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September 16, 2004



Tough call. So many people mistreat their cleaning ladies, etc. that it really clouds the issue. Growing up with a single mom, we had a live-in nanny/housekeeper who didn't make a whole lot but would have never become an American citizen and been able to move onto better employment if it hadn't been for us. The reality of that mutually beneficial relationship from my past makes me hesistant to condemn hiring housekeepers/live-in childcare altogether.


There is no need to defend the practice. Housecleaning is a needed, worthy and skilled profession (yes, skilled--timewise, quality-wise). People can choose to do certain things themselves or need pay others to do it for one reason or another. I cut my own and my husband's hair (barber), do my own laundry (drycleaner), do personal and shop bookkeeping (bookkeeping service) as an example. But I also pay a CPA to do my taxes and a lawyer to handle legal aspect. I suppose if you're an accountant or lawyer you wouldn't need to do that.


I think it's ok to hire someone to clean house. It's also ok to hire someone to mow your lawn, sew your clothes, paint your house, re-roof, lay a concrete paver driveway, intall a pool etc.

It's silly to claim one class of work is somehow demeaning and others arent. Moreover, claiming that it's the *type* of work that is a problem also papers over the real problems associated with women doing most of the unpaid labor around the house. The fact that one person swabs the toilet is not the problem per se!

The issues are related to questions like these: Who ends up with more free time? Flexibility? Financial power? Are couples free to choose who does what, or is there external pressure? What happens if a couple agrees to divide labor one way (for whatever reason) and later break up? Is the one who swabbed the toilet stuck in penury while the one who worked as a tax attorney gets to keep all the money? Or do the laws result in some sort of reasonable fair division?


And by the way, it need not come down to color or gender issues. Most of the cleaning services in the east seem to employ a large number of young white adults. One of the better know is "Helping Hands" which is primarily made up of Polish women (bonus if they like you and bring you home-baked goodies!). I am a second generation Polish-American.

Col Steve

You're not missing anything - just overly defensive to some personal, but flawed responses.

I also grew up very poor and yes, was taught to clean up after myself. The point was not the skill of "cleaning up after myself", it was my single mom's attempt to inculcate a value of leaving things the same or if different, than at least better, than you found it. It's a false dilemma to say just because you are taught a skill, you shouldn't in the future engage in legal, mutually beneficial exchanges with others to perform the same skill.

It's another false dilemma to state you shouldn't hire someone to perform a task simply because you personally wouldn't choose the same occupation. Goodness, one of the premises behind market economies is the fact that people have different comparative advantages in their skill sets and they trade amongst themselves based on those to make each better off. I can change the oil in my car. Sometimes I do; sometimes I take it to a mechanic. I chose not to be a mechanic simply because tinkering with cars did not interest me sufficiently to want to spend 30-40% of most days around cars and garages. My decision to use a mechanic or not is a calculation based on the cost to me versus the value of the time saved (because it sure takes me longer than 10 minutes given I have to buy the oil, prepare the garage, clean-up, etc.). I'm sure the mechanic we use is glad I sometimes make that choice because he sure does love cars and the he gets paid doing something he enjoys.

I caddied during the summer to help with the household finances. I'm sure glad that some rich folks didn't choose to carry their own clubs because that income paid for the soccer spikes and the little extras we couldn't afford on just my Mom's earnings.

"You know that the person who does the work still goes home and does the same thing for herself/himself." -- If that is the standard, then I suppose nobody should eat at a restaurant because I suspect some of the cooks also cook for themselves at home..

We have our house cleaned twice a month. The time saving allows me to work on my side business and my wife to spend some more time on her volunteer work. None of the arguments you listed above focus on the opportunity cost lost to society. I suppose my wife could spend the time cleaning and donate the money spent on the housecleaners to the Red Cross, but somehow I think she feels better (and she makes the choice) donating her labor as opposed to her money to that organization. Additionally, our current housecleaner started with the initial cleaning company we hired. After a year, she came to us (and other clients) and stated she was starting her own business and could do the same level of service cheaper (but she would keep more of the money) - and the service is better because she wants to retain her clients as opposed to having to advertise, etc. She's moved from a worker to an owner - she's better off, we're better off - how can someone be troubled by those results?

yes, I don't deny some cleaning companies (and restaurants, etc..) take advantage of and exploit employees. Those unethical actions and sometimes illegal actions don't mean the concept is wrong though.

And Hugo, if this means you have more time to blog or help others, you (and we) are certainly better off!


I myself am back-and-forth on this issue. However, to read the feminist case against hiring housecleaners, a good place to start is Barbara Ehrenreich. The rest of this post is quoted from this Guardian article, but it's worth reading the whole thing.

* * * *

You can eschew the chain cleaning services, of course, hire an independent cleaner at a generous hourly wage, and even encourage, at least in spirit, the unionisation of the house-cleaning industry, but none of this will change the fact that someone is working in your home at a job she would almost certainly never have chosen for herself - if she'd had qualifications, for example - or that the place where she works, however enthusiastically or resentfully, is the same as the place where you sleep.

It is also the place where your children are raised, and what they learn pretty quickly is that some people are less worthy than others. Even better wages and working conditions won't erase the hierarchy between employer and domestic help, since the help is usually there only because the employer has "something better" to do with her time. Housework, as radical feminists once proposed, defines a human relationship and, when unequally divided among the social groups, reinforces pre-existing inequalities. Dirt, in other words, tends to attach to the people who remove it - "dustmen" and "cleaning ladies".

There is another lesson the servant economy teaches its beneficiaries and, most troublingly, the children among them. To be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid house-cleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect: you blast the villain into a mist of blood droplets and move right along; you drop the socks knowing they will eventually levitate, laundered and folded, back to their normal dwelling place. The result is a kind of virtual existence in which the trail of litter that follows you seems to evaporate all by itself. Spill syrup on the floor and the cleaning person will scrub it off when she comes on Wednesday. Leave your newspaper scattered around your aeroplane seat and the flight attendants will deal with it. A servant economy may provide opportunities, however limited, for poor and immigrant women. But it also breeds callousness and solipsism in the served, and it does so all the more effectively when the service is performed close up and routinely in the place where they live and reproduce.


My grandmother was a nanny to one of the founding families of Pasadena. She traveled extensively with the family all over the world and was lavished with gifts and extravagances. She lived in the childrens wing but had a suite to herself. And when she got married and left them, the entire family cried...all of them.

When I was in college, I spent time as a personal assistant, did custodial work, worked at a private golf course, and was employed as a nanny. I was glad to have the ability to attain these positions as they helped me pay for school as well as the ability to eat! Things are different for me now.

I have a housekeeper. I love that she feels so comfortable in my home as to play my Etta James LPs on my Telefunken while she works and always lights the very expensive candles that even I have never lit.

I have an personal assistant that I positively love. I will hate to lose her once she graduates from college but I also look forward to loosing her to a wildly successful career of her own. I'm looking forward to a huge graduation celebration.

I have a dog walker/pet sitter that my dogs love to no end and that I love as well. Whenever I can, we walk the dogs together and stop for coffee or tea and talk.

For my trips to and from the airport, I have a regular driver with a service. I sit in the back seat but we have great conversations and I always look forward to his meeting me at the airport when I return home.

These people are not servants, they are employees and more importantly, they are friends. They help me keep my life in order and in doing so they are part of my life and for that I am grateful. I trust each and every one of them with my home, my things, my pets, my money...I trust them period.

When my dog was diagnosed with heart disease, my dog sitter cried with me. When my housekeeper lost a pregnancy, I cooked and took meals over to her. Yes, money exchanges hands for tasks completed, but the human aspect is certainly present. I am not a conglomerate that simply spits out a paycheck at a social security number. Nor am I a master to servants. They could simply clean my house, walk my dog, drive me to the airport and leave. But we have developed relationships that are real and heartfelt. They show genuine care and concern about my life and I have enough respect for them to do the same.

Just as a side note, I am a Hispanic female, early thirties. My housekeeper is a white female of German descent, late-twenties. My assistant is a female Asian, just turned twenty. My dog walker/pet sitter is a white male, mid-thirties who is gay. My driver is a white male in his late fifties.


I was wondering when someone was going to bring up the Ehrenrich argument. Much of it is challenging--especially about the messages (often unintentionally) sent to children. But I think she goes astray here:

none of this will change the fact that someone is working in your home at a job she would almost certainly never have chosen for herself - if she'd had qualifications, for example - or that the place where she works, however enthusiastically or resentfully, is the same as the place where you sleep.

Here she outs herself as a writer/intellectual--one of the very small minority whose work and passion match. Our economy has room for precious few of such matches. For most people, the best they can hope for from work is security, safely, and tolerability, and they must look for meaning elsewhere. It's the nature of the jobs we've got avaibable.

So let's stop pretending our immediate decisions should be based on this ideal. We're several revolutions away from such a state. For now, millions of Americans will be doing menial jobs. Let's improve their working conditions, security, and safety. Feeling guilty about how their jobs aren't fulfilling is a luxury of middle class handwringers that the working class simply can't afford.


hugo, I pay someone to cook, clean, and fetch mny son home from school. I also (indirectly, through my employment) 'pay' someone to type my letters, shred my papers and file my stuff. I hire students from time to time to do research, men to cut down trees and put up tree houses in my garden, wash my windows and paint my house.
Every last one of them knows that I (genuinely!) don't think I'm better than they are because I do a 'brainy' job - they know I think they are fantastic, and appreciate that they can do stuff that I really can't. Could I do this all myself? Well, I suppose I could, but then I wouldn't have time to go to work, wouldn't have the house that would need cleaning, wouldn't have the letters that would need typing.... in other words, we could all go back to back-yard subsistence living. Or we can continue in this symbiotic system that we have evloved. The issue isn't whether I pay people to do stuff that I could do but don't have time to do everything. The issue is whether I think I'm better than they are, and abuse the power that I could hold over them if I wanted to. I don't - and they, in turn, don't turn their power on me (the power to do a bad job, take the money and run...). Mutual respect works because it's mutual.


DJW, you said it perfectly. These are terrific comments from everyone -- how gratifying!

I couldn't find the Ehrenreich quote -- even though I have a copy of Nickel and Dimed around here somewhere; I'm glad Ampersand brought it in to the debate, and even gladder DJW went straight for its flaws.


I'm with you on this one, 100%!

Lawrence Krubner

Women's work is unpaid, or it is work for which the government legally enforces a lower wage. If work is being paid for at the market rate, one is no longer talking about women's work in any historical sense. One is simply talking about work.

Let's try to remember how much the issue of "women's work" revolves around the expansion of monetary exchange after 1500, and the very rapid expansion of paid labor for males 1750-1930. When America started in 1776 only 22% of the population participated in the monetary economy. That number grew by 2% each decade, save for the 1930s. By 2000, 68% of adult Americans were working for cash. Obviously with a rate that high, you'll find women working for cash, and at market rates.

There is no exploitation when a worker is paid a market rate, unless you believe (as Marx did) that all work is exploitation save that wage rate that would allow the worker to buy back the whole of their product. (I've also some anarchist friends who argue that all work for cash is exploitive, in which case we're all slaves.) (I've also several friends who feel rage at market based exchange because of its anonymous nature, which they find lonely and inhuman.)


(not an argument, just a personal reflection)

Hearing so many people talk about their cleaners is a bit disorienting for me. I wasn't exactly poor growing up, but the idea of hiring someone to clean was always laughably beyond our budget. I never knew anyone who hired out their domestic work. Having a "cleaning lady" acquired this symbolic significance to me -- it's something that shouts "very rich." So when I read Hugo's first post about it, he went from feeling like "one of us" (a fellow progressive academic) to "one of them" (upper class). A similar thing happened when I first found out that my girlfriend's family has a pool -- it took me a long time to really accept that it didn't mean they were fantastically wealthy.


We weren't well-off, either, Stentor. It was just cheaper and easier for my single mom to have a live-in maid/nanny than to pay for day care.
By the way, how can it be wrong to have a housecleaner but right to have day care?


Noblesse Oblige...and how! I beg all of you who are touting the so called mutual benefits of domestic servitude, to get thee to the library (or send your personal assistant to go for you) and checkout PBS' excellent reality series "The Manor House" (which I have oft mentioned before), watch it, and see if perhaps then your views on the matter have changed. Also, I wonder if those who call their domestic servants their friends, would be called friends by their domestic servants? I apologize for the snarky and condescending tone of this post. I can't help it, the ease with which this question is justified just gives me the heebie-jeebies. Maybe it's an esteem/ego issue on my part but I just can't say, i'm too busy/important to scrub my own toilet, or pick up my own dog's poop, or drive myself to the airport, or raise my own kids.


Kelly -- the raise your own kids part is telling.

What does this mean for daycare? How does this fit with feminism? At what point does trying to do it all (rather than relying on others) become just another burden we put on women?

La Lubu

Amanda, I have day care because I am a single mother who needs to work in order to buy food and keep a roof over our heads. No day care means no possibility of employment for me. No employment means no food and no place to live. I don't have a trust fund.

Again, I guess like with anything else, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around...I agree to disagree. I can't see hiring someone to do simple daily chores. But I wasn't raised in a country where, if you aren't the poorest of the poor, you are expected to hire someone as a social responsibility. That could make a difference in one's outlook. I am not from the employing class, I'm from the employee class. I've been treated like a decent human being by ONE employer. Just one. I think of an employer/employee relationship to be one of, one person treating another like crap, or with complete indifference. So that factors into my outlook too.

And yeah, I've always thought of having a housekeeper as being something for rich people.


Hugo, thanks!

Kelly, the middle class (more or less by definition) have economic relations with the poor. Trying to make those relations less exploitative and more fair seems to me to be admirable, and not necessarily a case of noblesse oblige. I thought that term meant elites adopting a paternalistic attitude to govern/rule/care for their mental and moral inferiors. If you see that in Hugo's post, please point out where he expresses such a sentiment--I just can't see it.

Meanwhile, I wonder what kind of economic relations the middle class can have with the poor? Buy clothes or trinkets made from exploited labor seems worse than paying domestic workers a good wage to me, but you almost never see these kind of criticisms of the former.


This is the difference I've noticed with the pros & cons. The pros tend to view this as mainly in terms of economics. My time is worth X and your time is worth Y, so I can pay you to clean my toilets/cut my grass/ etc. The cons see it more in terms of human dignity and the inherent subservience in cleaning up (piss, hair, dead skin) after someone else. I'm more with the later. I really doubt many people love to clean toilets for others, though they may love the money it earns them

Some of it stems from a bit of resentment against the upper classes, I'll admit. Though a lot comes from an attitude that economics should not be the main barometer in decision-making. Sometimes the better decision doesn't make economic sense.

Like some commenters, I spent many early years as a waiter, caddy, cook and housecleaner. Unlike them, I don't remember them so fondly, nor did it inspire me to choose a career where I'd join the upper classes - quite the contrary. I had a scholarship to an elite university, so could have if I'd chosen to. Several friends did, including two whose mothers were maids. Being a servant to another certainly wasn't all bad all the time, but I did get pretty tired of being looked down upon by people who had so much more and did so much less, even if there were others that were decent to me.

I'm also a little suspect of the declarations of mutual love and respect I've read. I don't doubt the sincerity of the writers, but think they may overestimate the affection their employees have for them. After all, it is in their best interests to get along well with their employers. And for every one of you there are 5 rat bastards out there.

On the other hand, I'm very grateful my 60-something parents hired a weekly housekeeper. My mother has spent over 40 years taking care of the house and family. I'm very glad life is a little easier for her now.

By the way, I’m also from a large family. You have to be much, much, richer to have outside help if you are paying for tuitions, braces, clothes, etc for many children than if you are single or just 2-3 people.


Hugo, you do have a point. It's a good one too, that has me fairly well stumped. Is daycare not different though from a live-in nanny? Aren't daycares pretty much like schools but for little, little kids? To me, that's different from a domestic servant. If having a maid/nanny freed ME up to pursue a career, volunteer work, what ever, if that's what liberated me, what about her? Whatever feminist statement or whatever you want to call it I was trying to make by easing the burden on myself would be nulled out by the transfer of burden to another woman. But please don't put me in the siutation of having to say that women who have kids and hire female help for their care and feeding are somehow better and/or worse feminists. The larger issue at hand for me was classism.


We are defined in our society by "what we do." That question is often one of the first asked when you meet a new person at a party. The person then makes a mental adjustment in their mind after the response. A big issue here is not only wage, but respect. We set ourselves apart from others based on job description, and picking up other people's stuff is one of the lowest of the low.

Most people who do those jobs, as La Lubu pointed out, do not get treated with respect. I have been one of the people at the bottom, and I agree that most people do not treat service workers with respect.

Another issue is wage. My husband is a manual laborer. He works climbing impossibly high oak trees and the like, cutting out the dead. He loves his work, but it is dangerous, and pretty low-paying. People look at him funny on the bus at the end of the day because of the scratches on his arms, the dirt in his hair, the tears in his clothes. Just getting home becomes a psychological struggle since his status is visible.

If we treated housework and such like the hard work it is, and paid accordingly, it would no longer be low-status, and we wouldn't be having this debate. Housecleaning is backbreaking work when done for a living. Why can't we pay accordingly? Perhaps one solution would be to pay hour for hour what you make to the domestic worker. If you make $50 an hour, and you want to free up a few hours, then pay her $50 an hour. What makes one person's time more valuable than another's? Education isn't "all that", despite what some say. Labor is labor.


DJW, first let me say that I read Hugo's blog daily, and in doing so often read your comments, and admire both greatly :)

I didn't mean to imply that I found a patronizing tone in Hugo's comments exclusively, but rather in the majority of the comments regarding this topic.

As for your question as to what kind of economic relationship the middle class can have with the poor outside of employing them in the household or buying goods made by their labor - I can't answer that. I don't know. I agree with your statement that "Trying to make those relations less exploitative and more fair seems to me to be admirable" - I do too! Let's just suffice it to say that I have issues with domestic servitude, perhaps an inordinate amount, and that it's slowly beginning to dawn on me that there is a huge rift between my ideal reality and reality-reality and that I should just get over it.


Ron, I'm a "pro" (in the way Hugo does it; good wages directly to the housecleaners themselves, no middle-man) on human dignity grounds. I don't rely on the economic logic of opportunity costs (that is certainly a real and practical argument, but not a moral one). I rely on another basic economic fact--there are lots and lots of poor and struggling people in our community, and they're lives are better off when they have jobs. Opposing the very existence of those jobs because they don't conform to someone else's understanding of the minimum requirements for dignity (the people taking the jobs may or may not agree with that assessment, but I don't see people here asking them) is a luxury we can afford but others can't. Let's not participate in the tremendous error of making human dignity dependent on our work status.


I gotta agree with Michelle.

We have so many "wage-slaves" in today's culture; folks who do what they do for the money, without any sense of vocation. The idea of hiring someone who will do the stuff I don't want to do, or don't have the time to do, makes me feel uncomfortable, as it is difficult for me to imagine they want to do it either. I don't want to perpetuate the loss of a sense of vocation that seems so evident today.

OTOH, there may be those who indeed enjoy cleaning other people's bathrooms, although that is hard for me to imagine. I worked as a mechanic for quite a few years; a low status position, but I loved it. Consequently, I didn't care what folks thought when they saw the grease and dirt.

Skinner's Walden Two comes to mind. A bit utopian, perhaps, but some interesting ideas about the division of labor. I need to re-read that one.

Maybe I'm uncomfortable with this because I grew up in California, where almost all the domestic help were Mexican, and were treated like, well, hired help. There was clearly a bit of racism going on, in many cases.

Since we both work, my wife has just recently brought up the topic of hiring a housecleaner. So far, I've not commented. I guess the final proof of the strength of my convictions will be if I am willing to take on those chores instead. Hmmm...we'll see!

La Lubu

What kind of relationship can the middle class have with the poor?

Well, if someone is busting their ass for forty hours a week, they shouldn't be poor! Let's hear it for the living wage!! Why is it so radical to think that someone who works for a living, even if at one of the low jobs on the totem pole, should automatically have, by virtue of their labor: a decent home, adequate transportation, three square meals a day, a good school for their children to attend, health care, a pension for when they can't work, and the possibility of education for themselves?

Where I live, which has a far lower cost of living than where most of the readers here live (example: the mortgage on my home is $318 a month, and this is a standard Craftsman-style house, not a shack), the living wage is calculated to be $30,000 a year. That's what will make a person self-sufficient, without having to beg for some form of charity to make ends meet. I know I couldn't pay someone 30 grand to clean house. And if you can, God Bless You, keep doing it, 'cuz a wage like that is really helping someone and their family out! But you're not middle class, you're wealthy.

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