The rampant discrimination against black men in the Northern labor markets made it unlikely that a family could be supported on one salary. The domestic work open to African-American women was often steady, unlike the seasonal nature of many of the laboring jobs available to men. One attractive feature of domestic work in the homes of others, or of "taking in" washing or sewing at one's own home, was that such an arrangement allowed for the care of children at the workplace. Black women were often very influential within the household.
The story of Chloe Spear provides an interesting account of one African-American "Wonder Woman." Born in Africa and enslaved in Boston until the end of the eighteenth century, Chloe married Cesar Spear, also a slave. After the family was freed, the Spears operated a boardinghouse in the city. In addition, Chloe did domestic work for a prominent family. While she was at work, Cesar saw to the cooking and other duties associated with the boardinghouse but when she returned in the evening he turned the operation over to her while he was "taking his rest." After working all day, Chloe cooked dinner for her family and for the boarders and cleaned the house. In order to make extra money, she took in washing, which she did at night, setting up lines in her room for drying the clothes. She slept a few hours while the clothes dried, then ironed them and prepared breakfast for the household before going off to work for the day.
Although one might easily conclude that women like Chloe were cruelly exploited by their husbands, the reality was not quite so simple. Chloe did not routinely hand over her wages to her husband, as did most white working women of the period. She controlled her own money, as is usual among African women. At one point she decided to purchase a house despite the fact that the law prohibited married women from buying property in their own name. Chloe was forced to ask her husband to make the purchase for her. Told that it cost $700, Cesar determined that he could not afford it. "I got money," Chloe announced, and Cesar agreed to sign for the house.
Studies of the black family have long noted the increased independence and authority women exercised within the household because of their crucial role in the family economy. Chloe is an excellent example of the way African-American women asserted that role.