotected Labor

Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940

Vanessa H. May

Publication Year: 2011

May’s research began with the question of why women domestics had to wait until 1974 for protective labor legislation when many women industrial workers won a minimum wage and overtime pay as early as 1908. To answer this question, May offers a political history of domestic service, which formed the single largest category of women workers until 1940. She explores the public debate over domestic service, its regulation and reform, and domestic worker activism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the contexts of the larger women’s reform movement, labor activism, and public versus private spaces. The core issue, she argues, revolves around the fact that while working-class domestics defined the middle-class home as a public workplace, middle-class women employers firmly maintained that their homes were private spaces. May’s contribution comes through her investigation of the debates from both sides of the class divide, assessing domestics’ efforts to determine their own working conditions as well as the reform programs led by (or not led by) middle class women, who, though crucial to the industrial reform movement, were often unwilling to let government regulation into their private homes.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

I have always loved reading other authors’ acknowledgments— tracing academic genealogies and taking note of ways of thanking people that I particularly liked. I looked forward to writing my own. Now I have discovered there are no words to thank adequately the people who have so generously and selflessly offered me their time, effort, and wisdom. ...

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pp. 1-16

At the end of the nineteenth century, Vassar College historian Lucy Maynard Salmon suspected that something was rotten in the kitchens of America’s middle class. Whenever she was in the company of women, talk always turned to the problem of paid household labor. At parties and in quiet social gatherings, ...

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1. The Tyrant of the Household: The Debate over the “Servant Question” and the Privacy of the Middle-Class Home, 1870–1915

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pp. 17-42

Just before Christmas, in 1907, a group of middle-class housewives gathered on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to hear a lecture on domestic service given by I. M. Rubinow. Rubinow was a medical doctor and Ph.D. in economics who would later contribute to the intellectual framework of New Deal social insurance programs. ...

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2. Sticking Together through Good Times and Bad: Immigrant Domestic Workers, Ethnic Communities, and Resistance

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pp. 43-71

In the late summer of 1893, a small group of Finnish immigrant women, many of whom were current or former domestic workers, traveled to the home of Betty Komula to discuss their plans for a new organization. Komula’s home lay not too far from the heart of Brooklyn’s growing Finnish community, ...

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3. Encouraging the Good, Weeding Out the Bad, and Teaching the Ignorant: Women’s Organizations and Domestic Workers in New York City, 1870–1915

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pp. 72-105

The stakes for middle-class women in the public debate over domestic service were high. Unless and until female employers confronted the labor problem festering in their kitchens, experts and public observers agreed, they had no business committing themselves to other benevolent reform missions. ...

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4. The “Enlightened Majority” versus the “Die-Hard Fringe”: The State and Reform of Domestic Service, 1915–1940

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pp. 106-145

In January 1938, approximately 150 members of the Women’s City Club met to discuss bills pending in the New York State legislature that would provide domestic workers with a sixty-hour week, minimum wage, and inclusion in workers’ compensation laws. First, the would-be reformers made their pitch. ...

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5. Every Domestic Worker a Union Worker: Middle-Class African American Organizations and Domestic Workers Confront Labor Exploitation during the Depression

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pp. 146-173

When Corrine Washington was offered an opportunity to leave her job in a Richmond tobacco factory for domestic work in New York City in 1938, she jumped at the chance. An agent promised her a live-in position at twenty dollars a month, much less than the ten dollars a week she earned in the factory, ...

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Epilogue: The Walls of Jericho

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pp. 174-182

On a balmy August day in 2004, a group of immigrant women workers, mostly Latina and Polish, stood on a street corner in Williamsburg, a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Like the African American domestics who had occupied Bronx sidewalks during the Depression, ...


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pp. 183-220


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pp. 221-240


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pp. 241-246

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603094
E-ISBN-10: 1469603098
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807834770
Print-ISBN-10: 0807834777

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 742361681
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Unprotected Labor

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women household employees -- New York (State) -- History.
  • Women household employees -- Labor unions -- New York (State) -- History.
  • Women -- New York (State) -- Social conditions -- History.
  • Labor movement -- New York (State) -- History.
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