31 Mar

Jeanne Boydston, Home & Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (1990)

Jeanne Boydston traces the history of unpaid domestic labor among white working- and middle-class women in the northeast in colonial and antebellum America. Home & Work sets housework within a Marxist framework to understand “the intimate relationship between the gender and labor systems that characterized industrializing America” (xii). Boydston argues that in the antebellum period the “growing social invisibility of labor women performed for their own families made housework in many ways the prototype for the restructuring of the social relations of labor under conditions of early industrialization” (xx). Boydston terms the invisibility of women’s labor “the pastoralization of housework.” By the 1820s and 1830s, economic life and labor were “spherized” such that women’s labor was ideologically separated from the “productive” labor of men. This notion was cemented in Americans’ imagination although housework was physically taxing, time-consuming, and supported family life and economy.

This book is an important contribution to the study of women’s labor in American history. Boydston’s book challenges other scholars’ definition of labor, and its relation to industrialization, capitalism, and Marxism. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels argues that domestic work enslaved women and prevented them from participating in industrialization and the larger economy (199). In this traditional capitalist narrative, women’s domestic labor is separated from industrial labor that takes place in public, male spaces. Women’s housework is viewed as private, unproductive labor that is ancillary to the progress of the economy and society. The legacy of Engel’s narrative can be traced to Herbert G. Gutman’s Work, Culture & Society. Gutman’s work moves the study of labor history beyond a “narrow ‘economic’ analysis” that isolates labor from “American cultural and social history” (10). This “new” labor history emphasizes “the frequent tension between different groups of men and women new to the machine and a changing American society” (12). Yet, like Engels, Gutman defines labor in terms of production, public space, and profit.

Boydston’s revolutionizes the ways that scholars should think about labor. Labor does not only occur in public, male spaces. Labor also takes place in homes and is carried out by unpaid women. Thus, Boydston challenges traditional Marxist notions of labor that are defined in terms of profit, public spaces, and mechanical production of goods. Boydston goes further in her analysis to suggest that scholars must recognize the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. With the war of 1812, Boydston suggests that Americans began to believe that their “household economies and their identity as a nation depended on growing cash markets and capitalized manufacturing” (54). This notion contributed to an understanding not only that there was “a gendered division of labor,” but that there was “a gendered definition of labor” (55) in the early American Republic. Boydston urges scholars to recognize that the processes of early industrialization and emerging capitalism transformed perceptions about women’s labor in the household. This is made clear when Boydston describes the innovations in household technologies that were influenced by industrialization and notions of material consumption.

Recognizing the relationship between labor and industrialization allows Boydston to historicize and challenge notions about the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America. Other scholars, like Kathryn K. Sklar, have recognized the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. In Catharine Beecher, Sklar argues: “the ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Yet, Sklar does not challenge scholarly notions about sphere ideology. Rather, Sklar reinforces the notions that sphere ideology was an accepted antebellum reality. The parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families’] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). Thus, nineteenth-century New England homes remain private, domestic spaces in antebellum reality. Homes are free of strenuous domestic labor, and are the realms of spiritual mothers basking in cultural and social leisure.

Boydston, following Linda K. Kerber, challenges the reality of sphere ideology in an effort to explain the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Boydston notes, “the ideology of gender spheres was partly a response to the chaos of a changing society—an intellectually and emotionally comforting way of setting limits to the uncertainties of early industrialization” (143). The mother and home were perceived as shelters from the dangers of an industrial society. Thus, “Woman-in-the-abstract” was “defined as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). Eventually, the metaphors of sphere ideology were accepted as women’s actual behaviors. The conflation of “ideology and behavior was to obscure both the nature and the economic importance of women’s domestic labor” (146). This culminated in what Boydston terms the “pastoralization of housework” (161). Women, like Harriett Beecher, could detail their strenuous domestic labors—cooking, cleaning, caring for children, varnishing furniture, mending clothes, making household items, dealing with tradespeople, visiting neighbors, writing, and managing landlords—and still suggest that “I don’t do anything” (163). The sphere ideology masked the reality of women’s works such that women themselves understood their work as dissociated from “productive,” industrialized labor. Separate sphere ideology began as a metaphor and was then accepted as reality.

While Boydston’s work provides notable insights into the relationships between domestic labor and industrialization, the relationships between labor, capitalism, and Protestantism could have been complicated to better understand the history of the invisibility of women’s work. Boydston argues that women’s domestic labor was not always invisible in American society. Women’s labor was recognized by colonial Americans, particularly early Protestants, as significant to the family’s economy and well-being in the community. Boydston suggests that the Puritan “calling” infused “secular work with an ethical dimension: the goal of labor was to be useful to the larger purposes of creation, as expressed in the commonweal of society” (20).  This analysis is important for understanding the relationship between religion, labor, and industrialization.

Yet, this analysis is problematic on several levels. First, Boydston relies on the notion that there is a division between the sacred and “secular work.” Thus, Boydston’s history of labor assumes a secularization framework where the progress of capitalism and labor are evidence of the absence of religion. Religious studies historians have discounted the secularization thesis that proliferated through the 1980s. Second, Boydston assumes that when Puritans’ notion of “the calling” was deemphasized, later Protestantism had little impact on conceptions of labor and capitalism. In fact, Protestantism vanishes from Boydston’s history after the 1640s even though evangelicalism proliferated through the antebellum period and influenced notions of labor and labor reform through “the benevolent empire.” Gutman refers to some of these influences in Work, Culture & Society in his discussion of pre- and post-millennialism Protestant labor reform movements (79-118). Finally, Protestantism does not figure into Boydston’s analysis of the ideology of gender spheres. This is deeply problematic because, as Sklar notes in Catharine Beecher, this ideology can be traced to Calvinist beliefs about gender roles. Moreover by the mid-nineteenth century, sphere language promoted the home as the center for children’s religious formation, and mothers in homes as the arbiters of religious life. This is especially seen in Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy, which Boydston’s quotes extensively without mentioning its Protestant leanings. Beecher urged women to teach their children Christian values, and to literally construct a Christian home by modeling the architecture of the home on nineteenth-century church plans. The domestic economy for Beecher, and other women who promoted or misrecognized the ideology of the gender spheres, mirrored the divine, Protestant economy. Future analysis of women’s labor must also analyze Protestantism in relation to nineteenth-century ideas about gender, capitalism, and industrialization.


Protestants notions about labor, gender, and capitalism are important because nineteenth-century American aligned middle-class respectability with Protestant parlor piety and the marketplace. This is important because Boydston assumes that separate sphere ideology defined womanhood and motherhood “as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). But, this is not true. Protestant women brought the marketplace into the home in very specific ways. Protestant advice literature advised women to buy mass-produced products for display in their homes. These things were religious objects and images that reflected the families’ wealth, religiosity, participation in the marketplace, and class. Class and social status were central to nineteenth-century Protestants conceptions of home and work. Boydston mentions class in her analysis of home and work. “It was, after all, in the middle classes that women had presumably been freed from the necessity of labor that had characterized the colonial helpmate….Indeed, in the celebrations of middle-class ‘Motherhood’ lay the fullest embodiments of the marginalization of housewives as workers” (158). But, class was not only defined by motherhood in terms of nurturing children. It was defined by the marketplace and things. Mothers were to educate their children and decorate their homes with Christian things. But decorating homes cost money that many American families did not have. Women were instructed to work to decorate homes so they would appear to be upper-middle class, white Protestants. The appearance of class through display and home decoration contributed to the invisibility of women’s labor. Women were supposed to present themselves and their homes as if they could afford things and servants. White, middle-class Protestant aspirations contributed to the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Protestant things and the marketplace were essential to “the pastoralization of housework.”


Despite Boydston neglect of religion and the marketplace in the home, Home & Work revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about women’s domestic labor. Women’s domestic work and its dissociation from “real” labor, economy, and capitalism cannot be understood without recognizing how housework was transformed in its relationship to industrialization and separate sphere ideology in the nineteenth-century.