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. 

The books I picked & why

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Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

By Kathleen M. Brown,

Book cover of Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Why 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.


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

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan,

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

Why 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.


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

By Tera W. Hunter,

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

Why 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.


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

By Mary Ting Yi Lui,

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

Why 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.


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

By Kirsten Swinth,

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

Why 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.


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