Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

By Black, Simon | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement


Black, Simon, Labour/Le Travail


Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015)

WITHIN A SHORT PERIOD of time, Premilla Nadasen has established herself as one of the most important historians of the US labour movement writing today. In Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and her previous book Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005), Nadasen explores how class, race, gender, culture, and the law constitute the meanings of the work of social reproduction and the ways in which working-class women of colour have disrupted these meanings, defining this labour as work, the home as a workplace, and in the case of domestic workers, claiming a right to organize as workers. In doing so, Nadasen's scholarship centres a working-class Black feminism long marginalized in male-centric histories of the civil rights and labour movements, and in middle-class white women's histories of the women's movement.

Household Workers Unite is a narrative history of African-American domesticworker organizing and activism. The book focuses in on the period between the early 1950s and late 1970s when "domestic workers established a national movement to transform the occupation." (3) While Nadasen draws on a range of sources, including government reports and journalistic exposes, it is the oral histories of African American women activists--brilliant organizers like Geraldine Roberts, Dorothy Bolden, and Josephine Hulett--that anchor the book. These women tell their own stories about the meaning of their labour, their desire to be viewed as a worker, and the fight to transform their occupation. As workingclass African American women, their stories connect to the broader struggle for Black liberation, highlighting the racial exploitation of domestic labour, and are a form of activism, "a strategic way to make sense of the past as well as the present and to overturn assumptions about domestic workers." (3)

Anchoring the book in stories "not told about domestic workers, but stories that domestic workers articulated themselves" (3) serves a political purpose. As Nadasen notes in the book's introduction, mainstream media narratives around domestic work cast these workers as victims, disempowered and without agency. The narrative of victimization denies domestic workers' agency and marginalizes not only contemporary domestic worker organizing but a rich history of collective action stemming all the way back to 1881 when African American laundresses in Atlanta formed a Washing Society and went on strike for better wages and working conditions, effectively shutting down the city.

While the 1930s witnessed another wave of domestic worker organizing, New Deal labour legislation failed to treat the home as a workplace and denied household workers coverage under basic labour protections, including the right to a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. These gendered and racialized exclusions were mirrored in social policy, as the white male industrial worker and his caregiving wife became the model around which labour law and the welfare state were constructed, denying African American women and other women of colour full citizenship. This is the legal and historical backdrop for the rise of a national domestic workers' rights movement focused on ending the exclusion of domestic workers from employment protections institutionalized in the New Deal.

Yet prior to the emergence of a national movement, Nadasen tells us that organizers like Dorothy Bolden in Atlanta and Geraldine Roberts in Cleveland were cutting their political teeth in civil rights struggles. Unlike the middle-class, male leadership of that movement, the likes of Bolden and Roberts were workingclass women with little formal education. They experienced the realities of white supremacy not only in public spaces, but also in the homes of their white employers. …

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