Justice in the Home: Domestic Work Past, Present, and Future

This past week I had the honor and pleasure of attending a conference on domestic work co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. And I do not use the words honor and pleasure lightly. The purpose of the conference was to enrich the engagement between scholars of domestic work (historians, sociologists, labor studies, economics, etc) and domestic worker activists and advocates. I have so many thoughts about this conference so I’m gonna take my time and think it through and write a few posts about some ideas that came up.

But for this post I want to talk about the opening plenary. The panel consisted of the foremothers of scholarship on domestic work: Elizabeth Clark Lewis, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Tera Hunter, Eileen Boris, and Mary Romero. So…basically the all-stars of my dissertation bibliography all in one place. I was totally fan-girling. But I digress.

The first question posed to the panel was how did they come to this work. And then something really incredible happened. They all shared stories of their lives and the women in their family. Like me, they all come to this work from a deeply personal place. Glenn talked about Japanese women in her family who worked as domestics in California. Romero discussed her mother’s migration over the border. Hunter and Lewis discussed the legacy of servanthood in the black community dating back to slavery. What they shared was the inability to find the histories of “ordinary women” in their academic fields when they all entered graduate school in the early eighties.

Boris, a white woman told an interesting story. She recalled how her working class jewish mother was “loaned” her aunt’s maid to relieve her of the duties of keeping house. Boris was unsettled by this as a young person and began thinking about the intersections of race and labor as a result. Her first job was at Howard where she said that she learned more from her students and colleagues than she taught them. She learned how to listen. A number of scholars will tell you that it is almost impossible to talk about domestic work with white feminist scholars, since many of them employ nannies or maids. I have a lot of respect for Boris’s choices. And her scholarship, which is consistently well researched and quite good, demonstrates what a difference this makes.

When I started doing this work I noticed that women who write about domestic work are an intellectual community. I have not witnessed this kind of relationship between scholars in any other field. But what really makes it unique is that in this contemporary moment, while the fight for domestic workers rights is gaining some serious momentum, domestic workers themselves make sure to make their presence known in academic spaces. They show up to conferences and lectures and make us, as scholars, accountable to them. They are also a part of this community. And I think what we write is that much better for it.

Thus, these women scholars, my intellectual foremothers, spawned a whole field just by forging relationships with each other. Searching for themselves in what they were reading. And when they couldn’t find it, they began talking. And reading. And sharing stories. And from that came a cornucopia of amazing scholarship.

Oh and they were all so nice to me. Even after I introduced myself by saying “Hi! I’m Shana and I’ve read everything you have ever written.” So that was night one. More soon from the cutting room floor.

The Labor of Activism

Recently, a good friend of mine who is an advocate for Palestinian liberation posted this article about the potential toxicity of being employed in the social justice field. Its pretty good but my friend added in her commentary that we should also consider the unpaid work that we do on behalf of the political movements. At one point in my academic career I was invested in an intellectual community for whom nonprofit work was a rite of passage. For them it was also a privilege. While they were all working low wage non-profit jobs (with support from parents and partners), I was working in the corporate world. I needed the money and benefits to live. Unfortunately, the movement doesn’t pay bills.

But I also noticed, like the article mentioned, that for them the organization was the movement. And that sentiment placed me on the margins of our circle. It somehow called my loyalty to the movement into question. Which movement you ask? Didn’t really matter. As long as it wasn’t rooted in patriarchy. (A blog for another day)

Yet, under the oppressive system of capitalism we were one in the same. While we often critique capitalism in the activism we do, we never think about how the labor we do for social justice is labor. And much of the unpaid work is often done by women. In addition to jobs and taking care of families. In fact, when I went to South Africa earlier this summer I remember saying to many of the education and labor activists that we met how inspired I was that there were so many women in positions of power. Their response, “Its because nonprofit jobs pay the least.”

So I began thinking that the labor that is done by women on behalf of the movement is reproductive labor in the Marxist sense. Not sure where to go with that. Which is why its here, on the cutting room floor.

Congratulations Ai-Jen Poo!

Great news this week. Ai-Jen Poo, the fantastic and inspiring director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. I have never been so excited and more inspired. It means that this movement, that I know consider myself a part of, is gaining visibility and momentum. These women work so hard. State by state. City by city. To mobilize and educate women workers. I am so proud that Ai-Jen is one of the honorees this year. She intends to use the money to create a domestic worker fellowship so that more women can work for the movement full time.

And she is in such great company. Fair housing advocates, LGBT activists, a woman who serves as a legal advocate for domestic violence victims in the native community, feminist activist Alison Bechdel, so many women and people of color.

While we don’t like to talk about money often as activists, it matters. Movements cost money. And the MacArthur grants go to such great causes. And now ours is one.

See Ai-Jen’s moving video about winning the award here.

And while we are on the subject I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about what it means to be a scholar that is part of a grassroots movement. On a conference call recently that included a number of emerging scholars writing about domestic work along with a member of NDWA, a woman asked, “How can we create scholarship that is useful to the movement?” A simple question. And a challenge I have given myself. We’ll see what I come up with. But for now, just the cutting room floor.


So, I’m working on this dissertation, right? Its history. As in, the past. The distant past. Current chapter…set in 1919. So why is it that current events make me feel like I am not, in fact, writing about history? Vice, prostitution, interracial sex, scandal…1919…2014. Same difference.

Lets start with the three black women at a hotel bar falsely accused of being sex workers. The articles are steeped in black respectability. So it becomes very important that they were two educators and a lawyer. I feel like I am reading some newsletter from the beginnings of the black club movement where reformers are shunning the suggestion that all black women are sexually available (as they should) but shaming sex workers at the same time. Actual sex workers. Who labored in the same way that these “respectable” women did. And for wages that were not much greater.

Then Django Unchained actress, Danielle Watts, gets detained by the police. Now these details are gonna be fuzzy. But I’m not a journalist so sue me. (Well don’t sue me. Just be empathetic.) First she was accused of prostitution? Then having sex in public? Resisting arrest? Sigh. Let the think pieces begin.

Here are the facts. Watts and her partner (a white man…that’s important) were in a car doing something. Somebody took photos. Somebody called the caps. Mr. White BF was very compliant. Watts refused to show id. Everyone says everyone else is lying.

Here is what I care about. Watts says she was racially profiled. And…well the LAPD had a great track record on that one. Even if the police were simply responding to a call about public sex (which they might have), it doesn’t change the fact that some lay citizen felt compelled to take pics and video. If you really thought that they were full on fucking in public (doubtful) then a simple phone call would have sufficed. This kind of sexual policing is extracurricular.

And to top it all off civil rights leaders in LA are calling for Watts to apologize to the LAPD for lying about being racially profiled. No really. (Epic side-eye)

But what is most important about this whole situation are the johns. Or might be johns. Watts’ boyfriend never gets arrested. He talks casually with the cop while his beloved is in hand cuffs about her oversensitivity about race. No punishment for those soliciting sex workers. Supposedly soliciting. Whatever. The point is, as my mother likes to say, who would you punish someone for working? Sexual labor is labor. Soliciting is leisure. So we punish the worker and not the one who economically makes this whole world of vice possible?

And this suggests to me that regardless of whether or not you think Watts is right or wrong (and I have heard so many sides to this argument) this is about the disciplining of black women’s bodies. And their respectability. And its an issue of class and labor. Black middle class versus black working class. Looking the other way as white johns (usually men of means) do what they do but taking Harriet the Spy level cell phone videos when we see a black woman being affectionate with her boyfriend in a car in broad daylight. And its not just happening in 1919. Which might me the most depressing to me.

On Violence

For the last few weeks I have been working on this dissertation chapter on sex work in the literature of William Attaway. I have discovered that domestic work, sexuality, and violence are always in proximity. There is a certain normalization of domestic violence in black Left literature. It is as though capitalism and racism naturally cause working class men to beat and rape women. 

Capitalism makes men violent. The elimination of capitalism (socialism? communism?) will end this violence and liberate women. Except this has yet to happen. It didn’t happen in the USSR. Communism didn’t eliminate racism either for the record. 

All of this was at the front of my mind when I heard that the Ravens decided to release Ray Rice after he knocked his wife unconscious. But where does class fit here? Rice is clearly not working class. But he is black. And that clearly matters. So is his wife. Which also matters. 

I’m annoyed by the investigations into this non-unique situation. What did she do? What kind of situation produces this? His labor (as an athlete) matters. It is this culture of violence that we need to consider. We are spectators to a violent sport. Which clearly colors our spectatorship of this violent act. Caught on video. 

Cathy Cohen, Deviance, and Mike Brown

Working on this sex work chapter and re-reading Cathy Cohen’s fantastic article “Deviance as Resistance.” But I can’t get Ferguson off my mind. While she provides lots of theoretical fodder for this chapter regarding how to theorize sexuality and sexual labor, I can’t help but think about representation and the theorization of Ferguson. Poverty, youth, and racialism make these young resistors in Ferguson outside of the realm of the normative white nuclear family. Yet, the black respectability brigade readily participates in shaming their response to police brutality. Taking my lead from Cohen, perhaps we should listen to these young people. And find the possibility of a new black politic and a renewed theorization of resistance that clearly has historical resonance. 

Just a few thoughts from the cutting room floor. 

Edith Wilson

On Aunt Jemima

Whenever I tell people that my research centers on domestic workers I am always asked my thoughts on (and by this I mean compelled to think and write about) the mammy figure. I’m not really interested in representation. That’s been done. Over and over. Not to mention domestic workers are real to me. They are people in my family. They live and work in my community. They are definitely not mammy.

But even mammy has a history. She is a cultural worker. Hattie McDaniel, award winning portrayer of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, said something to the effect that she would rather get paid a lot of money to play a domestic worker than get paid pennies to really be one. Not to mention Mammy figures are beloved in the American imagination. I’ve seen and written about Gone With the Wind. Though it was uncomfortable, McDaniel’s performance is incredible. Dare I say moving? It demonstrates the power of black performance. Even more so, because she does it amidst black protest and uncompromising racism.

Which brings me to Aunt Jemima. She, too, is more than a face on a pancake box. She is a woman on my family tree. Her name is Edith Wilson. And she was the radio voice and face of Aunt Jemima for twenty years. She is pictured here. And looks, eerily, a lot like me. So, I cannot call her a mammy. She was also a cultural worker. She was a jazz singer, actress, performer. She advocated for other performers. Langston Hughes once said that she was one of the women that he most admired. And yet, others called her mammy. They hated her for what she represented. And while I recognize the complexities, my familial connection to her makes it difficult for me to participate in an objective and nuanced analysis. This is something that happens often as I approach my research. But that’s a blog for another day.

You will notice that she looks nothing like the woman on your pancake box. That honor goes to the woman who preceded her, Anna S. Harrington. In 1937, Quaker Oats trademarked her likeness. Just in cased you missed that, they trademarked a person. As in, your face belongs to us.

And now her great-grandchildren are suing Quaker Oats (now owned by PepsiCo) for their piece of the royalties. To which I say, good for them. She is a real person. Not a cartoon character. She was an employee. More than an employee really. And she deserves this.

I could see how people would be critical of the amount of money they are asking for. But I’m not concerned about that. I understand the impetus behind the suit. The feeling of your family history being commodified and treated like fiction to everyone who walks down the breakfast aisle. I will be very interested to see what comes of this. But in the mean time, these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.