The best books on the politics of doing the laundry

Alison Lefkovitz Author Of Strange Bedfellows: Marriage in the Age of Women's Liberation
By Alison Lefkovitz

Who am I?

I dig into family dramas of the past. But these dramas interest me most when I understand how personal stories intersected with the legal and policy structures that shaped what was possible for families. Overall, I am interested in the many ways that inequality—between races, genders, and classes—began at home. I am now working on a project on sex across class lines in the 20th century United States. I am an associate professor in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers-Newark.

I wrote...

Strange Bedfellows: Marriage in the Age of Women's Liberation

By Alison Lefkovitz,

Book cover of Strange Bedfellows: Marriage in the Age of Women's Liberation

What is my book about?

Strange Bedfellows tracks changes to marriage in the wake of second-wave feminism. The question of what to do about housewives’ work—yes laundry, but also cleaning, cooking, and childcare—was central to these debates. Feminists pushed for and partially won monetary recognition of wives’ unpaid household labor. Most states granted women the ability to recover marital property in a divorce based on their contributions as housewives. Nonetheless, this was an incredibly limited victory. Only women whose families owned property could modestly profit from the new laws, and lawmakers did not grant value to the household labor of welfare recipients, lesbian or gay homemakers, many immigrant wives, or poorer wives. Frequently the winners of this marriage revolution were instead men's rights activists who successfully lobbied against alimony payments. 
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Why did I love this book?

Kathleen Brown’s brilliant book interrogates conflicting ideas about how to take care of our bodies as Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans encountered each other in colonial North America. One of the fundamental transformations she tracks is that western priorities about cleanliness shifted from “bathing the body to changing its linens” in the 16th century. This vastly increased women’s physical work and their political burdens.

Doing laundry involved hauling water, heating it, and then getting rid of that water. Women tried to alleviate the burdens of the back-breaking labor by using water over again and then throwing the dirty water into the street. This earned them frustration and even legal restrictions. For instance, colonial Jamestown offered allowances for doing the laundry properly and whippings or prisons for those who did not. Native Americans shunned English dress in part because it was so tough to keep it clean and lice-free. Subsequent changes in how we understood cleanliness did not help women, however. Brown compellingly argues that when bathing came back into fashion in the 19th century, women retained the vast majority of body care work.

By Kathleen M. Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Foul Bodies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In colonial times few Americans bathed regularly; by the mid-1800s, a cleanliness "revolution" had begun. Why this change, and what did it signify?

"It is the author's ability to appreciate and represent the almost tactile circumstantiality of life that makes Foul Bodies so special-and so readable."-Charles E. Rosenberg, author of Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now

"Brown has framed an intriguing new area of research and gathered a surprisingly rich source of textual evidence. Marvelous."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

A nation's standards of private cleanliness…

Book cover of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

Why did I love this book?

Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s masterful account of the changing technology of housework tracks the evolution of household technology—not just the washing machine for laundry but also new stoves, new flour, and new forms of food preservation like refrigerators. We see quickly that the innovation that marked the industrial revolution extended to households as well. The future seemed potentially utopic for housewives who expected to face less rigorous labor obligations in the home. Nonetheless, Cowan argues that even as household technology improved, women lost the help of men, servants, and children who formerly shared the burden of housework. Moreover, for every new innovation that promised to ease the labor of cooking or cleaning, expectations for that household labor increased. Cowan sharply illustrates that the promise of new technology was elusive.

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked More Work for Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of women's history (winner of the 1984 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology), Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how and why modern women devote as much time to housework as did their colonial sisters. In lively and provocative prose, Cowan explains how the modern conveniences,washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton,seemed at first to offer working-class women middle-class standards of comfort. Over time, however, it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men, children, and servants. Instead of living lives of leisure, middle-class women found themselves struggling…

Book cover of To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War

Why did I love this book?

In the postbellum south, black women did the bulk of the laundry. Tera Hunter’s beautiful book tracks washerwomen’s everyday lives at work and at leisure in Atlanta in the late 19th century. Some of the most inspiring sequences analyze a strike in 1881 on the eve of the International Cotton Exposition. Though washerwomen controlled the conditions of their labor much more than many other domestic workers, they received paltry wages for tough work.

Before the exposition, a washerwoman secret society canvassed the city to recruit all washerwomen to join the work stoppage, and in three weeks, three thousand washerwomen were striking. The city tried to put down the strike by threatening a $25 license for each worker; the strikers defeated it by reframing it as a fee that would force the city to protect their livelihoods. The city walked back the license, and the washerwomen successfully countered Atlanta boosters’ claims that Atlanta’s segregated workforce was docile. Hunter’s captivating account shows us the power these workers exerted to retain power over their work.

By Tera W. Hunter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To 'Joy My Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the Civil War drew to a close, newly emancipated black women workers made their way to Atlanta--the economic hub of the newly emerging urban and industrial south--in order to build an independent and free life on the rubble of their enslaved past. In an original and dramatic work of scholarship, Tera Hunter traces their lives in the postbellum era and reveals the centrality of their labors to the African-American struggle for freedom and justice. Household laborers and washerwomen were constrained by their employers' domestic worlds but constructed their own world of work, play, negotiation, resistance, and community organization.


Book cover of The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-Of-The-Century New York City

Why did I love this book?

Mary Lui’s fascinating book hinges on a hook that nearly always works—a murder mystery. In this case, the victim was Elsie Siegel, a young white woman from a good family who did missionary work with the Chinese American community in New York City. She was the picture of innocence until her body was found bound up in a trunk in a Chinese American man’s apartment. Further investigations uncovered a set of love letters not only to this man but also to another Americanized Chinese immigrant. Seemingly one of her lovers had killed her out of jealousy. What followed was not only a manhunt for her killer but also a backlash against the Chinese American community including the many hand laundries scattered throughout New York City. Elsie Siegel’s death prompted rumors that these laundries allowed widespread assaults against white women and girls. Lui paints us a heartbreaking account of the suffering that ensued among Chinese Americans when white hooligans vandalized laundries and attacked laundry workers.

By Mary Ting Yi Lui,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Chinatown Trunk Mystery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1909, the gruesome murder of nineteen-year-old Elsie Sigel sent shock waves through New York City and the nation at large. The young woman's strangled corpse was discovered inside a trunk in the midtown Manhattan apartment of her reputed former Sunday school student and lover, a Chinese man named Leon Ling. Through the lens of this unsolved murder, Mary Ting Yi Lui offers a fascinating snapshot of social and sexual relations between Chinese and non-Chinese populations in turn-of-the-century New York City. Sigel's murder was more than a notorious crime, Lui contends. It was a clear signal that…

Book cover of Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family

Why did I love this book?

Kirsten Swinth’s fantastic new book argues that our understanding of feminism as asking women to have it all is deeply misunderstood. The second wave did want women to be able to balance their lives as homemakers and workers, but not by having a double shift. Instead, they wanted women’s household burden to be shared—by their husbands, by employers, by the government, and by society as a whole. Swinth shows how feminists tried to deploy the philosophy that “the personal is political” against the problem of laundry and other household tasks. Wives’ strategies ranged from household labor strikes (Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot! was the motto of the Women’s Strike for Equality) to drawing up their own individual marriage contracts. These homespun contracts delineated a fairer division of household labor between husbands and wives. Swinth shows that despite these measures and some legal successes, women nonetheless mostly retained their disproportionate household burdens.

By Kirsten Swinth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Feminism's Forgotten Fight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A spirited defense of feminism, arguing that the lack of support for working mothers is less a failure of second-wave feminism than a rejection by reactionaries of the sweeping changes they campaigned for.

When people discuss feminism, they often lament its failure to deliver on the promise that women can "have it all." But as Kirsten Swinth argues in this provocative book, it is not feminism that has betrayed women, but a society that balked at making the far-reaching changes for which activists fought. Feminism's Forgotten Fight resurrects the comprehensive vision of feminism's second wave at a time when its…

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