Dirty Work sheds light on the complex relationships between women employers and their household help in the early twentieth century through their representations in literature, including women’s magazines, conduct manuals, and particularly female-authored fiction. Domestic service brought together women from different classes, races, and ethnicities, and with it, a degree of social anxiety as upwardly mobile young women struggled to construct their identities in a changing world. The book focuses on the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Anzia Yezierska, and Fannie Hurst and their various depictions of the maid/mistress relationship, revealing “a feminized and racialized brand of class hegemony.” Modern servants became configured as racial, hygienic, and social threats to the emergent ideal of the nuclear family, and played critical rhetorical roles in first-wave feminism and the New Negro movements. Ann Mattis reveals how U.S. domestic service was the political unconscious of cultural narratives that attempted to define modern domesticity and progressive femininity in monolithic terms.
“The first book to focus on domestic service and all its contradictions in early 20th century American fiction, Dirty Work brings to light an underappreciated element of female-authored realist and modernist texts, namely, that representations of middle-class femininity and domesticity depend upon modern tropes of domestic service . . . A terrific book—innovative, insightful, and accomplished.”
—Cynthia J. Davis, University of South Carolina
Cover: Drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, "Why She Didn't Get the Place,” 1903. The caption reads: “The man behind the paper ventured the opinion that she might do."