Domestic Workers: The Women Who Raised United States

Women

They were women then
My mama’s generation
Husky of voice—Stout of
Step
With fists as well as
Hands
How they battered down
Doors
And ironed
Starched white
Shirts
How they led
Armies
Headragged Generals
Across mined
Fields
Booby-trapped
Ditches
To discover books
Desks
A place for us
How they knew what we
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it
Themselves

— ALICE WALKER

Every February and subsequent March, it becomes painfully clear how ignorant we are regarding on whose shoulders we stand, for how could we know, when the gatekeepers of America’s legacy are so eager to erase marginalized communities—both our plights and our contributions—from the pages of American history? How could we know, when our narratives were buried under tales of George Washington and his cherry tree, and our inventions were purposely and purposefully erroneously credited to our oppressors?

However, it comes as a special type of blow that the very initiatives devoted to pulling these hidden figures out of the depths of our past have also overlooked a great many. Black History Month and Women’s History Month, like history in general, would have us believe that “all the women are white and all the blacks are men.”

Though black women lie at the intersection of these groups, history has a funny way of bending to omit the ways in which they shaped this nation. As James Baldwin said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

When you are taught about the fight for liberation in this country, do not forget about the pages that were never written. When you sing about our freedom, remember the women who helped us get there—especially the invisible women Alice Walker speaks about: domestic workers.

Remember these women of our mama’s and mama’s mama’s generations who, like Alice Walker’s mother, worked 11-hour days for a few dollars a week. Remember the women who raised America—who nursed and bathed its children—both black and white—fed its workforce and cleaned its households. Remember these women, because America will not.


Throughout the 1900s, black women represented the bulk of domestic workers. Black women provided an opportunity for lower-middle-class white women to have the splendor of a maid without the lavish price tag. Black women faced double-barreled discrimination in the workforce because of both their race and gender, channeling them into domestic work.

Though society has done an exceptional job of portraying these nannies and maids as “dutiful, self-sacrificing black wom[en] who loved [their] white famil[ies] and [their] children every bit as much as [their] own” and as “one of the family,” this notion could not be any further from the reality of the women who worked in these homes.

Domestic work offered little pay, was extended virtually no protection by labor laws and was grossly exploitative. Work like this was largely contingent on personality and respectability, and women “who were submissive or who successfully played the role of obedient servant were more highly valued by their employers, regardless of the quality of the work performed.”

In addition, women in domestic work were often subjected to abuse from their employers, including sexual harassment and assault from men of the households in which they worked. Rosa Parks herself survived an attempted rape while working as a housekeeper. Others, however, were not as fortunate.


Yet despite these horrific conditions, these domestic workers lifted themselves, their families and their communities.

Georgia Gilmore, a Montgomery, Ala., cook and midwife, founded the “Club From Nowhere,” which helped feed and fund the civil rights movement. The organization of service workers, maids and cooks used its members’ domestic skills to anonymously raise capital that would eventually cover much of the costs of transportation, insurance, legal representation and security for the Montgomery bus boycott. As Premilla Nadasen sums up: “Domestic workers … were much more than foot soldiers. They filled the pews at the weekly mass meetings and generated energy and enthusiasm for the boycott [and] also exhibited leadership by raising money and mobilizing others in the community to support the campaign.”

In Atlanta, Dorothy Lee Bolden organized a national union that gave voice to domestic workers in that city and helped negotiate and improve their wages and working conditions. In New York City, Dora Lee Jones led the establishment of the Domestic Workers’ Union, which worked to dismantle the “slave mart.” In Youngstown, Ohio, Josephine Hulett put together an organization of household technicians and later a workshop in Miami titled, “Are You a Household Slave?”

Their hands and feet were tired, but they made a way not only for themselves but for all of us. So, thank you. To the women who toiled daily, cooking and cleaning in white women’s kitchens while fighting off their husbands. Thank you to the women who nursed children who were not their own, sometimes at their own breasts, only to return home and start their second shift with their own family. Thank you to the women who, despite the sweat on their brow, found ways to resist and organize. Thank you to the women who raised us—the women who raised America. And thank you to the women who still do.

The Root
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