The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Dirty Work: Domestic Service in Progressive-Era Women’s Fiction

Dirty Work: Domestic Service in Progressive-Era Women’s Fiction. By Ann Mattis. University of Michigan Press, 2019. 238 pp. $75.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Kelley Wagers, Penn State—Scranton

The title of Ann Mattis’s Dirty Work captures the book’s overlapping historical and critical moves. The book compiles a history of the “dirty work”—low wage, round-the-clock, grueling, and degrading—of American domestic service in the early twentieth century. Further, it identifies the impulses for these exploitative relations among reformers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Jessie Fauset, and Fannie Hurst. These writers and their fictional avatars, it seems, did some “dirty work” of their own: they shored up racial and class hierarchies and perpetuated capitalist exploitation in the name of reform. Mattis’s title also indicates the book’s own critical endeavor to unearth these unsavory anxieties and unconscious desires at the root of modern US feminism. Dirty Work thus provides a fresh look at well-known and frequently taught writers, even as it delves into lesser-known texts. It should embolden more critical “dirty work” aimed at understanding the failures of liberal reform movements by examining the contradictory impulses that compel them.

Dirty Work builds on an established body of social and literary history that describes the domestic service industry as it intersects with “uplift” movements like the settlement movement, New Womanhood, and New Negrohood. Mattis surveys this history and adds compelling close readings of contemporaneous journalism and letters published in women’s magazines and home maintenance manuals. However, Dirty Work’s main point is to reveal women’s fiction as a response to and participant in domestic service relations, which, Mattis argues, fundamentally shaped American women’s physical, social, psychic, and imaginative lives during the Progressive Era.

Given this goal, one might expect Dirty Work to present female servants and employers in separate spheres. Readers might find a version of the now-familiar idea that New Women were liberated to act publicly because they shifted the burdens of physical labor and constant presence in the home to maids and nannies, roles increasingly filled in the United States by immigrant and Black women over the first decades of the twentieth century. But Mattis sees a more intimate connection, a quietly antagonistic “contact zone” that generated conflicting ideas about American domesticity and femininity (2). Despite their advocacy for women’s social equality and self-determination, white middle- and upper-class feminists were panicked about the interclass and interethnic relations and mobility embodied and signified by servants. Meanwhile, they used real-life and fictitious servants as resources for essentialist visions of universal womanhood and racial solidarity. What emerges from Mattis’s scrutiny is a reform movement that, at its worst, policed servants’ sexual activity and physical movement; orchestrated unions that naturalized racial, ethnic, and class hierarchies; hid real labor conditions beneath ideologies of progress; and forged psychic coherence by fracturing the identities of working-class women.

Mattis credits Progressive-Era reformers with positive contributions too. These writers represented the dire working conditions and social stagnation of domestic servitude. They urged employers to ensure better protection for female servants. Mattis also addresses writers, especially Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, and Anzia Yezierska, whose representations of domestic labor challenge reassertions of class, race, and ethnic division. Yet, as Dirty Work’s key chapters on Gilman and Wharton initially explain, these advances were persistently overwhelmed by regressive proposals that exacerbated the industry’s problematic working conditions and relationships.

Dirty Work’s first chapter presents Gilman’s promotion of two promises of feminist reform, equality and independence, as a troubled “response” to interracial and interclass contact brought about by domestic service relations (51). Mattis reads Gilman’s 1903 reform manual, The Home, and first novel, What Diantha Did (1909), as well as her short story “Turned” (1911), to show how Gilman’s advocacy of middle-class privacy and acceptable marriages also promotes eugenic manipulation and hides class antagonism. Dirty Work’s third chapter concerns Wharton’s gothic ghost stories, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902) and “All Souls” (1937), as well as her autobiographical writing and her early home design manual, The Decoration of Houses (1897). In these haunted texts, Mattis finds a repressed desire for lost intimacy between mistress and maid to undergird modern conceptions of the feminine psyche. This construction not only ignores ethnic and racial differences in psychological development, but also displaces the material conditions, namely abject wage labor and physical restrictions, of domestic servitude.

The book’s fourth chapter begins with New Negro advocates, especially W.E.B. Du Bois, who promoted interclass contact for social “uplift,” but, in doing so, reduced Black female domestics to “race mothers” expected to serve the larger cause (116). Mattis argues that Jessie Fauset’s novella The Sleeper Wakes (1920) fulfills this sociological logic and political strategy while Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) challenges it. When Fauset’s protagonist embraces interclass solidarity and meaningful work, she reveals the essentialist and exploitative capacities of the alliance between New Womanhood and New Negrohood. Passing “throws a wrench” into this alignment by exposing the class antagonism it hides and questioning the virtue of employing racial connection for social uplift (142). Dirty Work’s fifth chapter argues that Fannie Hurst’s representations of domestic labor pursue a universal ideal of New Womanhood that, again, promotes regressive racial and class relations. In her popular melodramas Lummox (1923) and Imitation of Life (1933), Hurst presents a feminized oedipal drama that at once reinforces and hides exploitation and inequality in domestic service. More explicitly than Larsen’s Passing, Anzia Yezierska’s Arrogant Beggar (1927) challenges these real and imaginative uses of domestic servants by insisting, instead, on a vision of modern womanhood shaped by material conditions and non-utilitarian ethnic identifications.

While the discussions of Larsen and Yezierska, along with a cogent afterword, provide relatively brief counterpoints, Dirty Work’s second chapter more thoroughly investigates challenges to Progressive reform strategies in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909). Mattis focuses on German American employers and domestics in the book’s two shorter narratives, “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena.” Stein’s servant women value the intimacy, at times “love,” which writers like Gilman and Wharton hoped to standardize out of middle-class homes (55). Beyond their challenge to rigid social relations and heteronormativity, Anna’s and Lena’s experiences also subtly criticize the exploitative and defensive marriage “market” that the reformers participated in under the name of progress (75). The chapter’s concentration on German American culture and Dirty Work’s focus on texts that primarily dramatize service relations explain the absence of Stein’s longer third narrative, “Melanctha,” from the analysis, and Mattis mentions Stein’s uses of Black characters in other texts. Still, as Toni Morrison argues in a recently published 1990 meditation on Three Lives, Melanctha serves as the central authorizing presence—literally and figuratively the “spine”—for the book’s construction of American identity and its daring exploration of sexuality (Morrison 219). Considering Melanctha’s different but related experiences of servitude, domesticity, and sexuality might have fit nicely into Dirty Work’s intervention, which, following Morrison’s, is to show how the American (literary) imagination is built upon the lives and labor it anxiously disavows.

Moving through an impressive range of fictional styles and genres, Dirty Work zooms in on the links between material conditions and imaginative acts that formed US domestic labor relations in the first decades of the twentieth century. The book marvels at the intricate fabrication of these relations, and, more importantly, traces their origins and consequences. The study brings historicist scrutiny and powerful twentieth-century social and psychosocial theories, especially Marxism and psychoanalysis, to bear on the fragile attachment, as Virginia Woolf saw it, between fiction and life. Dirty Work thus productively asks, and puts readers in the position to further interrogate, why one of the most prominent social reform efforts in US history did little for so many.

Work Cited

Morrison, Toni. “Gertrude Stein and the Difference She Makes.” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Knopf, 2019, pp. 205–19.


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