Racialized Domestic Servitude and the Perfect Mormon Housewife

One thing I’ve been reading about recently is the split in the 1970s of white feminism from feminisms of color. One of the main sources of the split comes from the topic of domestic servitude. While white women wanted to get out of the home by the 1970s, the gendered division of labor for working-class homes, including many immigrant and households of color, did not quite exist. Men of color often did not earn a family wage so that women and children needed to earn income; by the 1970s, feminists of color were very much interested in how to create more time for the home. [A lot of what I’ll say below will be quoted from Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s 1992 essay, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor.”]

The truth, of course, is that the 1970s feminist split was decades, even centuries in the making, because white women and women of color have historically occupied different spaces in society. The question of race, gender and domestic servitude is still extremely important today. Go to any hotel in the Southwest, and you’ll find Latinas and/or Filipinas doing the domestic work. Here in Seattle, you’ll often find African immigrants (men and women) in custodial jobs. While whites [in Arizona] complain that “immigrants are taking our jobs; it’s not about race,” one must wonder why there is such a racial hierarchy in terms of the jobs that “no one wants to do.”

These jobs that no one wants to do — taking care of the elderly, cooking, cleaning, etc — have disproportionately been worked by people of color, particularly women. Marxist feminists use a term to describe these tasks: social reproduction — which includes the array of everyday tasks required to maintain a society on a daily and intergenerational basis. After the industrial revolution, many of these tasks have been institutionalized to the extent that, as a society, we’ve “forgotten” how to do things that we normally would have done for ourselves. (For example, how many of us have ever winnowed rice, the necessary process of removing the grain from its husk? More appropriately, how many of us “don’t know how” to cook?)

In her book Domesticity and Dirt, Phyllis Palmer talks about how the use of domestic servants allowed white women to resolve contradictions in the middle-class domestic code of mid-century. Domesticity required creating a warm, clean and attractive home for the husband and children, which required physical labor and meant contending with dirt. However, the virtuous woman was defined in spiritual terms, refinement and the denial of her physical body, distanced from dirt. By the 1930s, the modern wife needed also to be attractive and intelligent to be a good companion (and not just “property”). If the heavy parts of household work could be transferred to paid help, the white housewife could distance herself from the dirty parts of domesticity to focus on herself — eventually on her own freedom.

Prior to this, the white woman was blinded to her own oppression by the privilege afforded to her from being in a relationship with a white man. Women of color were very conscious of this power structure. Consider this powerful quote from Nancy White, a black servant:

My mother used to say that the black woman is the white man’s mule and the white woman is his dog. Now, she said that to say this: we do the heavy work and get beat whether we do it well or not. But the white woman is closer to the master and he pats them on the head and lets them sleep in the house, but he ain’ gon’ treat neither one like he was dealing with a person. Now, if I was to tell a white woman that, the first thing she would do is to call you a nigger and then she’d be real nice to her husband so he would come out here and beat you for telling his wife the truth.

Rather than challenge the inequity in the relationship with their husband, white women would push the the burden onto women with even less power. They did this in part by denying the domestic workers’ womanhood, by ignoring the fact that women of color had family lives, too. The 1970s split between white feminism and feminisms of color was merely an extension of this nonrecognition of other female lives.

Now how does the Mormon woman fit into this story? This is where I need your help to fill in the blanks. We know that the 1970s saw a feminist split not just between white women and women of color, but also between progressive and conservative [white] women. Early Mormons were against slavery, but were they against having domestic servants in the twentieth century? Glenn’s essay tells the history of domestic servitude in terms of white/black relations of the South, the white/Latino relations of the Southwest, and the white/Asian relations of Northern California and Hawaii. But where does Utah fit in? Is Utah an extension of the Southwest, in which Mormon families would have had Chicana servants, or has the Mormon woman been expected to do all the dirty work, too? The point of these questions is to get at the extent to which the woman of color has had to and continues to shoulder the burden of idealized Mormon middle-class gender “symmetry.”

My mother once told me that Mormons “accept” a lower standard of living to maintain the ideal of having someone at home to raise the children. But I argued with her that if it is not possible for someone to be at home (and that both parents must work), then you’re looking at a false ideal — unless we live in a society (and in turn, a world) in which every man can bring home riches. The truth is, Mormon women work outside the home as much as other American women, which I take to mean that (A) 1970s feminism had more of an effect on Mormon culture than Mormons would care to admit and/or (B) the theology centralizes the middle-to-upper class [white] family, even though not all Mormons are [white and] middle-to-upper class.

In any event, what Marxist feminists have shown is that particular kinds of labor have been considered “feminine,” but that middle-class femininity did not have space for dirty labor. Glenn ends her essay by showing how the system in hospitals historically developed along the same lines as the white household: white men at the top (physicians), white women in the middle (nurses), and women of color at the bottom (nurse’s aides). Nurses argued with nurse’s aides concerning questions of “skilledness” and therefore pay. Although the nurse’s aide had a great deal of insight and dealt a lot more with direct care, she got paid much less and her labor was deemed “unskilled.” Mothers and caretakers are also deemed “unskilled” and paid often nothing. Much of the problem of American society is that certain time-consuming, highly skilled, necessary and exhaustive labors are deemed feminine, unskilled and therefore lesser. Other industrial societies do it differently by giving government stipends and providing money for free childcare (although in France, for example, there’s still the question of race in terms of who is actually doing the labor of childcare and for whom and why: a fear of racial suicide so the French government is interested in the production of white babies). Mormon society seems to appreciate these labors, even considering them “highly skilled,” but maintains the labors as feminine and “essentially” so.

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9 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    Awesome essay. I like it very much. Forgive me for nitpicking a detail, which reflects my own change of mind.

    Early Mormons were against slavery, but were they against having domestic servants in the twentieth century?

    I used to believe that but have concluded that this is probably not true. After all, Brigham Young was for slavery and I find it hard to believe that Mormon women would contradict the prophet, especially, since half of them were Brigham’s wives.

    Michael Quinn reports that people were dancing in the streets in Deseret to celebrate “confederate” victories. Are we supposed to believe that Mormon men loved Jefferson Davis and Mormon women hated the South?

  2. Alan says:

    From what I’ve read (and correct me if I’m wrong), this is how I understand Mormons and slavery. Smith was against slavery in the sense that he thought that all people were equal. But he explained slavery as something ancient, tied to curses, rather being solely related to oppression.

    …What could have been the design of the Almighty in this singular occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say, the curse is not yet taken off from the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great a power as caused it to come.

    While Smith would have likely interpreted the Civil War as God acting on the side of the North, Young interpreted slavery (and then servitude) as being proper. For 100 years, the curse stayed there.

    The problem with Mormon culture on this topic seems to be a kind of reluctance to look outside their own history for answers. The “curse of Canaan” as an explanation for slavery can only work if you refuse to look at colonialism. But given that the Book of Mormon overwrote/overwrites Native American history, what can you expect?

    Still, though, to return to the post, I’m curious how domestic servitude has actually manifested in Mormon households over the last century, and what this says about the current moment in terms of race, class and gender in Mormonism and America.

  3. Hellmut says:

    I would suspect that polygamy warped household servitude in interesting ways. Polygamy might have pushed more Mormon women into gainful employment. Of course, the husbands would have had to establish control over their income. Although that might not be necessary if the women remain in penury despite their pay.

    Of course, the competition among sister wives will have created interesting dynamics. Perhaps Raise the Red Lantern provides some insights. I have never seen Big Love but I “read” Carolyn Jessup’s autobiography.

    She reports that the husband and the first wive systematically severed the bond between the birth mothers and their children. Most of the wives worked in family businesses. Carolyn actually went to college.

  4. FWIW, growing up, I didn’t know anyone who hired people to do housework, nanny, etc. Maybe it’s the area I grew up in or the social class I was born into, but that is still, to this day, a foreign concept for me. I could probably afford it, but that’s just not how I think.

  5. Carla says:

    fascinating post – love to see more perspectives from Mormons/former Mormons

  6. Alan says:

    Hellmut, polygamy would certainly explain the source of free labor for 19th century households, but I’m curious about the early/mid 20th century.

    Jonathan, the nuclear family has only seemingly become more self-contained. A lot of the labor of social reproduction has been outsourced outside the individual home. For example, nowadays we have grocery stores with all the produce we need instead of growing it on our own. But think of who is employed in underpaid agrabusiness: immigrants. There’s actually been a concerted effort for people to not have to think about it — out of sight, out of mind.

  7. Andrew S says:

    How timely a post this is.

    I was just (re)discovering intersectionality (with respect to the different feminisms — e.g., that of “white middle class” women and that of “women of color”) especially as it relates to immigrant workers.

    And I wondered, “I wonder where Mormonism would fit in the intersection of all these things,” but I didn’t have much to really say. Still don’t, not really, except to say,

    “Good post.”

  8. aerin says:

    I never remember any mormon family having enough to employ servants. I don’t know if mormons would have been against the traditional cooks, maids, etc. I don’t know how it would fit with the canning, baking from scratch, etc.
    Perhaps very wealthy mormons would have access, but I think the majority did not. Perhaps I’m buying into the beehive mentality, however.
    Many mormon women I knew would have been part of this second economy, watching other’s children, taking in laundry. Again, if many were descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, there wasn’t a lot of money to begin with.
    I haven’t read a lot of Marxist feminists, but how Soviets implemented feminism left much to be desired. I don’t know the answer, but an”enlightened ” husband who did nothing but work and take out the trash; while his wife worked full time and still did all the gardening, cooking from scratch, laundry by hand…soviet women did not have an easy life. Much like the women of color, I suspect.

  9. Alan says:

    how Soviets implemented feminism

    Hi, aerin. The best introduction to Marxist feminism would be to gloss over Engel’s 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels basically theorizes that when private, individualized property came about, and there was a need to know the fathers of children because no longer did a “group” care for children (instead only two adults), this was when women’s bodies became subjected to being “owned.” Thereafter, their labor (domestic labor) was owned, and put in service of this notion of “the family.” Marxist feminism probably seems very anti-Mormon at the outset, because it historicizes the beginnings of the concept of “families” in human culture, whereas Mormons take families to be ahistorical. But oh well…whatcanyoudo.

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