For centuries, a woman’s social status was clear-cut: Either she had a maid or she was one. Servants—often live-ins—who did the bulk of the cooking, laundry, and child care were an indispensable part of life for virtually everyone who wasn’t a domestic worker him- or herself.
Live-in maids, though, are now an anachronism—their outfits are more often seen as Halloween costumes or part of sexual role-plays. The fact that servants used to be a fixture of domestic life and are now reserved for the wealthy is one of the key, but little discussed, reasons contemporary middle-class men and women feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. The receding presence of hired help has been accompanied by tremendous and long-overdue boosts in the rights of domestic workers. At the same time, it means that fewer families today can afford the household support that was available to previous generations; paying even a part-time nanny on the books can be a time-consuming and expensive bureaucratic procedure.
Only a generation before middle-class housewives entered the workforce en masse, they enjoyed the assistance of nannies, cooks, and cleaners. The drop-off in domestic workers—whose absence today is felt disproportionately by women, who still are the ones typically tasked with homemaking—goes a long way toward explaining why women in 1965 spent the same amount of time on child care and only about 10 more hours on housework a week than women in 2011. Nowadays, many working parents need more help and have access to less.
Today’s arrangement is a historical anomaly. Consider the genteel poverty of protagonists in novels by chroniclers of class such as Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, and Jane Austen. Regardless of their reduced circumstances, these characters would have been shocked by the idea that they should be responsible for sweeping, let alone mopping, their own floors. In perhaps literature’s most extreme example, even the eternally optimistic but penniless Micawber family from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield can’t imagine giving up its servant.
This situation remained the status quo for so long because it relied on a cheap and abundant supply of labor from unskilled workers, most of them easily exploited women and children who had few, if any, other options, and no employee protections. A 2013 Mother Jones examination of the history of domestic workers reported that, according to the 1870 census, “52 percent of employed women worked in ‘domestic and personal service.’” From 1870 through the mid-1900s, that percentage only increased. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Domestic service represented the leading occupation of women in Chicago and the nation … Domestic work attracted few native-born women because of the long hours, low status, lack of freedom, and close supervision. Consequently, domestic servants often came from the ranks of the most desperate members of the community, either those too poor to pay for housing or those excluded from other vocations.
In 1912, a “hired girl” with 33 years of experience anonymously published a narrative of the trials of her line of work, in what was the era’s equivalent of the hit novel The Help:
There is often no Sunday out until after four and no evening out until after eight. Foreign girls do not go into housework for this reason. They prefer the fixed hours of factory and shop work.
Ladies are sometimes not honest in money matters concerning the girls they employ. I have known many nice girls to work for little money—two dollars and a half or three dollars a week—and one week out of every five or six the lady would forget, or pretend to forget, to pay for. If the girl has given no written receipt for her wages, she sometimes has no proof of what is due her.
After the Great Migration brought multitudes of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th century, black women took over the bulk of these exploitative jobs. Only during the Great Depression, and then temporarily, did this dynamic shift, according to the National Women’s History Museum:
Unemployment was especially severe among African American women. Many African American women lost their positions as domestic servants to white women who entered the market during the Depression. In urban areas, they were forced to convene on city corners in “slave markets,” hoping to be hired for very low-paid day labor.
By 1970, appliances, ready-made food, and other technologies had reduced both the amount and the rigor of household work and rendered domestic help a luxury. By the 1980s, household help was played for laughs on sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Mr. Belvedere. It was a running joke on Gilmore Girls that Lorelei Gilmore’s wealthy mother, Emily, couldn’t keep a maid. By then, only women of Emily’s class were expected to have one.
By contrast, in 1959, when the Douglas Sirk domestic melodrama Imitation of Life was nominated for two Academy Awards, maids were a mundane aspect of the middle-class experience.* And the reason for the shift is not merely that Sears started selling affordable dishwashers and laundry machines.
Domestic workers started agitating for better treatment and fairer pay in 1881, and they were denied them by both local and federal entities longer than any other kind of laborer was. Gradually, though, thanks to the decades-long unionization efforts of women like Dorothy Bolden, they won key rights and protections. That is an unalloyed good. It may make running a household more difficult and cause today’s working men and women to wonder if they can “have it all,” but it also means that domestic workers at last have the opportunity to try to “have it all” as well.
* This article originally stated that Imitation of Life was nominated for Academy Awards in 1934. We regret the error.