Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive was published in 2019 by Hachette.
Mobilizing Data and Emotion for a Chance to Thrive
One Insider's Story of Domestic Work and Welfare—and Other Stories Still to Be Heard
Maid Is a Call for Reproductive Justice
The Racial Subtext of White Maid Work
Families Trapped by Precarious Work
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Mobilizing Data and Emotion for a Chance to Thrive
Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive should be required reading for every legislator at the local, state, and federal levels. Her book shows the indignities wrought upon single mothers as a result of how capitalism and patriarchy intersect, and her story reveals just how hard people in poverty are working.
But Land accomplishes this without an overtly feminist or political agenda. A 28-year-old white woman with a child, she gives an honest account of an economy that is failing many workers regardless of their race or immigration status and of government programs that just aren’t enough to meaningfully help people in poverty care for their children.
Land describes the trauma of being a single mother in poverty. She works a litany of jobs that pay between $8.55 and $10 per hour. She does landscaping work and tends farm animals, but mostly she does domestic work—cleaning homes for strangers. She works constantly as a house cleaner, sometimes losing gigs when people cancel at the last minute. A canceled house cleaning appointment means losing more than $30, which then means choosing between paying bills and feeding her daughter. Without paid sick days or adequate health care, Land often works while she is sick.
Government programs help her get by but are so restrictive as to be nonsensical. She describes the limitations on her ability to purchase food through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program: she can’t buy organic milk or potatoes following changes to the WIC regulations. She describes the shame she feels as a fellow customer in a grocery store yells “you’re welcome!” at her after she pays using food stamps—while holding her daughter on her arm.
Land’s storytelling is so detailed and so effective—both emotionally moving and filled with data—that it should be leveraged in order to change and strengthen policies that can help all poor working families. Specifically, state-sponsored paid family leave, paid sick time, and higher federal minimum wage could help keep families like Land’s from living on the brink of poverty.
My 2014 book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, and the Battle for Domestic Workers Rights, chronicles recent efforts to change the systemic devaluation of domestic work. Domestic work has historically been excluded from labor protections, including minimum-wage and overtime laws, but in the last several years, domestic workers and their allies in the United States and globally have been able to secure policy protections for domestic workers in labor laws.
To achieve these wins, domestic workers have been telling their own stories to legislators. This has been a critical component of achieving these policy wins. There is thus a trend toward local, state, and federal policy changes to protect low-wage workers that Land’s story can help further.
Feminist activism that isn’t branded as feminist activism may be what is needed in this moment. In a deeply fraught and divided political climate, Stephanie Land’s story could help contribute to policy changes that ensure that all people in poverty have a chance to thrive.
One Insider's Story of Domestic Work and Welfare—and Other Stories Still to Be Heard
The jacket of Stephanie Land’s book praises it as an “inspiring testament to the … triumph of the human spirit.” Yet I was heartened to see Land say that she had winced at the word “inspirational” when someone used it after reading her blog. The beauty of Land’s book is that she tells her story not just as sentimental memoir but with an unmistakable political commitment to advance the public discourse around (some) poor women and single mothers and their struggles with poverty, low-wage work, and the welfare state. She describes both the material challenges they face and the ideological assaults they confront daily. On her website, Land writes, “Even though MAID is just my story, I hope that readers will start seeing the millions of single parents, domestic workers, and those who are working so hard to make ends meet in spite of people calling them lazy or even thieves. I hope that changing those stigmas is part of my story.”
I confess that I was reluctant to pick up Land’s book, particularly upon seeing Barbara Ehrenreich’s foreword. Ehrenreich has been sharply criticized for “playing” hotel room cleaner and other low-wage workers for her research for Nickel and Dimed. When I have assigned that book in courses on feminist research ethics and methods, my students and I have teased out questions about this “imposter” research mode in contrast to the values of “insider” research. We have asked why Ehrenreich did not base her book on interviews of poor women and women of color who worked in each of the occupations that she only temporarily occupied before returning to her regular life to write and capitalize on these stories. Land’s book is a partial answer to this call, as it is her story, in her words.
Maid does not represent the experience of immigrant women of color who dominate the domestic work industry in the United States or their experiences of facing the full force of racism and antipoor, anti-immigrant hate in the current landscape. But Land doesn’t claim to represent these experiences, either. Instead, she draws from her own life experiences—whether dealing with case workers in welfare offices or reflecting back on distributing food to houseless people in Alaska as a teenager—to share her insights and critiques of both the welfare state and church-based charity as she witnesses them from the vantage points of both poverty and privilege.
In one chapter, she reports that both “friends” and strangers tried to humiliate her, viewing themselves as subsidizing her food stamps via their hard-earned tax dollars. In the same chapter, she comments on the injustice and ignorance of her clients’ perceptions that undocumented immigrants abuse government benefits, when in fact they pay taxes that they see no return on for themselves or their citizen children. She reports witnessing these same immigrant families in government offices, suffering from a “language barrier” with caseworkers. She discusses in detail much of what she learned while trying to apply for public housing and childcare benefits—leaving us to wonder what kinds of intel non-English speakers receive while trying to navigate access to government benefits.
“These attitudes that immigrants came here to steal our resources were spreading,” Land writes, “and the stigmas resembled those facing anyone who relied on government assistance to survive.” Reading this, I had mixed feelings: On the one hand, I do not believe that poor white women seeking public benefits always face the same kinds or degree of stigmatization and public scorn that poor women of color and immigrants do. On the other hand, I applaud any insights that would facilitate empathy and alliance among poor working people in the current climate, and Land definitely provides this.
Similarly, Land alternates between accounts of being judged and stigmatized by others—as a poor, single mother, ever-suspect as a “welfare abuser”—and her own scrutiny of her clients, whom she deems to be morally, spiritually, or otherwise impoverished. Land observes that she becomes an invisible witness to her clients’ lives. Several women-of-color scholars have written about how white women employers insist on the complete subordination of their domestic servants’ lives to theirs, rendering these workers simultaneously invisible and painfully familiar with their employers’ intimate lives. Land’s book reminds us that these stories are largely still to be written by poor immigrant women-of-color domestic workers themselves, in their own words.
Grace Chang is completing her book Trafficking by Any Other Name: Transnational Feminist, Immigrant and Sex Worker Rights Responses (forthcoming from the New Press). She is coeditor, with Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Linda Rennie Forcey, of Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency, and she coedited, with Nilda Flores-González, Anna Romina Guevarra, and Maura Toro-Morn, Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age. She served on the National Domestic Workers Alliance research advisory board on a national survey of domestic workers. Currently she teaches at UC Santa Barbara. She is the founding director of WORD (Women Of color Revolutionary Dialogues), for women, queer, and trans people of color forging community and resistance through poetry, spoken word, political theater, dance, film, and music.
Maid Is a Call for Reproductive Justice
Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive has a lot to say about toilets. By recounting how an unexpected pregnancy caused her to lose her tenuous foothold on an economically stable life, Land takes up gender and precarity by focusing on who scrubs whose toilets. In so doing, she exposes how close to crisis many women are all the time and the chronic stress they suffer as they try to rear children in conditions of insecurity.
Maid expands on Land’s popular essay in Vox in 2015 and covers the circumstances that led an independent twentysomething working a restaurant job in Port Townsend and planning to study writing to become a single mother navigating the bureaucracy of public assistance programs and cleaning houses. Feminists have long been concerned with women’s invisible labor, studying the “second shift,” proposing a wage for housework, exposing the wage gap, and critiquing the exploitation of women of color by the white families they nanny, clean, and cook for. Signs readers will think of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed in this context, and Maid bears Ehrenreich’s imprimatur. In contrast to that landmark book, however, Land is not a maid by choice, nor does she hold herself apart from the economically insecure women who do this work. And, unlike the best-selling authors of The Glass Castle and, more recently, Hillbilly Elegy, she does not invite readers to view the white working poor with a mixture of pity and disdain, an othering perspective much promoted by progressives in the Trump era. As much as Maid may initially strike readers as a book that follows in this tradition, Land uses life narrative to cast a steady gaze—empathetic, self-aware, feminist—on the invisibility of white working-poor mothers and the stigma they face as they struggle to secure a stable life for their children.
Maid resonates as a call for reproductive justice. Land is a mother unable to raise her child in conditions of predictability and is made to feel that she is at fault. Reflexively anticipating harsh judgment, including from her readers, Land makes sure to say she was on birth control when she got pregnant. On the shaming of poor mothers, Land is especially acute. Like so many women trying to access government assistance, strangers humiliate her when she uses food stamps, and she is demoralized by the chronic difficulty of finding stable child care, by the endless frustration of sharing custody with her daughter’s manipulative and abusive father, and, by remaining poor despite working hard. Land notes that she has white privilege and is educated—none of which protects her from abusive boyfriends or poverty. The unique vulnerability of women—as mothers, as workers, as members of families and communities mired in patriarchy—is front and center. Written by a white woman in the Pacific Northwest, Maid acknowledges the routine quality of intimate male violence in which abusive and unreliable fathers and boyfriends force economically dependent women into all-too-familiar compromises.
The “interlocking” oppressions identified by the Combahee River Collective that connect race, gender, sexualities, and class for Black women form the basis of the critical methodology and political framework of intersectionality. Yet because white women are unreliable partners in feminist and antiracist politics, I wonder about connecting reproductive justice, which originates with Black feminist thought and activism, to Land’s discussion of the forces that underlie single working mothers’ poverty, especially when the compromises white women make, including marrying abusive men and voting for Trump, contribute to the inequalities in which Land is entrapped. Land’s analysis is not intersectional per se, but it is intersectional-adjacent in a way the underscores the need for reproductive justice rather than access to a patchwork of services.
WordPress proclaimed that Land “worked her way out of poverty and into a book deal.” Praise for a hero who “works her way out of poverty” is language straight out of the Anglo-American canon of autobiography and celebrates the rags-to-riches rise of exemplary individuals. This myth obscures the realities of structural inequality and sentimentalizes them as challenges that lie along an individual’s path, ripe for overcoming. But let’s be clear: one woman “working her way out of poverty” leaves everything about poverty in tact. Working incredibly hard in and of itself is a meaningless metric when the forces that create poverty are entrenched and systemic. In contrast to such triumphalism, which always comes at the cost of obscuring collective struggle, Land addresses all working single mothers relying on government assistance. The vulnerability of women is her theme: not the specialness of her voice or the admirability of her hard work but the shared exposure to male violence, government bureaucracy, and the grueling work of scrubbing other people’s toilets. Maid is a different narrative in the neoliberal market of uplifting life stories by resilient narrators who offer positive takes on hardship. Land contends that the bootstraps are not only broken, they were never attached.
Leigh Gilmore is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College and the author, most recently, of Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say about Their Lives. Her scholarship focuses on life writing, feminist theory, and cultural practices of judgment. With Elizabeth Marshall, she is the author of the forthcoming Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing. She is currently writing a book on the #MeToo movement.
The Racial Subtext of White Maid Work
Evelyn Nakano Glenn
Stephanie Land’s gripping memoir begins by sketching her peripatetic childhood in Washington State, Alaska, and then Washington again. It ends with a relatively brief account of the dramatic change in her circumstances when she attains her long-delayed dream of moving to Missoula to study English and writing at the University of Montana. The majority of the book focuses on the several years that Land spent as a single mother working as a housecleaner to support herself and her daughter on meager earnings. She describes the additional work involved in navigating the welfare and Medicare systems to obtain benefits that are supposed to assist low-income workers: food stamps, childcare assistance, and health care. She endured frequent uprooting as she and her daughter were shifted from shelters to transitional housing to a rent-subsidized apartment, where mold in the heating system sickened her child. Land is also an astute and sympathetic observer of the lives of her clients, as gleaned not only from face-to-face interactions, but also from the furnishings, prized belongings, and detritus in their homes.
Of the many book-length accounts of contemporary domestic service, this is the only one I know that is by and about a maid who is a white, native-born American. Historically, the ranks of domestic workers have been disproportionately filled by African American, Latina, Caribbean, Filipina, and immigrant and rural migrant women. These women did not choose to become maids because they enjoyed the work or thought they were suited for it. Rather, they “chose” domestic work because it was one of the only paths open to them. I can’t help but think that Land’s account is compelling to middle-class white readers precisely because they see her as like them rather than as the other. These readers can readily identify with her fierce love for her daughter, her aspiration to become a writer, and her disappointments and personal foibles. They are also likely to believe her when she says she worked very hard and took pride in cleaning thoroughly despite the fact that she received inadequate pay and no benefits.
Thus, I believe what makes Land’s account particularly compelling is its racial subtext: from the point of view of a white reader, there may be a certain shock value in the story of an intelligent young white woman desperate enough to take on paid housework. There may also be a vicarious sense of satisfaction on learning that this maid succeeds in the end by getting her college degree and going on to become a successful writer, as evidenced by this highly regarded memoir.
I say “racial subtext” because race is not explicitly addressed in this memoir. It is instructive to notice an important difference between Land’s account and those by and about Latina, Filipina, and Caribbean domestic workers. In these latter writings, gender and race are understood as inextricably intertwined and central to one’s life trajectory. These workers are described in racial as well as gender terms, for example as “Latina housecleaners” or “Black domestic help.” In Land’s account, race does not surface because whiteness is invisible. Land is simply a “maid” and a “mother.”
Despite the lack of explicit attention to race in this memoir, it likely has important real-life consequences. Let me fortify this point with a brief account of the life course of another writer who was forced by economic circumstances to turn to maid work: Zora Neale Hurston. Born in 1891, Hurston started working as a nanny and housekeeper as a child following the death of her mother in 1904. She eventually attended college and earned a bachelor’s degree. She continued her education, enrolling in graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University. She wrote several now–highly regarded novels and collections of folklore. Yet, despite her accomplishments, Hurston could not support herself through her writing. In the late 1940s, she returned to Florida and worked as a maid. Although she made efforts to restart her writing career, she died in poverty in 1960.
Being forced to return to maid work after moving up for a while was not uncommon for African American women in the mid-twentieth century. This speaks to the difficulty that middle-class blacks had and continue to have in maintaining their status over their lifetimes and intergenerationally. In contrast, readers of Land’s memoir can assume that regardless of whether or not her writing career continues to flourish, she will likely have other alternative middle-class career paths. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that she will ever have to return to housecleaning to support herself. I fervently hope, however, that Stephanie Land continues to write and share her much-needed perspective on contemporary issues facing working people.
Evelyn Nakano Glenn is Professor of the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also founded and directed the Center for Race and Gender. Her scholarship and teaching have focused on the workings of complex inequalities, particularly as they have shaped the lives of women of color in the US. She is the author of Forced to Care: Coercion and Caregiving in America, Unequal Freedom, How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor, and Issei, Nisei, War Bride: Three Generations of Japanese American Women in Domestic Service. She is a past president of the American Sociological Association.
Families Trapped by Precarious Work
Emily J. Martin
In Maid, Stephanie Land describes what it means to raise a young child as a single parent with the inadequate support provided by a backbreaking, low-paying job that never adds up to full-time work. Her story is one that is seldom told with such riveting particularity, but it is far from unique. One in five working moms with children under age three works in a job that typically pays less than $10.50 per hour, and half of these working moms are raising their young children on their own. They work as maids, like Land, or as cashiers, as personal care aides, as restaurant servers. And these low-wage, low-quality jobs, disproportionately performed by women, are in many ways the future of work. Indeed, three of the five types of jobs that are projected to grow the most over the next decade are just such primarily female, low-wage jobs: personal care aides, home health aides, and combined food preparation and serving workers (e.g., fast food workers).
Reading Maid, I was struck by how vividly it shows a dynamic that we at the National Women’s Law Center often try to describe in our policy advocacy: the impact of conditions of this sort of precarious, low-wage work not only on parents but on the children those parents care for. Maid offers up a careful accounting of that impact—the black mold and ear infections, the struggling to make the hours of work match the hours of childcare, the potentially existential threat posed by a car breakdown. For instance, in addition to inadequate pay, low-wage jobs like the ones Land describes often entail unstable, unpredictable schedules over which workers have little control: indeed, about half of low-wage workers report having little or no control over the timing of their work hours. While fluctuating and unpredictable work schedules pose challenges for anyone who is seeking to organize her life, they impose particular chaos on those responsible for children or others in need of care. When you don’t know whether you will work ten or forty hours in a given week, or when those hours will be, it can be nearly impossible to secure reliable, high-quality childcare, establish consistent routines at home, or even budget for expenses—and the stress imposed by those schedules affects not just parents but also children, leading to anxiety, behavior problems, and even diminished school readiness.
Thus, Land’s relief is profound when she lands a $8.55-per-hour job with a predictable schedule and can abandon a cleaning job that paid $10 an hour under the table at the price of fluctuating and unpredictable hours: “If I wanted, I could plan ahead and know that three months from now on the second Wednesday of the month I’d be changing sheets at one house before driving three miles to the next. It hadn’t struck me how much I’d need this sort of stability…. I had to hide the tears welling in my eyes.” The stable schedule was a godsend even though it was literally impossible for Land to achieve full-time work in that job, as company policy prevented it, and even though the fact that her schedule shifted (predictably!) from week to week also made it impossible to hold any regular second job to supplement the part-time poverty wages. And, of course, the job provided no paid sick days or other paid time off or benefits, so every childhood illness or other bump in the road posed a significant financial threat to Land and her daughter. In the inability to access full-time work and in the absence of benefits, Land’s situation is again typical of so many trapped in low-wage work and the threats it poses to the well-being of both parents and children.
However, there is one important way in which Land’s situation is uncommonly lucky. Her child receives a childcare subsidy, when, nationwide, five out of six eligible children do not: “Had I not received a government grant for childcare, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it at all.” This subsidy provides the lifeline that allows her and her daughter to keep their heads above water.
Because there are millions of mothers like Land across the country, the National Women’s Law Center advocates for policy frameworks that push back against the trend of shifting risk from employers to the low-wage workers who can least afford it. That means fighting for livable wages, predictable schedules, paid sick days, and expanded access to affordable childcare. The alternative is a future of work characterized by low-wage, low-quality jobs that provide no path to stability for those who do the work or for the children who depend on them.
Emily J. Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, oversees advocacy, policy, and education efforts to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunity for women and girls at work and at school and to forward policy frameworks that allow then to achieve and succeed, with a particular focus on the obstacles that confront women and girls of color and women in low-wage jobs.
In the beginning, my only agenda in writing Maid was to change stigmas that surround single mothers. My motive, as Leigh Gilmore noted and found successful, was to offer the chance for people to walk around in my shoes for a little while, either as me, or my daughter, or one of my clients. I thought, I hoped, if they could see themselves in the slightest way in my story, it might spark some empathy, and evoke compassion.
My book is mainly about my experience as a single mother living in poverty, struggling to make ends meet. It was an isolating, mostly invisible existence, and at times I had no idea if or how I would make it out. It is my very personal story of survival. And a privileged one at that. I have often wondered, as did Evelyn Nakano Glenn in her response, if people are grasping onto my story because I look like them. I could be their sister, or neighbor. Because I’m plain-faced, and white. Because I am described as “articulate,” “educated,” “inspirational,” and “resilient.”
We don’t like to hear from people who aren’t those things. We especially don’t like to hear from people who live in systemic poverty. Who face systemic racism. Their stories of struggle. Struggle is wrapped in shame. We distance ourselves from stories of hardship. As a defense mechanism, we distance ourselves from people who live in poverty. Poverty is a scary, vulnerable place to imagine. Think of losing your home, your belongings, and moving your family into your car. Then think of that car breaking down.
What people try to do to protect themselves is place blame on poor people. I have heard these narratives constantly, being a tattooed, single mother who writes about being on food stamps and publishes those things on the internet. People tell me I should have gone to college sooner. I should have gotten an abortion. I should have gotten married before having kids. What the people who do this are really saying is “I didn’t make the bad choices you made. I made good choices. So I’ll never be like you.” But what really happens in this thinking, is it becomes that since I brought it on myself, they shouldn’t have to help me.
Some people even believe that my fall into poverty began with an unexpected pregnancy, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. My oldest daughter didn’t learn to walk in a homeless shelter because I’d chosen to bring her into the world. She took those first steps on that dirty, tiled floor because I’d just escaped an abusive relationship with a couple hundred dollars.
Since my book was published in January, I’ve heard from countless others around the country who have lived, or are living, a similar existence of poverty and homelessness. Like Sheila Bapat, Grace Chang, and Emily Martin said in their responses, my story is not unique. Millions of Americans are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families despite working day and night. It is an all-too-common narrative, with so many untold stories waiting to be heard.
Stephanie Land's work has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She lives in Missoula, Montana.