Eileen Boris argues that the traditional division of work and family life is being challenged as women turn their homes into their offices and work locations. The traditional role of women has been in the reproductive realm. In modern times, with a growing economic necessity for women to work outside of home, a home-based business may seem appealing to many. Working at home may seem appealing to two-income homes, single mothers, or those who have elderly parents living with them. However, industry may not be set up to make that shift quite yet. In her book, “Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States,” Boris traces the beginning of women working at home from the 1880s through present times. This essay uses Boris’s book to support the thesis that while the system offered many women a chance for becoming a wage earner, it was also exploitative and resulted in greater oppression for the women. It will examine how this concept still applies today.
Boris organizes her book into four distinct sections. Part one explores how judicial freedom of contract doctrine was used to block efforts to legislate restrictions on the ability of women to work from home. Part Two traces early attempts at government intervention in industrial relations that would eventually come into existence in the New Deal. Part Two also examines the ideal of working from home from the point of view of the women themselves. Part Three explores how the New Deal resulted in the outright ban of homework based on the experiences of the past. Part Four explores the decline of homework after World War II as a result of a declining attractiveness due to the efforts or earlier bans under the New Deal.
Boris uses case studies and narratives to support her arguments. These case studies allow the reader to understand the perspectives and historical events that led to the state of homework today. Initial attempts at homework began in 1885 when the New York Supreme Court allowed the man to be free to perform their work and to be able to supervise their family, especially if they are working with him. Boris uses this example to illustrate how the focus of homeworking was not on women, or about women. It was about productivity and the rights of the male gender. Boris sees this as a key factor in the future of homework legislation because it forced the examination of terms such as “home,” “work,” “private,” and “public” (Boris, p. 44).
Beginning in the 1880s, the idea of women performing labor while in the home was controversial, as it was felt that this concept contradicted the women’s traditional place as in the home. Women’s identity has been linked to the production of offspring since colonial times. Women were first brought to the colonies out of a need to increase the workforce. Boris explores how the masculine identity became linked to their ability to support women in the domestic realm. This argument explains why men have taken a protective stance on women’s ability to earn their own income. Other authors have touched on this topic, but Boris was the first to offer a viable explanation. She explains the underlying motivation behind the protective stance that men take over their ability to be the providers of the family using legislation and court records as support.
Women were seen as unskilled workers who were not as productive as male workers. This made them less valuable to factory owners. Boris points out the contradictory messages being sent out during the New Deal. Messages of patriotism and productivity encouraged women to do whatever was necessary to increase the productivity of the nation. Yet, it was still being argued that factories were more productive when women were not a part of the workforce. Boris brings a new perspective to the topic by pointing out these double standards and discrepancies in the messages that were being sent.
The attitudes that developed about homework by women were based on assumptions from the 1880s about the family economy, children’s needs and traditional gender roles in the labor system (Boris, p. 3). Boris points out how long these assumptions have been in place and how difficult they are break. The first arrangements were exploitative and took advantage of the women in the system. By the end of World War I, standards had been developed that helped to protect them in their work. Two opposing views developed. The first was that allowing women to carry out enterprises in their homes would increase productivity. Opponents of women working at home argued that this was an inefficient system and that working in a factory was more efficient. Many of these same arguments continue to be used by companies who are opposed to alternative working arrangements for women with families.
The Internet makes it possible for many women to perform their work at home while caring for children, as opposed to in a formal office setting. Modern managers continue to make the same arguments against it that Boris traces back to the beginnings of the industrial era. One can still here the echoes of these opinions today. Boris reveals how working from home still reveals gendered assumptions and how they change the relationship between the family, state, and economy.
Boris uses secondary sources to support the emergence of patterns among various groups of women, such as immigrants. One of the key strengths of Boris’s treatment of the topic is that she tries to integrate a broader perspective on the topic with a closer look at the lives of the individual women themselves. She tries to integrate personal narratives with a discussion on the overarching themes. In class, it was found the women were first imported to be sex slaves, child bearers, and companion. Boris’ work argues that women still struggle with breaking this initial mold.
- Boris, Eileen. Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial
Homework in the United States. Cambridge University Press. 1994.