Some historical downsides of having household help, American edition

  1. Infectious-licious!

    Unvetted servants carrying infectious diseases.  The above is the most famous example, but there are plenty of other examples to draw upon.  Because a reference wasn’t necessary to secure a position due to the chronic labor shortages of a growing, wealthy society with free right of travel for all whites (and many blacks), a lot of servants would turn up to work in a household and get everyone sick.  Usually it wasn’t lethal (even Typhoid Mary had fewer than 10% of her 50+ victims die, the rest recovered), but it still was a very real risk and concern.  Anonymity was an early feature of American society, even when housewives still needed domestic help, and this was one of the nasty little side effects of that

  2. Harder to present the image of a classless society.  Being the land of opportunity, America has always struggled with the fact that some people are going to be servants or employees to others for their working lives.  Instead of considering this a reason to keep working conditions for domestic servants decent, it was considered a reason to just not have servants.  Or lie about them.  A notable example can be found during the Eisenhower presidency of the 1950s.  His then Vice-President Richard Nixon’s wife spent years pretending she did not have a live-in maid (Swedish), a yard man (ethnic background unknown), and loads and loads of babysitters to watch the two children they had, even to the extent of demanding the help never be photographed or spoken to by reporters doing “A Day in the Life of the Veep’s Wife” fluff pieces.  Something to keep in mind when hearing about how housewives don’t need domestic help because appliances.  As early as the 1950s, American women had many of what we currently consider modern appliances except for the glorious microwave and front-loading washing machine.  But they also had maids and childcare help (which was exempted from wage laws, of course).  Well-off Americans have claimed for a long time that they just magically do it all themselves, especially but not strictly conservatives.
  3. They just wanted a ten hour workday.

    Violent responses to poor working conditions.  The above is a picture of the Papin sisters, who were French and killed their mistress and her adult daughter after years of 14 hour days.  While not American, working conditions for American domestics were frequently not better.  This is occluded somewhat by racial stuff, but Northern white women were quite as happy to leave a white female servant bleeding from a slap or the strop as Southern white women were with black female slaves.  This is, of course, memoryholed like whoa in American discourse on domestic help.  Domestic service is not necessarily lowly, and given decent working conditions, many women are quite all right with serving others even if the pay is not the toppiest of top-end.  American women ran from service because the conditions and pay were both pretty crummy (the Woman Homesteader of Wyoming I wrote a bit about a white back was willing to trade the conditions of working as a laundress in an urban area for the backbreaking work of homesteading in Wyoming.)  They didn’t run because they disliked serving others necessarily.  Some did, but others would have been happy to keep doing that as a job if they were treated like humans by their employers.  Things these days are not going in that direction, with the rise of “servant apps” where you just-in-time schedule your domestic help (“assistants”).  Meanwhile, the paternalism that drives our own hiring is sneered at for not being all-encompassing enough.  Vacation days, feh!  You don’t pay health insurance!  Health insurance?  Pah, you don’t put in a 401k!  Middle-class American women used to be able to afford domestic help not just because the wages were exempted, but also because it wasn’t considered a job, it was considered a relationship with pay at its best (and worst, of course).  Nobody wants to have human relationships anymore or accept the consequences of paternalism at its best (being responsible personally for those you employ) and in America part of that is being able to just up and move away from paternalism at its worst (Papin sisters, worst of chattel slavery).

 

Chesterton’s wife had nurserymaids and other domestic help

Mr. Price over at the Spearhead discovers some wise words of Chesterton’s regarding how women turn being at the job into a sad caricature of the domestic sphere, but Price misses the servant-shaped elephant in the room.  

Chesterton is a great favorite of internet conservatives, particularly (though not in this case) internet traditional distributist-loving Catholics.  But the man didn’t go live the agrarian distributist fantasy he spoke so eloquently about, and his wife certainly didn’t tenderly raise their passel of lovely children by herself.

This doesn’t mean Chesterton wasn’t brilliant and amazing, but it does call into question why people like to refer to old anti-feminist writings written by men whose wives had full domestic staffs (and less often, women who relied on having staff to have leisure to write for hours at all) when that would tell you something fairly important about what conditions are necessary to restore or reinvigorate middle class domesticity.

 

Double Consciousness for SAHMs

Double consciousness, it’s not just a black thing!  It is a classic housewife problem, coming from servant classes but marrying well enough to afford servants yourself and not knowing what to do with them.  Chalk it up to another way to feel bad and a failure as a woman.

I think it doesn’t get enough real discussion among conservatives, because they are very wedded to the classless America myth.  But one of the conflicts with the idea of a “traditional America” is that America was peopled by folks who rejected proper authority and their proper place in existing hierarchies.  It was peopled by servant classes and third sons of gentry, people who would have been very low on their relative totem poles in the home countries.  Combined with the low population density and the love of technology, there’s always been a big conflict in “traditional America” over whether to have servants at all.  This was an added layer to slavery debates, incidentally.

Among the white ethnic groups who came over with strong traditions of sharing the labor out instead of having servants, Americans forgot or ignored that those ethnic groups relied on massive shaming and social pressure to spread the work around.

And so by the time we get to the modern era, the white-ethnic traditions that provided voluntary, unpaid support for housewives are nearly extinct and other forms of support are unavailable due to a mix of factors, including tolerance of disordered and sociopathic personalities in housewife-heavy subcultures.

This is incidentally why so many white American people are quick to claim they and their ancestors didn’t own slaves or benefit from slavery.  It’s a way to forget that lots and lots and lots of white people really really really wanted to have the wealth and subject labor that slaves represented.  There wouldn’t have been an entire industry peopled by those servantless whites around kidnapping free black people and claiming they were slaves with “missing papers” if slave labor was such a horrible financial drain to have and keep going *for the people who had slaves*. Having serfs is particularly nice if you don’t have to worry about your children dropping that far down the ladder because the serfs are an entirely different race.

Likewise, a small but influential number of women dismiss the idea of servants or household help as important, needful or useful because they are disordered and the wacky individualist strain in American culture provides cover for their madness, at the expense of having to deal with the fact that you just might not be “middle class” in origins or background and narrowly missed being the maid or nanny or housekeeper yourself.  It also is why there is such a belief, most particularly among conservatives, that the private household administered by a housewife is utterly essential but that household help is utterly improper as a social expectation for housewives.  Without that deranged, Randian individualism, conservatives could not gaslight women into believing that they must carry the full burden of maintaining a household with nothing more than a prayer book, a vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher.

There’s also the dismissal of the idea that life in domestic service could be a career with advancement and wealth-building opportunities.  This was even the case to a surprising extent (as in, it happened at all) in American chattel slavery.  If simply being a servant is the worst possible thing that could happen to someone, then having servants cannot be a moral or worthwhile thing.  This is an ongoing theme in American culture, that class and status conflict playing out decade after decade. But yeah.  Black Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve had to struggle with double consciousness as an artifact of their place in society.

Preserving continuity of domestic traditions

Something that most people with conservative values and beliefs don’t really have knowledge of is that there is an extensive history of the domestic sphere and its evolution over the centuries as technology and economic developments shaped it into various forms.  This extensive history is mostly recorded linearly in feminist narratives speaking against domesticity.  Yet they are in fact the only ones preserving any trace of this traditional, culturally-specific knowledge.

So, to get quite practical, what would be useful is for some of the conservative homemaking bloggesses out there to use their leisure time they spend blogging in doing something far more helpful to women– reaching into those feminist texts and pulling out the threads of history and compiling a series of essays, ebooks or print books outlining the Anglo, Scandinavian, Germanic and other culture-specific domestic traditions and where they spread out into other cultures and where enclaves of transmission from older women to younger women remain.

Conservatives of all stripes talk about culture wars and values and such all the time, but live cut off from deep historical pools.  Diving in and gathering those pearls would be a valuable tool, as it would offer women a connection to traditional ways of living and show that there is status and glory in maintaining the hestia as a center of traditionally oriented life.  Instead of feeling beaten down and inadequate, women could be renewed by studying their ancestresses and bring that honesty and reality into their marriages, childrearing, homemaking and community life, lifting up so much instead of being pulled down into despair and anomie.  Older women with the free time to blog could shift to this other path instead of building themselves up as de facto authorities without any obligations of responsibility to the desperate SAHMs reading them seeking any crumb of support in their journeys.

It is quite cruel to tell women to come home, lie about  or deny the long history of the domestic sphere and its complexities, and then act surprised that not very many women want to sign on for a life of closely spaced pregnancies, zero community, relative or paid household support, and ridiculous, non-historical and physically impossible standards of “Christian SAHMness”.  It is practical and reasonable to offer them a true connection to the threads of the past and the ways of their ancestresses and allow them to know that they are part of a vast, complex and extensive historical world.  There would still not be vast waves of women rushing to SAHM, but you’d get more of the sweet nice types who currently end up 47 and unwed because they aren’t blind and would rather be “in ministry” than a crumbling wreck of health with a side order of spiritual and psychological abuse.

Also, accurate information would allow in a broader sphere for transition to a service economy that offered really sweet services instead of selling massages and poorly built townhomes to each other.