Sociology Mind
2013. Vol.3, No.3, 248-256
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The Role of Maternalism in Contemporary Paid Domestic Work
Amanda Moras
Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, USA
Received October 11th, 2012; revised April 19th, 2013; accepted M ay 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Amanda Moras. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Various studies of domestic work have identified close personal relationships between domestic workers
and employers as a key instrument in the exploitation of domestic workers, allowing employers to solicit
unpaid services as well as a sense of superiority (Rollins, 1985; Romero, 2002; Glenn, 1992; Hondagneu-
Sotelo, 2001). Likewise, other scholars have pointed out that close employee-employer relationships may
actually empower domestic workers, increasing job leverage (Thorton-Dill, 1994). Ultimately, these lines
are blurry and ever changing as employers continuously redefine employee expectations. Drawing from a
larger study involving thirty interviews with white upper middle class women who currently employ do-
mestic workers (mostly housecleaners) this paper explores employers’ interactions with domestic workers.
Through these interviews this research elaborates on how employers and employees interact, how em-
ployers feel about these interactions, and explores to what extent these interactions are informed by the
widely reported maternalistic tendencies of the past, while also considering the consequences of this.
Keywords: Domestic Work; Maternalism
The rapid increase of middle class women entering the work
force in recent decades (Anderson, 2001) coupled with growing
income inequality (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001) has caused an in-
crease in the demand for paid household labor. In 2010 just
over 58% of women over the age of sixteen were in the labor
force (DOL, 2010), and since 1975 the number of women work-
ing with children under the age of eighteen has increased from
47% to 71% (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006). By 2010
women compromised 47% of the labor force and 73% of these
workers were employed full time (DOJ, 2010). While it is clear
that some women have long worked in wage labor (working
class women, poor women, and women of color), recent dec-
ades have shown a large influx of class privileged women into
white collar and professional sectors. This movement of upper
and middle class women into the workforce creates a demand
for others to take on “caring labor” in the home (Hochschild,
2003; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001).
The current rates of paid domestic work are difficult to as-
certain given the large numbers of under-the-table transactions.
However, it is clear that domestic workers are disproportion-
ately women of color (Duffy, 2007). Until the 1970 census, do-
mestic service represented the largest occupational category for
Black women in the US. Following the Civil Rights Act of
1964, many Black American and Mexican American women
left domestic work for jobs in the public sector (Hondagneu-
Sotelo, 2001). Around this same time, the percentage of for-
eign-born Latinas working in domestic service jumped. Gender,
race, and class divisions have always been instrumental in de-
termining who performs both paid and unpaid domestic work,
however today nationhood and citizenship are also increasingly
central issues. Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’ (2001) analysis of paid
reproductive work emphasizes this shift, highlighting that glob-
alization has transformed the politics of reproductive labor into
an “international transfer of caretaking”. Class privileged w om en
in receiving countries purchase the labor of immigrant women,
while migrant workers purchase the labor of even poorer
women left behind in sending countries or depend on unpaid
family care.
Maternalism and Domestic Work
Various studies of domestic work have identified close per-
sonal relationships between domestic workers and employers as
a key instrument in the exploitation of domestic workers, al-
lowing employers to solicit unpaid services as well as a sense
of superiority (Rollins, 1985; Romero, 2002; Glenn, 1992; Hon -
dagneu-Sotelo, 2001). These scholars argue that personalized
relationships blur “the distinctions between paid and unpaid
housework and weaken workers’ ability to maintain contractual
agreements” (Romero, 2002: p. 160). Building on this, the pre-
valence of what scholars have referred to as materialism, a
“unilateral positioning of the employer as a benefactor who re-
ceives personal thanks, recognition, and validation of self from
the domestic worker” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001: p. 172) is of-
ten cited as a primary mechanism by which employers exploit
domestic workers and maintain labor control (Rollins, 1985;
Romero, 2002).
Maternalism is related to the historical tradition of paternal-
ism in domestic service occupations, however is distinct in the
ways in which maternalism “is a concept related to women’s
supportive intrafamilial roles of nuturing, loving, and attending
to affective needs” (Rollins, 1985: p. 187). It is this specific
gendered manifestation that many scholars point to in explain-
ing exploitation, Rollins explains:
The maternalistic dynamic is based on the assumption of a
superordinate-subordinate relationship. While maternal-
ism may protect and nurture, it also degrades and in-
sults… The female employer, with her motherliness and
protectiveness and generosity, is expressing in a distinctly
feminine way her lack of respect for the domestic as an
autonomous, adult employee (186).
These scholars suggest that maternalism mandates rituals of
deference in addition to “quid pro quo obligations” in which
employers expect employees to reciprocate employer favors
with extra work. In contrast, Thorton Dill (1994) suggests that
close employee-employer relationships may actually empower
domestic workers, increasing job leverage.
Maternalistic tendencies in domestic work have declined (al-
though not disappeared) and some research has suggested that
domestic workers actually prefer employers who interact more
personally with them. Hondagneu-Sotelo (2001) makes sense
of this preference by differentiating maternalism from what she
refers to as personalism, “a bilateral relationship that involves
two individuals recognizing each other not solely in terms of
their role or office (such as a clerk or cleaner) but rather as
persons embedded in a unique set of social relations, and with
particular aspirations” (172). Using narratives from her research,
she points to the ways in which the workers in her study, Latina
women working as domestics in Los Angeles, in some cases
want more intimacy with employers, while employers want
more distance. She writes:
The relative anonymity of their lives, the quality of their
jobs, the larger political context of racialized nativism,
and the rushed pace of life in Los Angeles leaves many
domestic workers feeling bereft of belonging and in want
of some personal recognition (Lecture Hondagneu-Sotelo,
Janet Arnada’s (2003) work, which explores “mistress-maid
relations” in the Philippines, builds on this, suggesting mater-
nalism is a continuum of support and control, “ranging from the
‘part of the family ideology’, emotional labor, utang no loob
system of obligation, to control and exploitation of the maid’s
body, time space and relationships” (157).
While scholars may disagree on the consequences of types of
working relationships, they all emphasize the importance em-
ployer and employee interactions have on the structures and
inequalities of domestic labor. Clearly employer/employee rela-
tionships are central in all types of labor exchanges, however in
paid domestic work this importance is magnified given both the
emotional demands of this labor (including the ways in which it
is often structured to replicate unpaid labor) and the informal
labor market structure of the occupation. Elaborating on this,
domestic workers are often expected to do not only physical
labor but also emotional labor, with employers expecting them
to treat their paid labor as a labor of love (Romero, 2002).
Likewise, domestic work is void of many legal protections
that traditional employment offers. Although both minimum
wage laws and social security laws have been extended to cover
most domestic work positions, many employers do not meet
these standards. Instead, domestic work positions are often ne-
gotiated within the informal labor market, regulated by com-
munity norms and values (Romero, 2002). Most employers and
employees remain unaware of the legal regulations governing
domestic work, most obviously because there has been no sub-
stantial effort by the government or media outlets to inform do-
mestic workers or employers about these regulations (Hondag-
neu-Sotelo, 2001).
The nature, structure, and relationships in paid domestic
work are constantly evolving. Economic forces, immigration
patterns, and domestic workers themselves are extremely in-
strumental in these shifts. For instance, Black women in the
North and South have been largely responsible for the large
scale move from live in to the often more preferable live out
positions, as Mexican American women transformed the pro-
fession in the Southwest to the common contractual arrange-
ment found today (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001). Mary Romero
uses the term job work to refer to those arrangements where
housecleaners are paid by the job rather than by the hour. She
argues that the shift represents a critical locus in domestic
workers’ struggle to transform the occupation. Having a differ-
ent employer every day, or in some cases as many as three em-
ployers in one day, reduces employer control and increases job
flexibility. Charging by the house places boundaries on the job
expectations, employers purchase labor power rather than labor
service. This structural shift to “job work” is critical in making
sense of employee/employer relationships. For instance, in this
sample, all but two of the employers hired someone to come in
and clean once a week or once every two weeks, and paid “by
the house” rather than by the hour. Clearly this minimizes the
amount of time workers and employers spend together, espe-
cially when compared to full time cleaning or childcare posi-
Given these shifts, understanding how employers and em-
ployees negotiate domestic work relationships is of central im-
portance. As this research demonstrates, these relationships
have implications for the actual structuring of such labor in-
cluding for instance job security and wages. Ultimately, these
lines are blurry and ever changing as employers continuously
redefine employee expectations. Drawing from a larger study
involving thirty interviews with white upper middle class wo-
men who currently employ domestic workers (mostly house-
cleaners) this paper explores employers’ interactions with do-
mestic workers. These relationships are dynamic and ever chan-
ging, constantly being renegotiated within the intersection of
domestic work as paid labor and traditional notions of “wo-
men’s work”. Through these interviews this research elaborates
on how employers and employees interact, how employers feel
about these interactions, and explores to what extent these in-
teractions are informed by the widely reported maternalistic
tendencies of the past, while also considering the consequences
of this.
Data and Method
This study focuses on women because of the historical im-
plications of housework as “women’s work” and in order to
explore the dynamics between women across different social
locations. Various studies have demonstrated that these transac-
tions of labor tend to be “between women”. Rollins (1985), for
example, found in many employer households it is women who
are entirely responsible for seeking out and hiring domestic
workers. Focusing on middle/upper class heterosexual white
women allows for an in-depth exploration of privilege and how
it shapes interactions with domestic workers, typically women
who do not have the same racial and/or class privileges. Class
and racially advantaged heterosexual women have been privy to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 249
certain protections of a patriarchal society that many lesbian,
poor women and women of color have not.
This work utilized qualitative active interviews for data col-
lection. Thirty interviews were conducted with participants for
the purpose of exploring perceptions of paid and unpaid domes-
tic work, how one negotiates decision making and hiring do-
mestic workers, the gendered roles of housework in this context,
the relationships between employer and employee, and the class
and racial politics that are involved in hiring domestic workers.
The researcher also asked specific questions such as actual
payment, how they make contacts with possible employees, and
specific stories of relating to domestic workers in this context.
Interview data was collected until saturation. Consistent with a
grounded theory approach, analysis began by coding incidents
within the data into categories. Integral to the process of induc-
tive qualitative research, analysis did not begin with a prede-
termined coding scheme. The coding and themes were allowed
to emerge from the data rather than be transposed onto it (Gla-
ser & Strauss, 1967). The coding process consisted of open
coding, axial coding, and selective coding. Once open coding
identified categories, axial coding was used to find connections
between categories. When the links between categories were
established creating concepts, selective coding was used to con-
textualize the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
All participants were upper or middle class heterosexual
white women who employ domestic workers. The median fam-
ily income of participants was $200,000, however there was a
significant disconnect between participant’s household income
and their personal income. The median personal income was
between $11,000 and $20,000. Clearly, the majority of partici-
pants were reliant on male partner’s earnings to maintain their
lifestyles. Twenty-seven of the participants were married; one
was single, one in a committed relationship and one separated
going through a divorce. Four participants were childfree and
twenty-six had children. The median number of children was
Worker/Employer Interactions in Paid
Domestic Work
As various scholars have noted, domestic work relationships
entail a significant negotiation of public and private boundaries
and the blurring of lines between personal and business rela-
tionships. On one hand employers are looking to hire ideal
“employees” who will fulfill their work expectations, on the
other, these work expectations go beyond jobs tasks and often
workers are judged more on their personalities than job per-
formance (Romero, 2002). Furthermore, this tension reflects an
attempt to structure a business relationship in an environment
that is traditionally thought of as outside the public space, one’s
Employer/employee interactions are foundational to this
structuring of the labor and understanding the ways in which
maternalism continues (or does not to continue) to function as
part of the work relationship. In this sample, there was a large
range in terms of how employers interacted with workers;
however, the majority of participants seemed to have cordial,
friendly interactions, casual conversations. Consistent with past
research, however, very few would be characterized as mater-
nalistic. The personal interactions seem mostly limited to casual
conservations that included comments about family, vacations,
etc. Dolores explained,
Uh, oh, she’s very sweet. Yeah, you know, we talk. I’m
not very friendly with her, but she’s, she’s... You know,
we know about each other’s kids, ‘cause they’re in college.
And, you know, we swap stories. You know, she tells me
about her vacation and her mom ‘cause she’s met my
These casual conversations were very common; however
these interactions were often limited by the structure of work.
Rosita for example made the following comments,
Uh, I call her... I mean, I’ve come home a couple of times
and she’s here um, and we talk, um... Yeah, like her sister
had a baby. You know, like we talk about this and that.
But then again she’s got, you know what I mean, which is
another reason it’s the same thing. She’ll stop cleaning as
she’s talking to me for twenty minutes. You know what I
mean? And now my house is being rushed ‘cause she
probably got another place to go do.
While they have some conversational interchange when
Rosita is home, she feels as though this interchange jeopardizes
the cleanliness of her home because Adrienne (the woman she
currently employs) is then rushing to finish. The fruitfulness of
the conversation was weighed against participants’ interest in
getting as much labor for their money as possible. When asked,
the majority of participants claimed that they preferred a pro-
fessional exchange, however their reasons for preferring pro-
fessionalism and ideas of what was professional varied consid-
erably. In terms of keeping the relationship business oriented,
Molly made the fol lo wi ng st at ements,
Like a business… Yeah, no I treat it, I find that myself, I
always make things too personal and then I end up getting
hurt in the end, you know like, I always try to help people,
that maybe aren’t as fortunate as me, and I think I always
get burned. So, no, it’s just strictly business relationships,
she comes in, she does the job, she gets paid, and that’s
that. You know I don’t want to help her do anything; I
don’t want to give her anything you know extra, because
then it becomes personal. Yeah, and like if you start to
give somebody maybe that’s less fortunate than you like
clothes or you know things that maybe you’re not using,
then if they really needed something then they’re going to
feel more comfortable to come to you and ask for it, and
then that puts you in an aw kw a rd position.
She seems to think that making the relationship too personal
would in effect open her up to getting “hurt”, although in all
likelihood she actually has significant control over the structure,
type and length of this working relationship. Molly also seems
to fear the possibility of being taken advantage of. She concep-
tualizes the potential for a personal relationship in a material
sense. For instance, personal would be her making “charitable”
contributions to workers rather than an actual reciprocal rela-
tionship. Molly’s comments demonstrate a self-conscious rejec-
tion of a maternalistic role within the relationship.
These interchanges (with the exception of Molly) seem to re-
flect what Hondagneu-Sotelo refers to as personalism, “a bilat-
eral relationship that involves two individuals recognizing each
other not solely in terms of their role or office (such as a clerk
or cleaner) but rather as persons embedded in a unique set of
social relations, and with particular aspirations” (172). How-
ever, similar to her findings, employers often attempt to limit
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
these interactions either because of discomfort, perceived time
constraints, or fear that their house is not being cleaned as well
as it should be. Focusing on the latter, what emerges in this
case is that employers almost view these personal interactions
as something that is at a cost to them; that is on their “dime”.
This is not to say that employers did not place emotional de-
mands on workers (Moras, 2009) but rather instead of viewing
personalized interactions as something that “would get them
more” in the traditional maternalistic sense, it was more of a
friendly obligation weighed against getting the most for their
money. It is important to note here, that while these relation-
ships might not have been traditionally maternalistic they were
always asymmetrical with emplo yers maintaining a huge a mount
of control over the working relationship. The following section
will explore this in depth.
Not Maternalism But Still Unequal
Domestic work is fraught with these asymmetrical interac-
tions reflected at times in the stories participants tell and how
they talk about this relationship. Phrases such as “my cleaning
girl” “my girl” “her girl” “my neighbor’s girl” “the cleaning
lady” were common. Often times I was not told the name of the
woman who worked in their home and had to explicitly ask for
the purpose of the conversation (these names were changed in
analysis). However, none of the participants perceived them-
selves as being “bad” employers or spoke of desiring “servi-
tude” like relationships. In fact, most described a relationship or
interaction that they might consider largely egalitarian. How-
ever, the guilt some women expressed towards watching dome-
stic workers clean might suggest a questioning of the ideologi-
cal implications of hiring someone to clean their families’ home
although it often seemed to reflect the gendered expectations
they had of themselves as wives and mothers (Author, 2009).
Furthermore, several participants alluded to how certain in-
teractions could reinforce a subordinated position. Francesca
recounted the following story about how her partner’s children
treated Sandra in their home,
The, um, the kids come from like, you know, a house
where their mother expects people to wait on them, on her,
and do for her hand on foot. And, when I introduced the
kids to Sandra I said, Jenny, Brian, say hello to Sandra.
Sandra’s going to help us with the house cleaning. Help
us, you know, keep things homey and things like that.
And they said, no she’s not, she’s here to clean our house,
she’s the maid. So, at that point, I said to them, you can
excuse yourselves and say I’m sorry to Sandra and say
hello Sandra. Because that was beyond rude. So, that’s
what they did. And then after Sandra had left I had sat
them down and spoke to them about it. And, I asked them
if they refer to mommy’s maids as the maids, and they
said no, that her name’s Heather. And I said that’s how to
refer to Sandra. And don’t expect to treat people like that
again in your lives. That’s really rude. I spoke to them and
then I said I sat them down, and then they said why, that’s
her title. That’s, that’s Sandra’s title, she’s the maid. And
I said, right, and that’s Heather and Maureen’s title, but
do you call them the maid? And they said no. I said your
mom’s a housewife; do you call your mom a housewife?
And they said no. And I said, right. So, people had dif-
ferent jobs and different titles and you respect them no
matter what their job and their title is. So, they went into
that whole thing.
Francesca was clearly upset by the incident and felt that
calling Sandra the maid in front of her was disrespectful and
privately apologized to Sandra afterw ard s:
When I walked her outside after it, everyone said it, I said,
I’m, I’m sorry about the kids don’t understand certain
things in life because they have no discipline. And, um,
she said, its ok, its ok, they’re young, they’re young. So,
they’ll understand one day. They’re sweet; they’re beau-
tiful. And, um, so, she never lets anybody belittle her or
make her fell like her job was worthless. Because she
knew that it wasn’t in a way. She, she totally just didn’t
understand that this woman was going to create the house
that they live in and make it really beautiful and clean.
And that they wouldn’t ever appreciate that until they
were older, but she knew that they would one day appre-
ciate it.
Another way in which these asymmetries played out in in-
teractions was through language and nation. While most in-
sisted that race did not matter, speaking English did, which was
informed by issues of class, race, nationhood and citizenship.
Furthermore, in these relationships language interaction was
constructed in an asymmetrical manner (Author, 2010). For
example, when asked the name of the women who work in her
home Emily responded,
I don’t, uh, honestly, I call her Mary, but I don’t know if
that’s ‘cause I can’t pronounce it the way she says it.
Marique or something like that. I just say Mary and she
answers to it. And Mary ’s siste r.
She seems to not know the names of the two women who
work in her home and this is attributed to her inability to pro-
nounce it the way “Mary” says it. Therefore she calls her Mary.
This illustrates the advantages employers have in controlling
said interactions. For instance, while they supposedly do not
speak English, it is unlikely that “Mary” and “Mary’s sister” do
not know how to say Emily’s name. This reflects one of many
paradoxes in domestic work. While Emily likes both women
very much and in her own words said, “I love them both. Yeah,
they’re really nice girls,” she does not know their names. In
most other types of personal or professional relationships this
would not be possible.
In the earlier cited examples we arguably see a turn away
from maternalism, demonstrating employers desire to maintain
some distance from domestic workers. I include these excerpts
from the interviews with Francesca and Emily, however, to
demonstrate that even without these maternalistic relationships
interactions continue to be constructed in an asymmetrical man-
ner shaped by race, class and nation. There is nothing intrinsi-
cally demeaning about domestic work; rather these structural
inequalities of race, class, gender and citizenship shape the
asymmetry of these transactions. The racial and ethnic stratifi-
cation of domestic work persists today and privileged women’s
displacement of housework has always been intertwined with
racial and class politics. Employing immigrant women and/or
women of color reinforces the power dynamic of race and ra-
cism in households, separating the tasks of “dirty work” along
race and class lines (Anderson, 2001).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 251
Negoitiating the Personal: Rethinking
As the previous sections demonstrate, most participants did
not engage traditional maternalistic roles, even when relation-
ships were slightly more intimate. However, there were a few
obvious exceptions, employers who felt particularly close to
workers and who then negotiated the work relationship through
this. One such example is Christina. Christina has been em-
ploying Laura for about eight years now, and prior to this she
had employed Laura’s daughter. She feels particularly close to
Laura as she explained,
Uh, let’s see, well, I trust them beyond belief. Um, I feel
as if Laura is part of our family. Um, um, when my
in-laws died, she would come over and give me flowers,
and bring me a meal. And I, um, just, my mother said
once, it’s like the—what is that expression from the Bible
about some, something might—anyway, that she just, the
widow’s might or something. She just bends over back-
wards, and I just cannot forget that, and want to recipro-
cate her generosity.
Reciprocating this generosity was important to Christina, and
she actually pays better than most employers (one hundred per
cleaning) and also gives Laura an additional one hundred dol-
lars at Christmas. However, her “contributions” go beyond
traditional job benefits,
… and then I give them, like, all sorts of stuff. And, and
they alway s ask me questions about healthcare and how to
do that, so I tell them all about that… Well, how do they
get healthcare, without insurance. I tell them about the
good neighbor clinic in our community, about Laura went
through a divorce, I helped her with that, and, you know,
how to, who to contact. And just would listen to her, and
say that wasn’t right… well I have a bag of things, of
clothing, an on-going bag of, things that I donate to the
what is sort of the equivalent of the local United Way.
And, you know, if I think that, you know, I just, it’s kind
of not, you know, if I just want to give something up, I
put it in the bag, and then I say, Laura, if you see anything
that you want before I send this off. Listen, please you
know, help yourself, anytime. And, so she just, so I just
keep that bag going, and then she goes through it. And
then after the week, I bring it to the community center.
Offering advice and used clothing are reminiscent of tradi-
tional maternalistic interactions; however throughout the inter-
view it was clear that she was thoroughly involved in the lives
of both Laura and her daughter. She had knowledge of their
families, divorces, boyfriends, to whom and how often they
sent money home, career aspirations etc. However, this knowl-
edge was shared in an asymmetrical manner. She explained that
she does not tell Laura very much about her own life, with the
exception of telling her that she and her husband were getting a
divorce. Related to this, Christina actually felt quite hurt that
Laura was continuing to clean for her soon to be ex-husband,
Well, I, I actually, after what I heard, first heard that, that
she was doing that, I felt kind of betrayed in the sense that
she didn’t realize that I was the one who supported her,
and that she sort of went where she thought the big money
was, where my husband was... But, but it, it bothers me,
quite frankly. I felt like I supported her and then, and then,
you know I continued to pay, keep her on, and then and
then, you know, kind of crossed a boundary to the other
side... I guess, you know, my feelings were hurt that, you
know, she went to the place where she thought the male
version of the household, thinking that’s where the eco-
nomic power is, was, but it was me who like really stood
up for her to always have her come to my house. He
would always complain, like, oh, you know, Laura’s
stealing from us; oh, you pay Laura too much money; this
is ridiculous, you know, we should fire Laura. And I was
always like, no, no, you know, I always stuck up for her.
Laura no longer works for Christina’s soon to be ex-husband;
she stopped after he refused to pay her for her labor. Christina’s
comments suggest that she herself is also personally invested in
the relationship, evidenced by the hurt she expressed. However,
is her hurt reflecting a unilateral contradiction of loyalty or a
genuine feeling of betrayal out of care? As this example dem-
onstrates, the lines between maternalism and personalism are
unclear, and the meanings and consequences of each are con-
tested territory. Is Christina constructing herself as a benefactor
who receives some kind of unilateral validation of the self, or
rather seeing both Laura and herself as persons, “embedded in a
unique set of social relations?”
In addition to Christina, several other participants also spoke
of having close personal relationships with domestic workers,
relationships that went beyond an employee/employer orienta-
tion and were rather “like friends” or “like family”. However,
being like friends or like family is an extremely complex state-
ment based on the asymmetry of domestic work relationships.
Given the likely differences in class and racial backgrounds it is
quite possible that many of these women would not have met
each other if not for this employee-employer relationship. Fur-
thermore, as referenced in the following statements, this close-
ness was still associated with how well one did their job. Jane
… I would think that people would get attached to these,
you know these people that come in, like I kind of feel
like, when we heard when Sylvia’s father passed away,
not father, husband, we just felt bad, and we had a discus-
sion about like you know, do we need Sylvia, that’s why I
did like every two weeks. I just didn’t want to let her go
because I felt, I felt, I just felt you know bad for her, cause
she’s so nice. But you kind of have an attachment… (So
it’s not just a business relationship, its personal?) Oh no,
no, no, yeah it does, I think so. I think for more though,
more, out of all the ones I’ve had more with Sylvia. And
even though I’m not there a lot of the time, you know it’s,
she’s a very warm lady, sweet. (Is that why you think
you’ve gotten closer to her, because she is so sweet?)
Yeah. And I’m very, you know I trust her. That’s the
whole thing, if, I think it has a lot to do with trust. And the
work they do too… I really really love her. She works,
she’s a hard working person and she’s got, I think she’s
got a really good family values, you know that’s nice.
Jane demonstrated a particular attachment to Sylvia that
seemingly went beyond their work relationship, as least more
so than most participants. She emphasized here and also at
other times during the interview how sweet Sylvia is and how
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
close she feels to her as a result. However, when asked about
this she also mentioned trust and “the work they do” as factors
in terms of why she felt this closeness. Daryl’s comments also
spoke to this association between close personal relationships
and quality of work. When asked about the interaction between
her and domestic workers she stated,
Oh, they’re like my friends… I, I mean, I can’t say that
about these new ones ‘cause they’ve only been here for a
month, but the last one, she was my friend. Oh, we talked
about everything. We talked about her kids, we talked
about her husband, we talked about my husband, my kids,
you know, everything. (And how did the relationship get
like that?) Um, I just think over time. You know, the same
with the one from Brazil, I mean from Portugal, the one
from Newark. She was, I was the same way with her too.
When then asked if she thought the new relationship would
ever be like this past relationship she responded,
I don’t, I, I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean, I, I do talk
to them. I talk to them to see how she’s doing ‘cause they
hear from her and stuff. Um, I, like I said I’m just not a
hundred percent happy with their job, I’m maybe sev-
enty-five percent happy with their job, and I’m sure that if
I talk to them about it they will do what they, you know,
do what they can. But, if I say, you didn’t clean the win-
dows this week, well, they’ll clean the windows next
week, but they might forget something else.
She judges the “friend” potential of the relationship in terms
of how happy she is with their cleaning. She was asked about
interactions and she responded in terms of their cleaning. These
examples illustrate how the personal aspects of these relation-
ships can almost never be divorced from the structure and ex-
change of labor. Furthermore, the asymmetry of these relation-
ships limits the capacities in which participants were able to
perceive relationships with workers.
Nancy was one of the only (if not the only) cases in which it
seemed that the employer/employee relationship extended be-
yond the work environment. For instance, while several par-
ticipants stated that they interacted “like friends” very few ac-
tually spoke of having domestic workers in their homes outside
of scheduled cleaning times. In contrast, Nancy had employed
the same woman, Joan, for many years; ever since her son was
born (her son is now in college). Her children call Joan “Grand-
ma Joan” and in Nancy’s words, “she became part of our family,
she still is.” Even since Joan retired she continues to go to the
house for tea or lunch and remains close to Nancy and her two
children. However, while Nancy remembers this as a really
rewarding experience and still has a “great relationship” with
Joan, it seemed that the highly personalized aspects of the rela-
tionship at times interfered with aspects of the work,
What made, what was difficult was that if things weren’t
being done. You know, over the years she got older, and
you know she couldn’t clean, you know, the way she used
to clean. But I could never, I would never, approach her
with it, ever… As a matter a fact, I really could have used
somebody maybe five years before she decided to retire
but I would never ever get rid of her. So I kind of just
waited until she retired. I wouldn’t do that.
Their personal relationship made it difficult for her to hire
someone new, even when she felt the work wasn’t being done
the way she wanted it to be. Contrary then to the women who
dictate the friendly aspects of the relationship according to the
“quality” of work, Nancy and Joan’s friendship dictated the
work relationship. Several other participants also mentioned
feeling a commitment to workers because of some personal
connection. For instance, earlier Jane mentioned that while she
and her husband didn’t think they “needed” Sylvia anymore,
they continued the work relationship because of Sylvia’s recent
loss and the attachment she felt to her. Dawn similarly contin-
ued hiring Monica even though she was unhappy with her
She’s an older woman. She probably, you know, doesn’t
clean like I would like her to, which I’m sure a lot of peo-
ple say. But, you know, she doesn’t do windows, she
doesn’t do a lot of the other things. It’s, she vacuums and
cleans the bathrooms, and, you know, she’s, she really
doesn’t do heavy work, or under sofas, or anything like
that, or, you know, kind of dusting blinds, or fans. You
know, I probably should start to look for somebody else,
but she’s an older woman. Actually, she used to help me
out a little with my mother. You know, I could send her to
the nursing home and she’d go through my mother’s
clothing, you know, she used to do, you know, things like
that for me too, so...
The help Monica offered with Dawn’s mother (who recently
passed away) prompted Dawn to feel a certain loyalty to her.
These examples echo Thorton-Dill’s argument, suggesting that
closer relationships may give workers more leverage in the
relationship. At the same time, it is important not to romanti-
cize these relationships either. It is difficult to explore how
these “friendships” are actually organized, specifically the
power relations involved and the level of reciprocity. Do Sylvia,
Laura and Joan feel as though they are treated as friends or
employees? This research cannot pretend to answer that ques-
tion; however the selective ways in which participants interact
with domestic workers suggests an intricate balance of em-
ployee and friend roles. For example, when Jane was later de-
bating her preferences about being home or not being home
while Sylvia was there she had mentioned that she loves Sylvia
and loves to talk to her, although prefers not to be home all the
time because the talking interferes with Sylvia’s work. She is
clearly balancing how she feels about Sylvia personally with
her desire to have her house clean. Therefore, while the per-
sonal relationship may increase workers’ leverage, employers
continue to have control over the nature and definition of said
The type of domestic work relationships studied further in-
formed how participants conceptualized the personal aspects of
this labor. It is very likely that had this research focused on
live-in or full time positions participants’ responses would have
been quite different. In addition, cleaning is traditionally thought
of as intrinsically less intimate than childcare and several par-
ticipants’ comments reflected this ranking of intimacy. Given
the increasing popularity of “nanny” cams it is clear that hiring
someone to care for children implies not only more personal
connections, but increased supervision or policing of this labor.
One participant actually had cameras installed in every room of
her home except the bathrooms and bedrooms as a means of
supervising her childcare provider. These same extreme meas-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 253
ures of supervision were never engaged in policing house-
cleaning. However, many participants did maintain some form
of labor supervision (Moras, 2009).
Making a “Better” Life: Maternalism and
Bridging Opportunity
Returning to the earlier cited definition of maternalism, as
“unilateral positioning of the employer as a benefactor who
receives personal thanks, recognition, and validation of self
from the domestic worker” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001: p. 172);
very few participants seemed to seek this validation. In the
afore mentioned cases, while participants recognized the per-
sonal lives of workers, few saw themselves as benefactors. That
said, domestic work has long been thought of as a bridging oc-
cupation, providing an entry-level position for immigrant wo-
men facilitating social mobility. “Reformers and scholars pr ai se d
the work experience for furnishing rural, traditional, immigrant
women with exposure to the modern world in a protected, su-
pervised environment… In this model, the mistress-maid rela-
tionship was depicted as one of benevolent maternalism, incul-
cating ‘new work disciples and middle class norms and val-
ues’” (Romero, 2002: p. 57). Under this logic, employers con-
struct themselves as providing opportunities for domestic
workers, opportunities that would not be found in countries of
origin. These opportunities may be construed as economic or as
services of cultural assimilation. This thinking has informed
various Americanization efforts that tracked Mexican women
into paid domestic work positions.
While rare, a few participants demonstrated their own under-
standings of this supposed bridging process through an empha-
sis on workers’ desire for a better life. Brianne explained,
Well, um, I think, like, most of the, most of the people
come here because of the money that they make here is so
much more than they get there. So they can have all their
families; they can build a home. Uh, back in their own
countries, like in Mexico, practically nothing. The money,
the value of the dollar over there is like ten, fifteen times
greater than it would be here. And another reason, when
they buy their homes, they own the homes and there’s
very little, uh, taxation and maintenance, you build it, it’s
practically yours. Some of the countries, in like Guate-
mala, they don’t even charge tax. Once you buy the land,
that’s it.
These comments reflect somewhat incomplete understand-
ings of what the economic struggles involved in immigration
might be, for example, when Brianne was asked if she per-
ceives workers to have to struggle economically here, she re-
I don’t think so, no. Mostly, um, they adapt to a different
kind of a lifestyle that they might live three or four people
in one apartment. And what they do is they block off
rooms, you know, ‘cause they’re happy like that, they like,
you know, being together. And, uh, they only have, like,
separate sleeping quarters and there’s one living area and
one dining area where everybody eats and one kitchen. So,
I, I think most of them do pretty well here. Most of the
girls that I’ve had working with me, they go to school.
They learn English, and, you know, they try to better
themselves. They all have dreams too when they come
here. They also, you know, if they have children, they
want their children to become bilingual and some school-
ing here. They bring their parents; they bring their broth-
ers and sisters, you know, if they have them. Working
maybe siblings then they’ll try to bring them over here. So
they can earn money.
She romanticizes these living situations, citing their happi-
ness, although she simultaneously shows an appreciation and
respect for these “dreams”. Emily similarly romanticized this
immigrant experience,
She’s still cleaning too ‘cause, but it’s a family affair, I, I
think, you know. I mean from what I can gather, they,
they’re, it’s a very, very close knit family. Um, they all
kind of live together. They probably all have a large house
someplace and they all kind of live together, or in close
proximity. ‘Cause she was telling me about her son’s fifth
birthday party and, um, she said he didn’t want a regular
children’s party, like other kids. He wanted grandpa to
come and play the, play the accordion. And we all sang
and we all had fun. And was like, wow, and I told her,
your kids is, um, actually privileged because there’s so
many kids in America that don’t have that. They have
split families and, you know, they don’t have that ground-
ing. So, I think, I think we’re all, we all come from immi-
gration families. My, my husband’s father was born in
Germany. Um, my family came from England. You know,
and we all came in as blue-collar, hardworking people
who make it.
This romanticization obscures the vast disparities of wealth
involved in paid domestic work and depoliticizes the asymmet-
rical relationships between employer and employee. Using an-
other example here, Francesca actually spoke of preferring not
to hire to American workers because she would rather reserve
job opportunities for new immigrants:
… I would never, I would never hire an American worker
to come in and clean my house, and the only reason would
be because I feel like American workers have an opportu-
nity to work, not at something better, but they have an
opportunity to be something other than a, other than a
cleaner. And I don’t think there’s something wrong with
being a cleaner, but I, I want the people that come to this
country to have a job. So I wouldn’t want them to be out
of a job… I just feel like that the people that come here
they want to be something, and they want to learn, and
they want to educate themselves and make their lives bet-
ter for them wherever that may be. I’m not saying here in
America, but anywhere that their life can be better and I
would want to give that opportunity to somebody. And I
would hope that they would learn from me and I would
learn from them, you know, bringing somebody in here
from another country and they can see, that, you know,
I’m a single woman living on my own, and, and trying to
make ends meet on my own. And, you know, that I can do
it on my own, and, you know, that she could do it on her
own. And you know, I just feel like it’s very different to
convince American woman that she can do it one her own,
or, you know, she’s always looking for sympathy, or em-
For many women of color domestic work has not necessarily
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
been a means of social mobility. While white women have
typically been considered “help”, the labor of women of color
has been treated as servitude. This manifests itself through dif-
ferences in working conditions and the lack of egalitarian op-
portunities to move up the occupational ladder. White women
are also more likely to be employed as nannies rather than ex-
pected to perform all housekeeping tasks and are paid higher
wages (Wrigley, 1996). They receive job preference and often
view domestic work as a stepping-stone to other occupations
and/or marriage. Historically Black women could not rely on
marriage as a guarantee that they would not have to work. Ra-
cial discrimination excluded Black men from many economic
opportunities, forcing many Black women to work in domestic
service while married and raising children (Thorton-Dill, 1994;
Hill Collins, 2000). In our contemporary economic structure,
there are very few opportunities for upward mobility out of
domestic work today. As Hondagneu-Sotelo points outs, “We
live in a society that is increasingly characterized by an occupa-
tional hourglass, without a booming industrial sector for Latina
domestic workers or their husbands to latch onto in the United
States” (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001: p. 240). Therefore, the avail-
ability of domestic work opportunities while important eco-
nomically is not always a means of economic empowerment.
Making sense of household labor requires an intricate analy-
sis of not only gender relations and sexism, but also, household
structure, family interactions and formal and informal market
economies. Recent scholarship has emphasized how housework
reflects understandings of family, love and personal fulfillment
while also structuring relationships of gender, race and class.
Women continue to do two to three times more housework than
men, and yet most men and women consider these arrange-
ments fair (Coltrane, 2001). Almost without exception the
women interviewed did the majority of housework in their
home and hiring a domestic worker was clearly replacing their
labor rather than their male partner’s. While most participants
did not explicitly refer to housework as “women’s work” their
statements implicitly suggest that for most, housework is
largely conceptualized as women’s responsibility. For instance,
Dolores, a 49-year-old married nurse, shared that her husband
“gave” her a “cleaning lady” for Christmas. This has been an
ongoing gift ever since, as she puts it, “The gift that keeps giv-
ing.” Another participant Jane explained that her daughter was
going to get “one” for mother’s day. Clearly the assumption
that a “cleaning lady” would be a gift to these women implies
that cleaning is their responsibility.
How employers and domestics interact is not a side effect of
the labor, it is a primary structuring force underlying the labor.
Paid domestic work is organized in an asymmetrical manner,
which is manifested through the interactions between domestics
and employers, likewise, the asymmetrical interactions between
domestics and employers organizes domestic work in an asym-
metrical manner. They mutually reinforce one another. It is
obvious that paid domestic work encompasses a variety of con-
tested territories. Definitions of women’s work, family rela-
tionships, and race, class and national hierarchies structure such
labor in a dynamic and continu o usly changing manner .
The relationships between domestic workers and employers
are especially important to understanding the exchange of do-
mestic labor. Whereas traditional domestic relationships were
arguably maternalistic, as both this research and past research
demonstrates many contemporary employers attempt to main-
tain personal distance between themselves and employees
(Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001). However, as noted earlier, there is
considerable disagreement among scholars of domestic work
regarding what types of employer/employee relationships pro-
duce the most exploitive situations. This research does not offer
a final conclusion, and in fact reflects the complexity of these
For those participants who had close relationships with do-
mestic workers, those close relationships were often asymmet-
rical and arguably voyeuristic. Those with more personal rela-
tionships, however, rarely terminated the work relationship,
even when they were dissatisfied with cleaning. Instead, they
would comment on other aspects of the relationship that were
more important, for example trust. Therefore, those relation-
ships with very little personal interaction could also be seen as
potentially exploitive, offering little to no job security. Com-
plicating this question further, how participants characterized
and defined personal relationships was informed by perceptions
of domestic workers, evaluations of labor and assumptions
about racial difference and foreignness. For example, a sup-
posed language barrier was one of the most commonly offered
reasons for why employers did not interact personally with do-
mestic workers.
Characterizing these personal relationships as maternalistic
would be a misnomer however; even in those more personal
relationships very few employers constructed themselves in the
traditional role of a benevolent benefactor. There were a few
exceptions, but these were rare. Instead, even in those cases
where there was some “care” on the part of the employer it
seemed to be more reflective of personalism, with employers
recognizing aspects of employees’ lives that existed outside of
the work relationship.
That said, this engagement was far from “sisterhood” and
any feminist ideology that unproblematically conceptualizes
wage work as liberating is fundamentally flawed in addressing
women’s labor issues. The negative effects and subordination
of capitalism and patriarchy are by no means equal for all
women. Dependent upon one’s social location and privilege,
they can engage in and even perhaps benefit from such arrange-
ments (Chang, 2000). However, patriarchy and the expectations
and effects of capitalism inform all such relationships. For in-
stance, if “women’s work” was not devalued by a patriarchal
society, paid domestic labor would not be such an exploitive
occupation and if reproductive labor was not considered
“women’s work” many of the exploitive conditions discussed
would not be so primarily grounded in exchanges between
women (Thorton-Dill, 1994). Furthermore, the gendered divi-
sion of labor in homes, particularly women’s responsibility for
unpaid care work, contributed to women’s confinement to low-
paid, caretaking and servile paid work (Amott & Matthaei,
1996; Nakano Glenn, 1992).
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