From feudal serfs to independent contractors: Class and African American women's paid domestic labor, 1863–1980

2001 2001

Other formats: Order a copy

Abstract (summary)

This dissertation examines how race and gender interacted with economic variables to shape a class transition involving African American domestic laborers from 1863 to 1980. African American women performed household labor traditionally assigned to their racial group during slavery under new economic conditions that developed after emancipation. After slavery, these women were forced to contract their labor to white households and produce feudal surplus. The analysis suggests that African American women radically transformed the feudal economic and social conditions of paid household labor well into the twentieth century. These women were agents of a class transition from feudalism to independent commodity production. African American women, gradually and through small-scale incremental changes, redefined and standardized their jobs as household workers so that they were increasingly able to exchange pre-specified services for a given amount of money. These workers also developed creative strategies to break the continued association of their race with servitude. Rather than being inherent attributes of paid domestic work, flexibility and autonomy were outcomes of strategic choices made by African American women establishing themselves as independent producers of a service.

This dissertation also examines how the material conditions and changing economic subjectivity associated with this class transition profoundly affected the construction of race and gender identities. By engaging in individual and collective actions that radically transformed the domestic labor process, African American women not only challenged and subverted the racialized and gendered associations of such work, but also produced new meanings of Blackness and womanhood. An understanding of the complex interactions of race, class, and gender in this historical example helps us make sense of contemporary inequalities as well as identify strategies for social change.

Indexing (details)

Womens studies;
Black history;
Minority & ethnic groups;
Economic history;
Social classes
0501: Economics
0453: Womens studies
0328: Black history
0631: Minority & ethnic groups
0631: Sociology
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; African-American; Domestic labor; Feudal serfs; Independent contractors; Women workers
From feudal serfs to independent contractors: Class and African American women's paid domestic labor, 1863–1980
Rio, Cecilia M.
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 62/04, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780493206974, 0493206973
Wolff, Richard
University of Massachusetts Amherst
University location
United States -- Massachusetts
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
Access the complete full text

You can get the full text of this document if it is part of your institution's ProQuest subscription.

Try one of the following:

  • Connect to ProQuest through your library network and search for the document from there.
  • Request the document from your library.
  • Go to the ProQuest login page and enter a ProQuest or My Research username / password.