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

Cecilia M Rio, University of Massachusetts Amherst


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. ^

Subject Area

Black history|Women's studies|Economics|Ethnic studies

Recommended Citation

Rio, Cecilia M, "From feudal serfs to independent contractors: Class and African American women's paid domestic labor, 1863--1980" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3012175.