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A Look Back at Our Attitudes toward Domestic Workers

Published: November 19, 2011

“You can’t find decent help these days”: the complaint echoed through the generations of the last century. It seems there were never enough cooks, maids, or nannies. And the available few were usually unskilled and hard to work with.

Things had been different in the 1880s, when every other wage-earning woman was a servant. But domestic service quickly lost its attraction and American women took other jobs. By 1900, the number of servants dropped 25%; by 1920, 60%.

Many Americans wondered why housework had become such an unpopular job. in 1943, Edna Tollman told them in her article, “So You Can’t Keep A Maid!’

It is my forthright opinion that most women have a mean streak in them when dealing with maids—a small, mean streak that makes them domineering, callous, grasping, unbelievably inconsiderate and arrogantly demanding.

Even when they have an urge to be kind, they are so wrapped up in their own lives and so lacking in understanding of the woman who serves them that the reward seldom jells.

Her years of being cook and maid to households from Philadelphia to Hollywood had acquainted her with

the hot resentment, the cold contempt, the bitterness, the animosity that the average woman’s attitude builds up in the heart of the servant she employs.

Somewhere there must be decent, considerate employers of servants. That is a sort of faith I have, but it isn’t based on personal experience.

Her bitter experiences, which she relates in her article, led to question the whole business of domestic help.

For one complacent, able-bodied, indolent woman to demand so much of the weary

"You're not talking to your wife now, chum!"
—The maid in popular culture: indomitable Hazel, from 1946.

flesh of another, as if she were some superior being, is not quite decent.

There is something un-American about…the dozens of other personal services [the employer] demands as her right, simply because she happens to be able to pay for them.

The American girl likes to think she is as good as anybody. That’s the way she has been brought up. But she isn’t allowed to think that in somebody’s kitchen; not, at least, in the kitchens I have known.

Gradually it gets under your skin. And after a while you say to yourself: “This is a helluva life. I’m going out and get a job at the dime store.”

I am off to a defense-plant job in the morning. I don’t expect to find riches at the factory…And I shan’t like the setting as much as I like a nice clean kitchen. But I shall have self-respect.

I hope you have to get up in the morning and get your own breakfast. Chin up. A little practical democracy won’t hurt you.

The article provoked an unprecedented flood of letter to the Post editors. Some writers were outraged:

“It seems incredible that your magazine, noted for its outstanding and sane articles and editorials, could allow to be published such a nasty, poison-minded thing.”

and some concurred:

A Beverly Hills husband plaintively writes, “Every word is true, and I’ve wondered how in hell my own wife could be so nice and lovely, and treat help like I’ve seen her treat our maids.” This gentleman admits he is “too big a coward” to tell his wife this, but adds—rather pathetically, we think—that he served in World War 1.

Many women submitted rebuttal articles, but the editors chose just one, which appeared the following January. Rita Halle Kleeman’s “So It’s The Housewife’s Fault, Is It?” showed that employers felt equally outraged. Ms. Kleeman said she didn’t want to hear any more about downtrodden maids—

who, though competent, willing and noble, are underpaid, overworked and generally abused by ruthless, inconsiderate or slave-driving employers. Most women who read such tales wonder where these paragons have been all their lives. There is probably not one among them who has not had at least one of the following experiences:

Having a maid dawdle for maddening hours over work that could be done in a quarter of the time, and then complain to anyone who would listen that she was overworked.

Having a maid take for granted her right to the family perfume and cigarettes, or worse, discovering…that she had been systematically collecting a trousseau from the family possessions during that time.

Or having her, after marvelous references…turn out to be dirty, disagreeable, intemperate, lazy, or all of these.

The problem with domestic service wasn’t the employer’s fault, Ms. Kleeman concluded.  It was the employees’ basic dislike of housework.

Now, if they don’t like housework, that is their privilege. But in all fairness, so long as they are unwilling to do it on any terms, let them stop blaming their distaste on housewives or on unacceptable conditions and wages.

Yet Kleeman conceded that women could be inconsiderate and unreasonable as employers. So she proposed a system that encouraged domestic workers and employers to trade information before hire.

The considerate housewife would be better off if references were given as well as asked.

If it is a serious business to take a stranger into your home, it is equally serious for her to enter it. It recognizes that maid is justified in ascertaining in advance what sort of household she is getting into and what she will be expected to do there.

Does the servant problem still exist? Are there enough maids, cooks, and nannies? And what are they paid? We don’t know. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has no statistics on the domestic work force or its wages.

If the labor problem has been solved, perhaps we can now address the legal problem of illegal workers and tax evasion. According to one estimate, though, there are about 2 million domestic workers in the U.S. Although their employers must pay half their Social Security and Medicare taxes, less than a third of them do.

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  • Ima Ryma

    The two Papin sisters did work
    In France as maids for a madame,
    Who was zealous that they not shirk,
    And constantly gave harsh exam.
    ‘Twas in the seventh year employ,
    Inside the home, the fuses blew,
    An accident that did annoy
    Madame who made a big to do,
    And at the sister maids screeched blame.
    The sisters with hammer and knife
    Sealed the deal in their claim to fame,
    Chopping to pieces, Madame’s life.

    The French public became afraid.
    Was anyone safe from a maid?

  • Charley

    border, some 8,000 miles from America?

  • Charley

    As usual the Gu’mment has statistics, (2 million household workers), but no way to verify those “statistics”. “About 20 million Illegals! How can they come to such a conclusion/? Do the “Illegals” register somewhere?
    This Gu’mment thinks the Mexican border is too difficult to controll!! So how are we able to controll the Iraq