Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 by Vanessa May is an interesting analysis of domestic worker activism and cultural values attached to public and private space. But essentially, this excellent book is about failures: the failure of imagination on the part of middle-class women who could not see the needs of working women; the failure of domestic workers to make their voices heard in labor policy debates; and the failure of both reformers and domestics to fully integrate.
Vanessa May explains how and why domestic workers, the largest category of working women before 1940, were excluded from labor protections that formed the foundation of the welfare state. Looking at the debate over domestic service from both sides of the class divide, Unprotected Labor assesses middle-class women’s reform programs as well as household workers’ efforts to determine their own working conditions. May argues that working-class women sought to define the middle-class home as a workplace even as employers and reformers regarded the home as private space. The result was that labor reformers left domestic workers out of labor protections that covered other women workers in New York between the late 19th century and the New Deal.
By recovering the history of domestic workers as activists in the debate over labor legislation, in this well-researched and well-written book May illuminates how the domestic-service debate turned the middle-class home inside out, making private problems public and bringing concerns like labor conflict and government regulation into the middle-class home. (Open access to the book’s introduction)
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