Domestic Disturbance

Finding the stories of marginalized household workers in the Schlesinger Library
During the Great Depression, a corner of 170th Street in New York City was known as the Bronx Slave Market, where household workers and other laborers would go each morning seeking day work. Make a Wish (Bronx Slave Market, 170th Street, New York), 1938. Photo by Robert McNeill, Smithsomian American Art MuseumDuring the Great Depression, a corner of 170th Street in New York City was known as the Bronx Slave Market, where household workers and other laborers would go each morning seeking day work. Make a Wish (Bronx Slave Market, 170th Street, New York), 1938. Photo by Robert McNeill, Smithsomian American Art Museum
By Premilla Nadasen

There is an old African proverb: Until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Archival collections usually represent the hunter. Fortunately for historians, the Schlesinger Library has collections that reflect the lion—the lives of ordinary women. In the course of researching my book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Beacon Press, 2015), I faced the problem of archival silences and biases. Because domestic workers are in most cases not formally educated, have little access to mainstream media channels, rarely write memoirs or reflections, and are unlikely to deposit their personal papers in a library, locating their voices was no easy task.

My goal with this book was to present the perspective of women, especially poor and working-class women of color, who are often invisible in public discourse. I was eager to piece together not just the stories told about domestic workers but also the stories that domestic workers told—and to analyze what those stories reveal about how these relatively disempowered women understood their labor and history.

I turned to the rich collections of women’s and gender history housed at the Schlesinger Library, which holds the papers of Frieda S. Miller and Esther Peterson. White feminists who spent decades lobbying for labor protections on behalf of domestic workers, Miller and Peterson were instrumental in the formation of the National Committee on Household Employment, an organization that in 1971 sponsored a national conference of household workers. That meeting resulted in the first national organization of domestic workers, the Household Technicians of America. The Miller and Peterson collections offer a window into the sometimes fraught but sometimes collaborative relationship between middle-class feminists and African American domestic workers.

Domestic workers relied on history and storytelling to mobilize a movement to reform household labor. They told stories about being treated as if they were on an auction block—having their teeth examined when they applied for a job. They talked about their family histories—their mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers who brought dignity to this occupation. They told stories of abuse and exploitation, such as those at the Bronx Slave Market of the 1930s, where workers with the most-scarred knees were preferred because they were the ones who scrubbed floors down on all fours. Stories like these challenged the "Mammy" stereotype of a content and loyal household worker that had long defined the occupation. The stories became a means to establish boundaries on the terms of their labor: scrubbing floors on hands and knees, for example, was deemed unacceptable. Through storytelling, domestic workers wrote their own historical narratives of exploitation and empowerment.

One important discovery in my research was the interaction and cross-fertilization between household worker activists and professional historians. Gerda Lerner, a pioneering women’s historian who published the pathbreaking collection of documents Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (Pantheon Books, 1972), conducted an interview with the household worker Dorothy Bolden. The full transcript, housed at the Schlesinger, is a rich resource. Bolden, who began domestic work at the age of nine, described the occupation as one that she loved. In 1968, she started the National Domestic Workers of America in Atlanta, recruiting workers on the city bus lines, demanding a minimum daily wage of $15, and opening a hiring hall to screen employers. Bolden worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and had the utmost respect for him, but was also acutely aware of the role of black working-class women in the civil rights movement. She later said in an interview: “Dr. King would always stand out
in my mind, he’s the strongest one of them. [But] he had help, he had women like me.” In this way, she foreshadowed the historiographical trend that secured the importance of women in civil rights organizing. One of the things I learned through this project is the invaluable contribution of Lerner and other historians who had the foresight to conduct oral histories and understood the need to preserve archival materials about poor and working-class women.

Another household worker whose voice I discovered was Carolyn Reed, from New York City, who headed a national organization of domestics. In 1979, Reed attended a two-week institute at Sarah Lawrence College—where Gerda Lerner had founded the women’s history program—that brought together women organizers and activists. Reed wanted women’s historians to think more deeply about the importance of paid domestic work in women’s history and also wanted to educate workers about history. She launched a project titled “Our Right to Know,” which integrated the history of black women’s labor and resistance into organizing efforts. Bonita Johnson, who headed the project, said, “The most important part of the project are household workers themselves. Each and every technician has a lifetime of experiences that individually and collectively make up a rich history that deserves documentation. These life histories will draw a picture of household employment today. They will also connect us with our past and guide us in the future!” For household worker organizers, history—both their family histories and the broader history of this occupation—mattered.

While media and popular culture might not afford us opportunities to understand the powerful actions and messages of domestic workers, collections like the ones I used in the Schlesinger Library provide evidence of a long history of organizing and resistance.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College.

Nadasen will discuss her work in a panel discussion, "Household Workers Unite! A Conversation between Scholars and Activists," on Thursday, February 4, 2016, at 4:15 p.m. in the Sheerr Room at Fay House in Radcliffe Yard.  The panel will include activists and be moderated by Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College and Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development, Harvard Business School.


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