The Interconnections of Paid and Unpaid Domestic Work
Over the course of my research, I have always felt that domestic work
should be considered in both its paid and unpaid forms, because these
two modes exist in changing, but related, ways over time.
My initial interest was in women's unpaid housework and how American
society values that type of work.
I found that people determined the
status of being a housewife depending on their own social class. Working
class women tended to value the role, because having the ability to be a
full-time housewife would be a luxury in their families, one that
they could not afford. Meanwhile, middle class women tended to devalue
the status of housewives, probably because their education allowed them
to have a higher status with paid jobs as an option. Undoubtedly, this
difference in standpoint affects how middle class women view (and
undervalue) the working class women they sometimes hire to work in
From a white and middle class point of view, "liberation" from unpaid
housework—either by reducing the amount of work or passing it on to
others—is a desirable goal. Early in the twentieth century, some
scholars thought that household technology, like technologies used in
industrial work, would make housework easier and reduce the need for
paid domestic workers. By the end of the century it was clear that while
technology (especially hot and cold water plumbing, sewage, and
electricity) had lightened the drudgery of household tasks, it had not
"liberated" women from housework. Instead, technologies had allowed
middle class women to take over the work previously done by live-in
domestic workers or by other family members, thus increasing housewives'
total workload as they lost assistance and, simultaneously, as the
standards of cleanliness increased, raising expectations as to the
amount of work that should be accomplished.
Thus, the number of
hours wives spent on housework did not significantly decrease in
relation to the increase in household technology. And, since the total
number of unpaid housework hours did not decline, the demand remained
for paid domestic workers to take on some of these tasks.
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