Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The National Domestic Workers Union and the War on Poverty

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The National Domestic Workers Union and the War on Poverty

Article excerpt

This article explores values, strategies, and tensions found within the War on Poverty and examines a War on Poverty-supported initiative, the National Domestic Workers Union(NDWU). The article makes the argument that the NDWU is illustrative of the War on Poverty in that each held structurally based descriptions of poverty and individually based prescriptions. The article explores the relationship of domestic service to the institutions of racism, classism, and sexism and how the NDWU strategies of training, service, and, advocacy-like those of the War on Poverty-sought to address the needs of individual domestic workers while circumventing larger and more complicated issues.


Along with establishing government programs to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease, the War on Poverty lowered barriers to political participation and supported education and training for African Americans. Underpinning much of the War on Poverty was the notion that grass roots social action needed to be cultivated so that a new generation of reformers could move from the neighborhoods into a larger public sphere (Henry, 1978; Katz, 1986; Katz, 1989; Moynihan, 1967).

Although the U.S. government's involvement in social services expanded helping poor Americans, analysis of the War on Poverty suggested a program riddled with contradictions. The primary inconsistency involved the difference between the analysis of poverty and program development. Specifically, the War on Poverty held a structurally-based description of poverty with service-based prescriptions. In this regard, David Austin (1973) questioned, "the issue is why a service strategy with a structural diagnosis" (see discussion in Katz, 1989, p. 91). The few strategies that were structurally based focused on lack of opportunity, not on inequality. Toward developing a new generations of reformers, the War on Poverty supported community action but not its most powerful tool, conflict (Katz, 1989; Marris, Martin, & Rein, 1967).

This article explores the values, strategies, and tensions inherent within the War on Poverty by examining a specific War on Poverty supported initiative, the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU) housed in Atlanta, as well as highlighting the work of the NDWU and its founding director, Dorothy Bolden. The information was derived from an examination of the archived original papers held by the Pullen Library Southern Labor Archives. Beyond two brief interviews with Bolden in Lerner's (1992) Black Women in White America and Seifer's (1976) Nobody Speaks For Me, Bolden has received little scholarly attention. Yet domestic service in the United States continues to hold significant implications for most low-skilled women of color and is implicated in the institutions of racism, classism, and sexism. To place the NDWU in context, the article begins with an overview of domestic work. This overview ends in the late 1970s and thus does not explore immigrants' expansion into the field of domestic work.

Race, Class, and Gender and the Domestic Worker as "Other"

Between 1890-1960, in the south, the majority of employed African American women were domestic workers (Katzman, 1978). Dubois described this work pattern as "a despised race to a despised calling" (in Rollins, 1985). Practices established under slavery continued to affect the association between race and domestic work. Specifically, black women ran the households for whites under slavery, and this norm continued after abolition for those whites who could afford it. Indeed, as Katzman (1978) suggested, in the south, domestic service was integral to the maintenance of its racial caste structure.

Slavery also provided the context for what has been considered by Hill Collins (2000) a key controlling image of African American domestic workers, the "mammy." As represented by the character in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, this persona holds repercussions for domestic workers today. …

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