A person wearing blue disposable gloves wiping down a surface

The History of Domestic Workers and Janitors

Anna Tsantir, Founder Lady, Two Bettys Green Cleaning

December 8, 2021

Confession time: Until a few years ago, I hadn’t thought to learn the history of domestic labor and janitors. Nor to consider what the conditions in the distant past had to do with the work Two Bettys does in the present. 

This changed when I started talking to Ryan Murphy. Ryan is a professor of history at Earlham College in Indiana, and a scholar of labor rights. He’s also a Two Bettys client and long-time friend. 

Ryan helped me realize the importance of understanding the history of our work. Knowing where we’ve come from provides meaningful context for where we are now, and where we’re headed in the future. And since house cleaners and janitors have long been invisible in our society, learning about their history is one way to bring them out of the shadows and into the light.  

In 2019, we hired Ryan to give our staff a presentation on the history of domestic labor. We were amazed by how much we learned! Now he’s back to share about this important history with you–our clients, cleaners and friends. 

Two Bettys: Ryan, where does the story of U.S. domestic labor begin? And was this type of worker always invisible? 

Ryan Murphy: Prior to the Industrial Revolution, a lot of people lived on farms, where everyone in the household did the work. The Industrial Revolution drove people to move to big cities and get jobs outside the home. In these gendered times, the man was the breadwinner and the wife cared for the home and children. Kids weren’t little workers like they were on the farm. 

But there was too much work for the women at home to do on their own. Between childcare, cleaning and cooking, it was too much. All of these newly domesticated wives wanted help. 

But bringing another adult into your home to help is complicated. They’re in your personal space–even your sexual space. They’re in your bedroom. The thinking was, we don’t want to bring in someone who’s our equal, someone from our own community. We’ll bring in somehow who, by status, is below us. It could be an enslaved woman. On the East Coast, it was often a poor Irish immigrant working on a labor contract. On the West Coast, it was often an indigenous child, kidnapped from their own family and forced into domestic bondage. 

The reasoning was, When this servant is in our home, they don’t really count because they’re our social inferior. That’s why from the start, domestic work depended on social hierarchy, and the invisibility of the help.

Two Bettys: What are the problems that come with invisibility?

Ryan Murphy: For one, these were people who were already in a fight about status. An enslaved person was invisible as a worker because legally, they literally didn’t count as a person. An indigenous girl didn’t count as a citizen. 

Domestic work was often connected to violence. A husband is home and there’s a black woman who’s either enslaved or recently freed. He has sexual access to her, and she can’t legally protect herself. The wife may be angry about sexual relations between her husband and the domestic worker. The wife might be violent toward her. This all adds up to “We don’t want to see this person.” 

Also, domestic workers provided childcare, and people didn’t want to acknowledge that another person was doing so much of the emotional and caregiving work in the family. They just pretended she wasn’t there. The abuse doesn’t have to be as malignant as sexual assault. Sometimes it was simply: We’d rather not see this person who’s doing the things that we need to get by. 

By the 1820s, there was a vibrant movement for worker’s rights in the U.S. But if you worked by yourself in a home, your isolation and invisibility excluded you from the gains of this movement.

In theory, the initial labor reforms of the 1910s should’ve given domestic workers the right to maximum hours and minimum wage. But if you were an invisible housekeeper or nanny, your employer wouldn’t want to recognize you. And because you couldn’t see the other invisible workers, you couldn’t band together and demand rights that you already have. It was a mix of the invisibility of domestic work and the reality of our racially stratified labor market. 

For context, the Roosevelt Administration passed the New Deal in the 1930s. This reform gave workers the right to form unions and work shorter days. But the New Deal exempted domestic and agricultural workers. So those laws made a ton of jobs for white people work better. But because domestic work didn’t get fixed, it was the most marginalized people who were forced to stay domestic workers. 

Here’s another example: In 1950s Detroit, the minimum wage and 40-hour workweek were already in effect. But many black workers didn’t get these rights, unless they were in an autoplant with a union. Many black people in Detroit had jobs that were invisible: housecleaner, car wash attendant, laundress, dishwasher in a restaurant. Yes, you earned minimum wage, but you worked 70 hours a week

Two Bettys: So labor reforms were happening, but they weren’t helping the people who needed them most. 

Key Milestones in the History of Domestic Workers and Janitors

1860s-70s: There was a series of domestic worker strikes in the southern U.S. Almost everyone on strike was a woman who had grown up in slavery, and was now freed. This was the moment when domestic work, post-slavery, first became visible. Black women  were marching in the streets, claiming space and rights. Black women’s domestic worker strikes in 1877 influenced black men to join the national railroad strike in 1877. 

1930s: Domestic and agricultural workers were excluded from the labor protections in the New Deal. The progressive laws that helped most people earn a living wage weren’t given to people working in homes and in the fields. 

1968: The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. Garbage collectors in Memphis–mostly black men–demanded a union and safety protections. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to the city to walk the strike’s picket line, and was tragically assassinated during his trip. The strike increased the visibility of low-paid sanitation and janitorial workers, and King’s assassination brought even more attention to the workers’ struggle. 

1974: Domestic workers finally won minimum wage and maximum hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This act made it illegal to pay a domestic worker below minimum wage.  

1990s: The Justice for Janitors movement. This largely Latinx initiative started in California and spread across the U.S. The outcome was that undocumented janitors that belong to a union got the same protections and unionized workers who were legal U.S. residents. 

Two Bettys: Since the beginning of domestic labor, what has changed, and what has stayed the same? 

Ryan Murphy: Being a domestic worker in 2021 is much better than being one in 1870. People have more leverage now. What’s unfortunately stayed the same is that domestic and janitorial work is still largely invisible and low wage. And it’s still a profession that’s performed largely by poor women, people of color, and immigrants. In recent times, we haven’t seen another round of much-needed reforms. 

Two Bettys: What progress do you hope to see in the coming years?

Ryan Murphy: Three things: 

  1. The passage of Federal labor reform that makes it easier for workers to unionize. Most Democrats are for it, but because of the Senate filibuster it’s not getting through. 
  2. Labor law reform that deals with independent contracting and subcontracting. If we could get stronger regulations that prevent independent contracting (especially janitorial), it would be a very good thing. 
  3. Continuation of movements for gender, racial and immigrant justice. People are paid less because of racism and sexism, and labor laws alone won’t fix that. As long as something about someone’s body makes them invisible, we’re going to be stuck. 

Up next: How to be a good employer of domestic and janitorial workers

Do you have a housecleaner? A babysitter or nanny for the kids? Does your business employ janitors? In the final installment of this blog series, we’ll offer some key ways you can support domestic workers and janitors.