OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Jennifer Lisa Klein

Portrait of Jennifer Lisa Klein

Jennifer Lisa Klein is a professor of history at Yale University, where she teaches courses in twentieth-century U.S. labor history, political economy and capitalism, women's history, urban history, and post–World War II America. Klein is a coauthor, with Eileen Boris, of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (2012), which won the National Women's Studies Association's Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. She is also the author of For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America's Public-Private Welfare State (2003), which won the OAH Ellis Hawley Prize and the Business History Conference's Hagley Prize. Klein served as co–senior editor of the journal, International Labor and Working-Class History (ILWCH), from 2010–2015. She won the 2014 Hans Sigrist Prize, a major international prize conferred by the University of Bern and Hans Sigrist Foundation in Switzerland, for her work on the theme of "Women and Economic Precarity: Historical Perspectives." She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Brookings Institution, and the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Research Center. Her articles have appeared in academic journals and collections as well in Dissent, the New York Times, prospect.org, washingtonpost.com, thenation.com, New Labor Forum, and Labor Notes.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

A historical discussion of women’s precarious labor in the U.S., spotlighting gendered processes of incorporation into urban wage work, from the mid-19th century to the era of Uber and TaskRabbit. Tracing how urban labor markets become gendered and racialized at different historical moments, I follow the role of the state; rehabilitative tropes of work; gendered cultural scripts; and the transformations of the employment relationship as these phenomenon structure precarity over time. Precarity involves not only a struggle over sufficient income, reliable income, but also time: the undulation between over work and not enough work. With the increasing instability of work time, what are the social and political consequences? What does it mean for political culture—democratic practice—when there is a lack of clear boundaries over work? Unending hours and not enough hours undermine our ability to have a feminist restructuring of family life and undermine democratic culture. How then will histories of gendered work help us think anew about democratic possibilities?
Home aides and attendants perform intimate tasks of daily life—such as, bathing, brushing teeth, dressing, cooking, and cleaning--that enable aged, disabled, or chronically ill people to live decent lives at home. These essential workers are America’s front-line caregivers, but they earn average hourly wages lower than that of all other jobs in health care and historically have labored without security of employment, social benefits, or even workers’ compensation. They labor in private spaces meeting individual and family needs. But how they do so is a story of political economy, one that reflects the major shifts in the welfare state and economy that define contemporary America. Home care aides make up a vast workforce of over 2 million workers—much larger than those of the iconic industries of auto and steel-- that links our most challenging social issues: an aging society; the enormous medical sector and its ability to prolong life; the neo-liberal restructuring of public services; immigration; disability rights; the prospects of health care for all, and the potential (or precariousness) of a new American labor movement. Home care is currently the fastest growing occupation in the nation, adding hundreds of thousands of positions at a steady clip. These low-waged workers stand at the center of a new care work economy, defined by a continuum of jobs. Just about the only growth in the U.S. labor movement has been in health care, public employment, food service and hotels, education, and domestic labors. These workers transformed organizing strategy, union demands, and the very nature of collective bargaining. Home care became a pivotal sector in which unions experimented with new tactics. Since home care stood outside New Deal labor laws, unionization had to take shape apart from that frame work. They also had to take account of the complex interpersonal relations essential to carework. They had to enter into alliances with the receivers of care (who have labeled themselves “consumers”.) Even though they labored in private homes, had no standing as employees, they turned the public welfare state itself into a terrain of social struggle. By 2010, over 400,000 home care workers had joined unions, although over the last year their union and bargaining rights have been jeopardized by the conservative governors that took over state houses in 2010 Republican sweep. This talk rethinks the history of the American welfare state from the perspective of care work. It also looks at how government created this as a particular low-wage job for poor women and women of color, from the New Deal to War on Poverty to "Welfare Reform" of the 1980s and 1990s. It also looks at the unique strategies these workers developed to organize: through welfare rights movement, domestic workers movements, and ultimately labor unionizing.
This talk discusses the history of care work, as the health care sector became one of the major sectors of post-war America. This talk considers the intersection between health care politics and policy, low wage labor, women's politics and community organizing from the 1940s-present.
This talk looks at the questions of citizenship rights and social policy around domestic labor, from the New Deal to the present. It compares theories of hierarchy and domestic status law with those from disability studies (in particular, Martha Nussbaum's ideas about capabilities) to rethink notions of solidarity and rights for new forms of service labor.
Originally delivered as a lecture for Martin Luther King. Jr. Day to a coalition of various unions, community action groups, ministers, and public servants, this lecture looks historically at various moments when labor and civil rights groups organized around economic democracy and building new solidarities. It also draws on ideas of "capabilities" (from disability studies) and models for human flourishing to probe deeper into the potential of social movements.