Dr. Vanessa May, Seton Hall University – Labor Law and Domestic Help

Aug 2, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Vanessa May of Seton Hall University explains why domestic workers were denied the protections of labor law for most of the twentieth century. 

Vanessa May is an assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University where she studies the history of women, gender, and class in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America. Specifically, her research has focused on the class divide that fueled the debate over labor protection for domestic workers and in 2011 she published, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.

About Dr. May

Dr. Vanessa May – Labor Law and Domestic Help

Domestics represented the largest category of women workers before 1940 but were excluded from wage and hour legislation until 1974.  In contrast, many women industrial workers were covered by labor laws as early as 1908.  By 1938, New Deal labor legislation covered both men and women.  How had domestics been left out of these reforms?

My research found that opposition to labor laws for domestics came from an unlikely source.  In 1938, reformers launched a nationwide campaign to pass state labor laws for workers not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, including domestics.  In New York, two bills proposed a minimum wage and maximum hours for domestics.  Surprisingly, prominent women's organizations, including the YWCA, the Consumers' League, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's City Club, refused to fully support the bills.  These groups had lobbied hard for the Fair Labor Standards Act.  They had written, campaigned for, and championed much of the progressive legislation that made the New Deal transformative.  A bill for domestic labor standards could not pass without their support. 

Why were they so reluctant?  First, the members of these organizations were middle and upper-class women worried about maintaining access to cheap household help.  They, like professionals today, depended on domestics to do the housework while they pursued other interests.  But, the language these groups used to oppose the bill is telling.  For example, one Women's City Club member complained, "There is too much talk about 'labor and industry' coming into the privacy of one’s home." This statement demonstrates that activists saw the home as a private place where families lived and loved.  It was not a workplace.  In fact, housework was maybe not work at all.   Today, these ideas continue to shape what we count as “real” work and who we consider a “real” worker.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.