By 1970, appliances, ready-made food, and other technologies had reduced both the amount and the rigor of household work and rendered domestic help a luxury. By the 1980s, household help was played for laughs on sitcoms such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Mr. Belvedere.” It was a running joke on “The Gilmore Girls” that Lorelei Gilmore’s wealthy mother Emily couldn’t keep a maid. By then, only women of Emily’s class were expected to have one.
By contrast, in 1934, when the Douglas Sirk domestic melodrama Imitation of Life was nominated for two Academy Awards, maids were a mundane aspect of the middle class experience. And the reason for the shift is not merely that Sears started selling affordable dishwashers and laundry machines.
Domestic workers started agitating for better treatment and fairer pay in 1881, and they were denied by both local and federal entities longer than any other kind of laborer. Gradually, though, thanks to the decades-long unionization efforts of women like Dorothy Bolden, they won key rights and protections. That is an unalloyed good. It may make running a household more difficult and cause today’s working men and women to wonder if they can “have it all,” but it also means that domestic workers at last have the opportunity to try to “have it all” as well.