In extensive document and theory-based detail, Boydston traces how the economic significance of women’s housework evolved in both private and public ways over the course of the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth in the northeastern United States. Integrating both Marxist and feminist approaches in her analysis of the subject, Boydston fundamentally argues that women’s housework became increasingly devalued as an economic, societal contribution into the nineteenth century. Thus, Boydston argues that “the image of the colonial goodwife, valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of wife and mother as a ‘dependent’ and ‘nonproducer’” (xi). This speaks not only to husband-wife relationships within the home, but also American economics at large and changing societal conceptions of women’s value in general.
Boydston debunks the idea that industrialization is what devalued women’s labor; rather, she argues that this decline began well before then and was practically solidified by the end of the eighteenth century and the American Revolution. She also makes the crucial point that the term economy used to pertain specifically to issues of the household, including the work that kept it running smoothly. Because of this definition, women were valued as workers and laborers in their own right. Women’s contributions to their own homes were increasingly devalued, and sons began challenging their widowed mothers’ rights to their own contributions to the family’s home and wealth. Boydston notes that what had taken place over the course of the eighteenth century was not a change in the type of work women were doing, but the attitudes concerning that work that reflected a very negative view of housewifery in general. Also essential to this transformation was the increased dependency on a cash market and wage labor; women were significant contributors to the barter system because they were producers of finished goods including both food and textiles.
The American Revolution, Boydston argued, helped bring women’s work back to a position of value in their communities as many women contributed to the home-based production of essential goods in the midst of boycotts against the British. She states that money was again devalued which helped this shift take place. However, these sentiments did not last into the nineteenth century. Women’s home manufacture enabled their families to depend less on cash markets, yet even women grew to view their work as insignificant and themselves as dependent on their husbands’ support. These ideas were maintained through the war of 1812. The labor of women, Boydston points out, became increasingly defined as unpaid labor, while men’s work was defined as waged. Industrialization transformed the lives of the producing classes, Boydston notes; mass manufacture helped create a poor urban class dependent on the cycles of these industries, took jobs away from artisans and skilled workers, and a middle class began to develop within the developing consumerist culture. Thus, Boydston argues, the meaning of freedom transformed in the antebellum period, shifting from connotations of economic dependency to delineating wealth.
Boydston argues that housework was a crucial function for the poorest as well as elite families, though the work done by these wives was certainly different. While wealthier families could afford to pay domestic servants for their help (for duties such as cooking or laundry), these women simply shifted their attentions to other essential household duties, such as training servants. Even middle class women continued to participate in the efforts of home manufacture and yet still did the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing and essential behind the scenes work on farms. Many women themselves, Boydston claims, considered their household duties “drudgery,” and increased dependency on the cash market required new sets of skills in budgeting and market intuition. Many of these changes were influenced by the industrial threat to men’s masculinity and heads of households as breadwinners. Fundamentally, Boydston maintains that despite it being devalued in the eyes of many, both men and women, women’s household work was an essential contribution to emerging capitalist economy in the United States.