Dirty Work: Domestic Service and the Making of the Middle Class in Modern Women's Fiction

Ann M. Mattis, Loyola University Chicago


In my dissertation, "Dirty Work: Domestic Service and the Making of the Middle-Class in Modern Women's Fiction," I analyze the social anxieties surrounding domestic servants that permeated both popular and canonical archives in the United States during the early half of the twentieth century. I contend that a feminized and racialized brand of class hegemony ambivalently crystallizes around literary formulations of the employer/domestic relationship. Domestic servants were indispensable to - yet in tension with - American progressive discourses of the nuclear family and female individualism. Material feminist reforms cultivated and dispersed these discourses throughout women's magazines, conduct manuals, and female-authored fiction. Literary representations of domestic service in the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and Fannie Hurst engage, formally and thematically, with pragmatic ideologies underlying Progressive Era reforms, especially their general interest

in de-personalizing maid/mistress relationships and privatizing domestic intimacy. This literature produces social fantasies and psychosexual narratives that complicate women's class identifications in the United States along racial and/or affective lines, as opposed to

collective, material struggle. Domestic service was an industry against which upwardly mobile "new" women were positioned, socioeconomically and culturally, to construct their identities. As the social relations of domestic labor brought women from different classes, races, and ethnicities together in uncomfortable ways, modern women's literature - at least by white middle-class authors - nonetheless reveals an uneasy relationship between domestic service and the cultural apparatuses defining modern female selfhood.