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Household Workers Unite, by Premilla Nadasen.

September 1, 2015

Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women who Built a Movement, by Premilla Nadasen.  Beacon Press, 2015.

4 stars

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.

Additional reading:
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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2015 6:31 pm

    Yes, that’s a good point about it being easier to exploit workers who are scattered, and it certainly seems to apply to today. Working for yourself is fine in theory if you have a unique skill and are in a position to set the price by refusing to work for less, but it’s a disaster for the unskilled.
    I wonder, do you have domestic service agencies, that supply staff to households? They are quite common here and from my experience, they offer some protection for the workers by charging the household a set rate (from which of course they take a commission) and they also ensure the workers are properly insured and that there are standard safety conditions as well e.g. no climbing up stepladders to clean light-fittings. It seems to me that it could be a strategy that could apply in other workforces as well…

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