Dirty Work sheds light on the complex relationships between women employers and their household help in the early 20th 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.”
Not only did modern servants become configured as racial, hygienic, and social threats to the emergent ideal of the nuclear family, they played critical rhetorical roles in first-wave feminism and the New Negro movements. Dirty Work argues that these racial and class conflicts fundamentally shaped modern American domesticity, femininity, and fiction by female authors of the period. Deploying a materialist feminist and new modernist approach, and examining a diverse archive of modern American texts, including home economics pamphlets, undercover journalism, autobiography, reform tracts, training manuals, experimental modernism, and gothic fiction, 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.