Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.
Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages.
Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship.
In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.