Feministing Reads: Household Workers Unite by Premilla Nadasen

book coverThere are just a few people who have come to symbolize the American civil rights movement in the popular imagination — Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis. 

We forget sometimes that a movement is built by thousands and thousands of remarkable people. And too few scholars or academic courses frame the movement for civil rights, for dignity for all Americans, as one that is also a struggle for labor rights. Few, if any, history courses discuss leaders like Dorothy Bolden, a civil rights activist who was also a domestic worker, who worked to improve conditions for all caregivers and housekeepers in the 1960s.

But Premilla Nadasen’s new book, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement, (which is out today from Beacon Press) highlights these unsung leaders, chronicling the lives and legacy of domestic worker-organizers from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980s. These organizers were inspired by the civil rights movement and, in addition to their labor rights activism, often played a key role in the fight for racial equality and against Jim Crow.

While the modern domestic worker movement has achieved unprecedented success over the last 20 years, and is gaining political and cultural power that domestic workers have never had before, there were many, many foremothers and forefathers to this present-day activism. Household Workers Unite unearths stories of some of the most tenacious women activists in the United States — Dorothy Height, Edith Barksdale-Sloan, Josephine Hulett — revealing how much organizing among domestic workers has actually taken place throughout our history.

Nadasen writes,

The women in this book…engaged in overt, collective, and public forms of opposition. They were vibrant middle-aged or elderly black women, very often mothers and grandmothers, who took multiple risks, made enormous personal sacrifices, and offered powerful critiques of the status quo….Beginning in the 1960s, household workers organized forums, spoke publicly, circulated pamphlets, gave testimonials, and lobbied legislatures. Their political identity was bound up with the politics of race, gender, culture, and ethnicity, as their stories of the “mammy” image, the history of slavery, and patterns of servitude that shaped domestic labor illustrate.

One of those women was Dorothy Bolden. A career domestic worker, she organized hundreds of housekeepers in Atlanta, at bus stops and on the city buses, in the 1960s — a decade after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat. Buses were an important locus of domestic worker organizing too — it was where women domestic workers regularly saw, spoke, and could organize with each other.

Bolden’s work as a labor rights activist was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Civil rights was a plate of food to us,” she explained. “It fed our soul. It strengthened our bodies. Built our minds. It was everything to is.” Bolden also remarked upon how much the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meant to low-income people.

Nadasen writes about Geraldine Roberts who, following a divorce, was raising three children on her own and was a welfare recipient in the 1950s-1960s. She was pushed off of welfare and into the domestic work sector. “Welfare recipients were frequently pushed into the paid labor force, even when the only jobs available were poorly paid and lacked benefits,“ Nadasen explains.

Then there’s Edith Barksdale-Sloan, a lawyer, whose grandmother was a domestic worker. Barksdale-Sloan earned a law degree in the 1960s and went on to lead the National Council of Household Employment (NCHE). The NCHE had already been engaging in extensive organizing and policymaking for the past several decades, but Sloan’s leadership took a new approach: one that focused on empowering more domestic workers to transform their own occupation. She built a specific conference of domestic workers, whose personal stories became more deeply integrated in the national group’s organizing.

Few policy successes for domestic workers were achieved during this era. Indeed, the most powerful changes to finally include domestic workers within overtime and other labor protections have only come about very recently. Yet Nadasen’s book shows us how much domestic worker organizers have been doing throughout history to improve labor protections and build the civil rights movement.

As the ugliness of racism today wrenches our hearts, rendering a feeling of helplessness, it is restorative to learn about the empowering leadership of black women domestic workers and civil rights activists who have helped change laws and policies — and to whom we are all indebted.

Sheila is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family, was released by Ig Publishing in 2014 and chronicles the U.S. domestic workers' movement.

Sheila Bapat is reviewing books related to gender, domestic work, and economic justice for Feministing.

Read more about Sheila

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