The attention paid to the burdens of stay-at-home orders on women may be new, but the work is not. Domestic work is one form of socially reproductive labor — daily work that enables people to perform their jobs and maintain their health. Socially reproductive labor is the dinner that keeps us going, the supply and sale of groceries to cook such meals, the clean clothes that we put on each morning and the sanitized kitchens we cook in. It is empty trash cans, clean sheets, stocked shelves, changed bedpans, hot meals and bathed skin.
Despite its centrality to any functional society, socially reproductive labor is rarely celebrated or well compensated. Why? Because historically this work was performed by female family members, servants and, in many cases, enslaved women. During the 19th century, Americans conceptualized domestic labor as feminine and confined to the private home. This made household labor both vital and invisible to society, and the legacies of this way of thinking remain with us today.
In the 18th century and earlier, husbands often recognized the foundational role that wives, if not other female workers, played in a family’s success; marriage was as much a labor arrangement as a romantic bond. Working in close quarters on farms or near workshops, men were daily witnesses to women’s productive efforts. In addition to cleaning, health care, child care and cooking, women made many of the household’s necessities, from candles and soap to cloth and clothing. What they didn’t keep, they often bartered with other women for additional goods. This meant that women had a clear role in the family’s economic transactions.
By the mid-19th century, however, both the growth of capitalist markets and shifting ideologies surrounding the home veiled the importance of women’s work. As more men left the household to work for wages, they began to conceptualize the home as a place of relaxation rather than work. And wage labor equated work for dollars. So the fact that wives and mothers performed their work without earning any cash led many, including women themselves, to undervalue its importance.
As a shifting economy brought societal upheaval and uncertainty, social commentators valorized the place of the wife and mother in the home, depicting her role as natural, timeless and effortless. Women, these authors argued, cared for their families out of love and such devotion made the work of housekeeping and child care not really work at all.
This rhetoric devalued women’s labor by naturalizing it, associating it with the supposedly innate role of women. Economically insignificant and biologically ordained, such work should also be performed cheerfully, according to many advice writers of the time. Catharine Beecher noted both the emotional work of maintaining a smile and, obliquely, the lack of recognition such work received, when she wrote in 1843, a “mother’s presence [who] seemed the sunshine of the circle around her; imparting a cheering and vivifying power, scarcely realized, till it was withdrawn.”
For some women, taking charge in the home was a way of also claiming moral authority and their own sphere of influence. In other cases, men used the rhetoric of domesticity to push back against the burgeoning women’s right movement and the entrance of a growing number of women into the workforce, particularly in factory settings.
Though increasingly romanticized, the reality was that housework was difficult and complex. And in fact, women outsourced such labor whenever they could afford it. Wealthier wives and mothers sent out their laundry, housed poorer family members in exchange for their domestic work and hired seamstresses. In the North, many employed paid domestic help, who were primarily recent immigrants, African Americans and the most economically desperate. In the antebellum South, domestic work in wealthy white households was almost exclusively the province of enslaved women. For white women across the country though, having someone else do their laundry, cleaning, sewing and cooking was a marker of class as well as racial status.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery, domestic work was some of the only paid employment open to African American women. Whereas working-class white women increasingly turned to factory work to make ends meet, managers often refused to hire African American women. These trends continued into the 20th century, compounded by the fact that wealthier women and white women had greater access to education that, as the century progressed, allowed them to enter into higher-paying professional jobs.
Even as more women of all classes entered the wage force in the 20th century, cultural celebration of the housewife reached an all-time high in the post-World War II period. Women’s daily lives, however, still clashed with how the media portrayed them. Many women had never had the option to play the role of happy housewife romanticized in shows like “Leave it to Beaver” — they had to work for wages to survive. Others fought an increasingly successful battle to enter the workforce for financial independence and personal fulfillment. Yet, wage-earning women found no respite from their household duties, serving a “second shift” for husbands and male family members who, thanks to these long-standing cultural norms, saw domestic chores as women’s responsibility. Even those women who could focus exclusively on their homes and families continued to perform difficult, tedious work, that was far more challenging than June Cleaver made it appear.
Despite the many gains of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century, Americans’ entrenched view of socially reproductive labor as unimportant, unskilled and solely feminine has proved to be particularly difficult to dislodge. While men contribute more to housework today than they did 100 years ago, studies repeatedly show that women nonetheless continue to take on the majority of these responsibilities, even as they also manage successful careers. And paid domestic workers, who work in some of the least regulated and lowest-paying industries, continue to be primarily women, most of them women of color and immigrants.
What the pandemic has made clear is that these workers are not undercompensated and unrecognized because their work is unimportant — they are undercompensated because, historically, their work has been considered unskilled and outside of the market economy, associated with women and people of color. Hopefully one of the silver linings of this crisis will be an acknowledgment of the importance of socially reproductive labor in our lives. Ideally, we can put action behind this acknowledgment in the form of higher wages and better workplace protections (such as a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights) for paid domestic workers and a more equitable distribution of work in the home.