The Science of Care: The Domestic Worker Labor Market and the Limits of Reform in Boston, 1880–1940

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton)
Cristina V Groeger, Harvard University
Using quantitative analysis of census data and qualitative readings of archival sources, this paper explores the limits of private and public attempts to transform the domestic worker labor market in Boston between 1880-1940. During this period, the percentage of working women employed as domestic workers dropped from 50% to 20% of the paid female workforce. Women who took up domestic work were typically the most impoverished or excluded from other jobs by the racism of employers, first predominantly Irish immigrants to Boston and increasingly African American women. Philanthropists and state actors decried the “servant problem” and pursued various reform strategies, including the regulation of employment agencies, and, above all, new forms of education. While domestic workers had no interest in attending domestic service “schools,” these educational services morphed over time to train middle-class white women in domestic science, and played a primary role in the expansion of home economics as a grade-school subject and an academic research discipline. Within wealthy homes, however, the same informal and abusive practices persisted. This paper illuminates the racialized and gendered construction of a local labor market, contributing to a fuller understanding of the role of the state, education, race, and gender in the political economy of U.S. capitalism.