Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women who Built a Movement, by Premilla Nadasen. Beacon Press, 2015.
Insightful history about the movement by black women for dignity, better wages and working conditions between 1950-1970 when they refused to be sacrificial “mammies” and demand respect and rights as workers.
Black women had worked in the homes of white women during slavery. When they were freed, domestic service was often the only option for black women in the south where most lived. Often however, they were forced to continue in conditions much like those of house slaves. This pattern continued as black women servants moved north. They worked alone, under the control of the wife-mother of the household who defined their tasks and pay. Usually they did the “women’s work” of cleaning, cooking and nurturing that white employers did not want to do themselves.
Joining together after World War II, black women affirmed a new sense of identity. They emphatically rejected the role of Mammy. Speaking out, they affirmed that domestic work was really work, not something that women, white or black, did out of limitless love. They attack the myth that they really were “one of the family,” a comfortable myth that enabled their employers to demand work without reasonable respect or pay. Sharing personal stories helped them establish their own dignity and respect for the work they did. Despite tensions with white feminists, both groups worked to shape a new understanding that a domestic worker was valuable and needed to be treated as such.
A little-known sprinkling of black women domestics had tried to fight for rights before World War II. When labor unions won gains for industrial workers under the New Deal, however, domestic servants did not share in their victories. Union organizers often defined workers as white men in factories, and although some women workers’ issues were later included, domestic work was assumed to be impossible to organize. Black women domestic servants had to create new ways to organize. Sharing stories became a major part of their efforts. Because the households in which the women worked were geographically scattered, organizers recruited supporters at bus stops, on buses, and other public spaces. Without one boss with whom to negotiate, they figured out ways to influence the white women who hired them. As domestics organized they explored ways in which to engage their employers’ support in the changes they envisioned. In addition, the women tried to expand their organizations as immigrant women moved into care-taking work. As work patterns are changing in the present, Nadasen suggests that other workers may find their situation increasingly like that of domestic servants. Perhaps they can follow some of the tactics developed by workers.
Premilla Nadasen is a faculty member at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she teaches history and in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. Her own personal history has provided a background for writing this book. Her great, great grandparents went from India to South Africa as indentured servants around 1900. When her grandparents came to the United States, her relatives worked as domestic servants. The points she makes are well documented, but her text is easy to read and not full of debates with other scholars. By depending heavily on the stories of household workers about their work and their movement, she brings seldom-heard voices into the historical record. At times her account gets repetitive, however, and I was less interested in the sections of the book that dealt with the specific organizations and legal measures proposed. What I cherished most was her innovative analysis of the women’s organizing methods. I also believe that this analysis is why her book deserves to be widely read and discussed outside as well as inside academia.
I think this is an important book and I enthusiastically recommend it to readers interested in activism and/or the relationships of black women and the white women who employ them.
Thanks to Library Thing and Beacon Press for sending me a copy of Household Workers Unite.
There are other fine books about domestic service, novels as well as scholarly analysis. My favorite historical work is To ‘Joy My Freedom, by Tera Hunter about the shift from slavery to domestic work. My favorite novels are The Space between Them, by Thrity Umbigar, a writer from India, and Like One of the Family, by Alice Childers, whom Nadasen quotes in debunking the myths about being family.
The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. New York : Hogarth, 2015. Forthcoming
A powerful contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale by a talented and creative English author.
Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917, is publishing a series of books reinterpreting Shakespearean plays for today’s generation. They have chosen acclaimed contemporary authors for each book. Jeanette Winterson has been asked to reinterpret The Winter’s Tale. Her success has convinced me to read the other books in this series and more books by Winterson.
Jeanette Winterson is a prolific English writer. Her many novels have widely praised for their literary excellence. She grew up in an Evangelical working-class family in northern England, eventually leaving both her family and her religion. Her writing is not always chronological, but in this book at least, it is highly accessible and simply a joy to read. Reading her own comments on her writings on her website, I was moved by her commitment to words, connections, and exploration of new ideas. Check out the site to get a taste of who she is and what she is doing.
I remembered little about The Winter’s Tale and was grateful to Winterson for beginning her book with a brief summary. Her account sticks closely to the original in general shape, but she images what happens in contemporary terms. She depicts Leo and Xeno, the king and his friend in the original, as bisexual with an intense relationship dating from boarding school. As in Shakespeare’s version, Leo becomes angry because, without any evidence, he suspects that Xeno is the father of the child his wife is carrying. Winterson reveals his anger springs from his desire for Xeno as much as from jealousy over his wife. When the baby is born, Leo tries to send her to Enos in distant Louisiana. Instead she falls into the hands of a black man and his son who raise her tenderly. After the “gap in time,” the characters are brought back together and are reunited by Leo’s daughter and Xeno’s son.
Trying to summarize either Shakespeare or Winterson takes away the sheer wonder of their writing. Like Shakespeare, Winterson has amazing insight into human beings and remarkable skill with words. As she relates in the conclusion, Winterson sees forgiveness at the heart of both her account and the original. When people experience bad events, they have three choices; revenge, tragedy, and forgiveness. Time cannot be reversed, and the past is always present, haunting us like an ambush or a beggar. But hope lies in our ability to forgive and begin again. Many of the stories we know relate to separation and the fall from paradise, and images of falling run through the book. In the end, the lost child shows her real father the diamonds that have always been hers and explains who she really is. Revelation must happen in order for the characters to move on. The new generation brings forgiveness to the brokenness around them.
And the story fell out stone by stone, shining and held, the way time is held in a diamond, the way the light is held in each stone. And the stone speak, and what was silent opens its mouth to tell a a story and the story is set in stone to break the stone. What happened happened.
The past is a grenade that explodes when thrown.
All I can do is to recommend this book as highly as possible to readers who appreciate a book that leads them to feel and think more deeply.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Hogarth Press for sending me an electronic copy of this fine book. When I request reviews copies, I am never sure what I will receive. A book like this one makes the pre-publication review process very rewarding for me.
New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Compassionate Marriage, by Melissa Adams-Campbell.
New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Compassionate Marriage, by Melissa Adams-Campbell. University Press of New England. 2015. Dartmouth Series Remapping the Transnational.
Scholars generally agree that around 1800 courtship and marriage patterns were changing among the literate classes in England and America. Instead of wedding for economic or familial reasons, young couples were choosing each other on the basis of emotional or romantic attraction. In this “new world” of relationships, compassionate marriage” became the norm. Compassionate marriage was part of a larger social ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women. Disagreement exists over whether or not the changes helped or hurt for women. Because wives gave up any previous power in the economic and political realms, they were increasingly dependent on husbands. These ideals undergirded the newly popular novels of the time, many of which we still consider the “classics.”
Melissa Adams-Campbell agrees that the ideas of courtship and compassionate marriage formed the basis of the novels being written, even if not always practiced. Her own research, however, suggests that they were not as universal, even among the reading classes, as we have assumed. She has studied novels from around the Atlantic world which do not follow the romantic script of courtship. Her account provides the details of these books which sometimes included non-Europe settings and characters.
Enlightenment attempts to understand non-European cultures were grounded in the assumption that Anglo-American practices were superior to all others. In fact, they used ideals of compassionate marriage to support their claims that their own people were the best and happiest ever to live. They knew little of the actual practices and ideas of Native Americans. For example, Iroquois, whom they were observing in North America, were not sufficiently “romantic” and their women had less choice in the selection of a mate than a British woman did. Adams-Campbell turned to the oral history and what is known today to test that assumption. She discovered that while Iroquois women may have had less choice in whom they married, they retained economic and political power both within and without their extended families far beyond that of British wives. Looking at courtship and marriage patterns in Haiti, Adams-Campbell found a disparagement of alternative patterns that actual could provide women with a measure of control over their own lives. A few novels hinted at the attraction for Anglo American women of Native American and Caribbean gender understanding. Despite their factual errors and racial bias, the inclusion of alternatives to compassionate marriage offer evidence that the ideal was not as universal as usually depicted today.
Adams-Campbell has a recent Ph.D. from Indiana University and teaches English and Gender Studies at Northern Illinois University. She seeks to broaden definitions of what it means to be an American in her teaching and research. In New World Courtship, she accomplishes that goal by showing the seldom recognized diversity of courtship and marriage that appears in novels. This is an important recognition and one which can help as realize the fluidity of family patterns as we again debate these issues today. Her book, however, is written primarily for other scholars. It is full of abstract terms and arguments that general readers will find confusing.
Writing in the 1970s, feminist literary critic, Carolyn Heilburn suggested that novels followed one of two patterns. Those mainly about men were heroic quests and those featuring women were romance in which women found true security in marriage to a good man. She urged women to challenge these forms. Thankfully, in the decades since her writing, novelists are doing just that.
I recommend this book primarily to scholars of literature and women’s studies, although the alternatives she presents are fascinating to many readers. The book is well done, but too detailed and theoretical for many readers.
I am in the process of reworking the pages on my blog to make it easier to recommend many of my favorite books to other readers. Some of my new pages will suggest books on different topics, but my first new page is intended to publicize some books I wish everyone would read and discuss. It can be found on my menu as well as a blog post. Unsurprisingly my suggestions reflect my interests in books by global women writers and books that present postcolonial topics.
READING SUGGESTIONS FOR ALL
These are books that I have loved and believe a wide variety of readers would find enjoyable and enriching. I have left out other favorites of mine that are more demanding and books that have meant much to me for more personal, eccentric reasons. The books are linked to my reviews of them.
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. A narrative of the Spanish Conquest as told by an educated, Muslim slave from Moroccan who accompanied the de Vaca expedition.
That Deadman’s Dance, by Kim Scott. Historical novel about Indigenous peoples of southwestern Australia and the Europeans who settled there.
The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umigar. An insightful novel about the relationship between a woman in Mumbai and the woman whom she hires to do her domestic chores. By a woman from India but relevant everywhere.
The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke. A mystery set in on former sugar plantation and a mediation on the legacy of slavery.
Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Japanese American woman’s account of seeking her mother and her roots in Japan.
When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka. A lyrical novel about the Japanese immigration and internment.
Carmelo, by Sandra Cineros. A coming of age story of Mexican American girl in the USA and in Mexico.
A Border Passage, by Leila Ahmed. An autobiography of a woman who grew up in Muslim Egypt, studied abroad and has become an expert on women and Islam.
Behind the Beautiful Forever, by Kathrine Boo. A journalists brings to life the inhabitants of a slum community in Mumbai.