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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.


About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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