Household duties are traditionally, in many cultures, considered the province of women. Even after they receive an education, women often stay home and raise the children rather than put their energy into building a career. The labor that women perform in the home including cleaning and childrearing duties is almost always unpaid work, leading to a situation in which women are essentially domestic servants. Moreover, with educated women in the home, the world continues to be dominated by a patriarchal structure in which men remain in positions of political, social, and economic power. In “Maid to Order,” Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the modern and post-modern feminist movement has created a massive and meaningful shift in the role of women in society but the author points out that this change has only so far impacted the lives of wealthy white women. Although the author misses a few key points, Ehrenreich is correct in noticing that the demonization of housework by wealthy women has led to a situation in which women of color and poor women are left behind.
Women of color continue to be trapped by the old norms and values in which women occupy the private sphere, whereas men are in the public sphere engaged in important positions of power in politics, business, or manufacturing. When the first few waves of feminism took root in society, household duties including housecleaning became demonized as representing patriarchy and sexism. Many women wanted to work outside the home and take part in the public life that was once reserved only for men. When this shift in cultural values happened, however, the men did not rush in to fill the gap at home. Instead, the extra wages garnered by the secondary breadwinner in the family was used to hire a professional cleaner to manage the household chores. That professional cleaner was, ironically and unfortunately, usually a woman of color. Ehrenreich finds the outsourcing of household chores problematic because of the fact that many of the paid professionals are women of color. This aspect of the author’s argument remains strong throughout “Maid to Order.”
According to Ehrenreich, outsourcing household chores is exploitative of women of color because it ensures that their options are limited to domestic servitude. Whereas once housework was the “great equalizer of women,” according to Ehrenreich, only wealthy women who happen to also be white were able to work outside the home and hire professional cleaners (60). Housework is not an “equalizer,” but rather the very thing that distinguishes rich from poor. Although this is generally true, there are a few weaknesses in Ehrenreich’s argument that deserve to be mentioned. For one, the reason why women of color were becoming professional cleaners was because it was a viable means of making a living while they learned English and established some financial independence so that one day they could either put their children through college or attend school themselves. There is nothing wrong with doing domestic work and receiving pay, and in fact, this situation is preferable to doing domestic duties for no pay at all.
Second, Ehrenreich seems to ironically denigrate the people she is trying to defend (women of color), by saying that cleaning is menial labor. After all, Ehrenreich herself tried to work for a corporate cleaning agency and says she was “relieved of the thinking process,” (67). Saying that she was “relieved of the thinking process” makes Ehrenreich sound arrogant, as if she is too smart for cleaning. There may be some professional cleaners who do a good job because they do think critically about their work. Also, many homeowners hire professional cleaners because professionals do a better job. Ehrenreich would not criticize people for hiring financial advisors, then why should she be upset that people are hiring cleaners to do what they cannot do well for themselves? Ehrenreich seems uniquely concerned about housecleaning, instead of taking a more…