Producing Intimate Labors: Domesticity, Inequality, and Racial Capitalism

Endorsed by the OAH–Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee, the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), and the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Labor and Working-Class; Women's History


Historians of women, genders, and sexualities have often argued that women’s intimate labor forms an important cornerstone the development of racial capitalism in the United States (and elsewhere). The concept of intimate labor has been critical to exploring the gendered dimensions of global capitalism and domestic production. Historian Eileen Boris and sociologist Rhacel Salazar Parreñas define intimate labor “as the work of forging, sustaining, nurturing, maintaining, and managing interpersonal ties, as well as the work of tending to the sexual, bodily, health, hygiene, and care needs of individuals.” Boris and Parreñas note much of this type of “work” historically had been performed “as behind-the-scenes labor of women and the poor” and that it “became defined as unproductive of exchange value.” In other words, it fell under the concept of “reproductive labor.” Yet, over the course of the last two centuries, this same work has been increasingly commodified, though these forms of commercial intimacy are often still performed by women, people of color, and/or migrants.

This panel seeks to demonstrate the ways that the analytic of intimate labor can illuminate disparate forms of commercial intimacy by examining how the markets of affect, care, reproduction, and sex intersect with the politics of migration and (un)freedom. Though this panel is grounded in case studies drawn from US history, the work presented here seeks to highlight the global connections that have structured the development of the market of intimate labor and commercial intimacy.

Drawing from notarial and court records from antebellum Louisiana, Dr. Noel Voltz investigates the affective labor performed by free women of color at New Orleans’ infamous Quadroon Balls to explore the accumulation of social, racial, and economic capital by women who leveraged their intimate labor. Shifting from the affective to the domestic, Professor Eileen Boris examines how migrant domestic workers coming to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s occupied a twilight zone between freedom and unfreedom. Her work challenges the periodization of free labor and of labor trafficking. In “Supplying Care,” PhD candidate Justine Modica shows how the au pair program developed by the State Department in 1985 developed a transnational market of child care providers from abroad by constructing a “multi-tiered and racialized system of transnational migration.” Dr. Ji-Yeon Yuh turns our attention from child care to marital migrants who offered a set of wifely labors. US immigration policy singled out Asian women as potential prostitutes in 1875, and since then, Asian women have frequently entered the US as brides. By connecting the picture bride to the war bride to the military bride, Dr. Yuh illuminates the centrality of intimate labor to Asian women’s exclusion, marriage, and migration.

Papers Presented

What’s Love Got to Do with It? Free Women of Color, Intimacy, and Labor in Antebellum Louisiana

In 1805 a New Orleans newspaper advertisement formally defined a new social institution, the Quadroon Ball, in which prostitution and placer—a system of concubinage—converged. These balls, limited to white men and light-skinned free “quadroon” women, became an interracial rendezvous that provided evening entertainment and the possibility of forming sexual liaisons in exchange for financial sponsorship. The infamous Quadroon Ball became just one of many spaces in which Louisiana’s free women of color forged both intimate and economic ties with white men in the antebellum era. This paper examines the ways some free women of color engaged in intimate labor. In the face of precarious freedom and limited opportunities, free women of color pursued economic security. To do so, some engaged in sex across the color line as they attempt to access capital and limited power. This paper will explore the intimate choices made by these women. Drawing on business and notarial records as well as court cases, this paper will use individual stories of free women of color to illuminate larger patterns and themes in the intimate labors of this population. I argue that despite the significant financial limitations placed on free women of color, they drew on their business acumen to benefit monetarily from their sexual relationships. They leveraged the various forms of capital (financial, social, and racial) they gained through their intimate relationships and labors with white men, and some women even amassed significant wealth.

Presented By
Noel Mellick Voltz, University of Utah

Protecting Migrant Domestic Workers, Regulating Intimate Labor: From the Local to the Global

Charging “heavy profits from this ‘traffic in human misery,’” the New York Urban League in the late 1950s and early 1960s marshaled the city’s social welfare community to lobby for city, state, and national regulation of fee-charging employment agencies. These intermediaries had stranded thousands of African American, Puerto Rican, and transnational migrants from the Americas who came North to labor as domestic workers. Upon arrival, women and girls found that agents (and advertisers) had misrepresented the jobs, held their baggage hostage, and deducted from paychecks hidden charges, leaving them with a pittance. Confined to workplaces that served as their living quarters, indebted to intermediaries who facilitation their travel and job placement, these midcentury migrant domestic workers were not the first to hover between freedom and unfreedom. Commodified reproductive labor long has existed in such a twilight zone: servants, maids, and household workers have found themselves liable to labor contracts, neither free or unfree, isolated from other workers or larger communities. This paper traces legal constructions as well as worker conditions during the mid-20th century. To consider the struggle against for-profit agencies as conduits for exploitation and trafficking, I move between scales of regulation between the local (New York City), the state (New York State) and federal (Labor Department restrictions on visa for live-in “foreign maids”) to chart protection of migrating workers. This research challenges the timeline about free labor under capitalism.

Presented By
Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara

Supplying Care: Public/Private Collaborations in the Creation of the Au Pair Program

This paper will examine the history of the au pair program in the United States. The program was initially established by the U.S. Information Agency in 1985, at the request of a private company, the American Institute for Foreign Study, and later came under the supervision of the State Department. This paper will explore the history of the expanding au pair industry, and how the state cooperated with au pair agencies to create a system of inexpensive migrant labor to address America’s child care crisis. I will examine labor cases such as like Beltran v. InterExchange, and other ways that au pairs have resisted various forms of exploitation. I will also look at how au pairs and the au pair program interact with and affect other forms of child care labor, including domestic nannies and migrant domestic workers. I seek to place the au pair program in the context of a broader system of transnational migration to provide child care labor. While au pairs receive low wages, limited benefits and limited regulation, their position is often a relatively privileged one in the context of other domestic worker programs, such as the A3, B1, and G5 visas. I argue that over the past half century, the state has worked with private industry to find solutions to America’s need for affordable child care in various forms of migrant labor; the result has been a multitiered and racialized system of transnational migration that has become embedded within state bureaucracy and the law.

Presented By
Justine Victoria Modica, Stanford University

From Picture Brides to Military Brides: Exclusion and the Intimate Labors of Asian Women

A key aspect of Asian exclusion was the specific exclusion of Asian women, who were the first to be excluded via the 1875 Page Act. When included, they were included for their wifely labors under the assumption that such labors would yield benefits either to employers such as plantations or to society through womanly moral influence over husbands and nearby single men. This paper takes the theme of “wifely labors” and “womanly moral influence” to connect the disparate histories of Asian wives in the 20th century. The paper views picture brides, war brides, and military brides as linked phenomena that highlights the importance of female intimate labors to Asian exclusion, marriage, and migration. Additionally, the paper points to the significance of anti-Asian misogyny in particular and to misogyny in general for understanding the structures of immigration and citizenship policies. Drawn from a larger project on Asian women and marriage migration, the paper ends with a short comparative discussion of the late 20th-century and early 21st-century marriage migration of ethnic Korean women from China, and of Vietnamese and Filipino women to South Korea and Japan.

Presented By
Ji-Yeon Yuh, Asian American studies

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jessica Rae Pliley, Texas State University
Jessica R. Pliley is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender History at Texas State University and holds a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University. She is the author of Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Harvard, 2014) and Global Anti-Vice Activism (Cambridge, 2016). She is the book review editor for the Journal of Women’s History. Dr. Pliley is a Fulbright specialist and serves on the advisory board of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project “Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in Gendered and Historical Perspective, c. 1870 – 2000.” She was the co-director of Yale University’s Working Group on Modern-Day Slavery and Trafficking at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the Journal of the History of Sexuality. Her current research explores the long history of anti-trafficking movement from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century.

Presenter: Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara
The Hull Professor and Distinguished Professor of Feminist Studies and Distinguished Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Eileen Boris writes on the home as a workplace--on domestic, industrial, care, and mother workers—and on racialized gender and the state. Her books include the prize-winning monographs Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States [Cambridge University Press, 1994] and Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, co-authored with Jennifer Klein, (Oxford University Press, 2012, 2015), which looks at how tending to frail elderly and people with disabilities became through state policy transformed into a low-waged occupation, mostly for women of color, and how workers fought for dignity and recognition. She is the co-editor, with Rhacel Parreñas, of Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care (Stanford University Press, 2010) and, with Dorothea Hoehtker and Susan Zimmermann, Women’s ILO: Transnational Networks, Global Labor Standards, and Gender Equity (Brill and ILO, 2018). Her latest book is a transnational history, Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019 (Oxford, forthcoming 2019), which considers the construction of the woman worker, using the ILO as her archive, and argues that the characteristics associated with women’s work have moved from the periphery to the center with transformations of the global economy and intensified regimes of precarity. Her public writings have appeared in New York Times, The American Prospect, Time, the Nation, Al-Jazeera America, Huffington Post, New Labor Forum, Salon, Dissent, and Labor Notes. She is the President of the International Federation for Research in Women’s History, which consists of national women and gender history organizational affiliates and promotes transnational history. She has held the Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki and visiting professorships at Paris VII, the University of Melbourne, Tokyo Christian Women’s University, and University of Toulouse. She was PI for “Working at Living: The Social Relations of Precarity,” for “Enforcement Strategies for Empowerment: Models for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights,” and “The Labor of Care.” Her own articles have appeared in JAH, Signs, Feminist Studies, Journal of Women’s History, Journal of Policy History, Labor, ILWCH, and numerous collections. She has served on the executive boards of LAWCHA and the Social Science History Association and on prize and other committees for the OAH, American Studies Association, Social Science History Association, AHA, and Berkshire Conference. Currently she is on the editorial committee of both Labor: Studies in Working-Class History and Gender and History, the board of Journal of Policy History, and the consultant board of Feminist Studies. She has received the Distinguished Service Award from LAWCHA (2017) and the Rachel Fuchs Memorial Award from the Coordinating Council for Women in History for Mentoring LGBTQ/Women (2019). Her current project explores migrant domestic workers and the continuum between free and unfree labor through struggles to regulate labor traffickers by NAACP and Urban League after WWII.

Presenter: Justine Victoria Modica, Stanford University
Justine Modica is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, studying gender, race, labor, and immigration in the 20th century United States. She is also completing a PhD minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her research explores the history of child care in America, with a focus on the migration networks and other forms of transnational labor that have emerged to address the expanding demand for child care over the last fifty years. She is particularly interested in child care wage labor in the private space of the home and the ways that workers have resisted exploitation. Before coming to Stanford, she was the Director of College Completion at a network of public high schools in New Orleans and prior to that, she served as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College. Before that, she was a full-time nanny. She earned her BA in History from Dartmouth College in 2009.

Presenter: Noel Mellick Voltz, University of Utah
Noël Voltz is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah where I specialize in African American, Early American and Atlantic World Histories. She earned my Ph.D. in History in 2014 from the Ohio State University where she focused on women of color in slavery and freedom in the United States and the Atlantic World. Her first book manuscript, tentatively entitled The Sword in Her Hands: Louisiana’s Free Women of Color and their Sexual Negotiation for Freedom, critically examines the ways in which antebellum Louisiana’s free women of color used their sexuality as a source of power and a tool of negotiation in their pursuit of freedom. The Sword in Her Hands is under contact with University of Illinois Press.

Presenter: Ji-Yeon Yuh, Asian American studies
Ji-Yeon Yuh is the founding faculty member of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, where she teaches Asian American history, Asian diasporas, race and gender, and oral history. She is a co-founder of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea ( and a board member of the Korea Policy Institute (, organizations devoted to educating policy makers and the public on Korea peace issues. A former journalist, she has worked for Newsday and served on the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is the author of Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America. Her current projects include a digital oral history repository focused on Asian diasporas, an oral history project on the Midwest as an Asian American space, and a book on Korean diaspora in China, Japan, and the United States.