Domestic Workers and the Civil Rights Movement

Women riding on the subway in New York City, July 1958, photographer Angelo Rizzuto (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In July 1971, over six hundred domestic workers from thirty different cities gathered together in Washington D.C. at the first national convention of domestic workers. This meeting brought some of the most prominent leaders in the domestic worker’s rights movement together, including Dorothy Bolden, Geraldine Roberts, Josephine Hulett, Louise Bradley, and Edith Sloan. These women all led distinct groups aimed at organizing domestic labor(ers). With the momentum that the convention galvanized, they consolidated their individual organizations into a collective known as the Household Technicians of America (HTA). This group and the workers it represented would go on to challenge the lack of institutional labor regulations and protections for household workers. Its legal success, however, was largely due to the historical precedent of labor activism established as early as the interwar period. It was this historical precedent that set the stage for the American domestic worker movement of the 1950s-1970s, in which domestic workers and advocates asserted their rights to formal recognition within the labor market and respectable working conditions. The movement’s success depended on their strategic use of mobilization techniques such as collective organizing, storytelling, and a politics of refusal.

During Reconstruction, domestic work became key to the (re)development of the Southern plantocracy landscape. Similar to agricultural labor, formerly enslaved people, specifically Black women, were overrepresented in the domestic labor field. This overrepresentation was, in large part, attributed to the racialized and gendered trope of the Black woman as a “mammy.” Although President Roosevelt issued the New Deal of 1933 with the promise of expanding labor opportunities and protections for American workers as the nation industrialized, domestic and agricultural labor were systematically excluded from the legislation’s labor protections. This exclusion allowed for disturbing hiring and employment practices, most notably the New York slave markets of the 1930s. While radical labor rights activists, such as Claudia Jones and Esther Cooper, wrote and spoke extensively against these practices, organizing domestic workers through unionization proved difficult at the time. 

Leading up to the Second World War, many domestic workers were skeptical of radical unionization efforts. They were well aware of the Southern hostility to unionized labor forces as well as the oversupply of willing replacements. However, this did not deter them from asserting their autonomy as Black women and laborers. Some formed smaller groups of domestics, such as the 1936 founding of the Domestic and Industrial Womens’ Association of the United States 6. Others employed a politics of refusal where they asserted the indispensability of their labor by quitting jobs on their own terms. By the height of the Civil Rights Movement, domestic workers such as Dorothy Bolden, who quit her position as an act of solidarity with the Movement, increasingly asserted their labor rights. Bolden, an Atlanta native, went on to become the founder of the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA) in 1968. 

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, domestic workers became central to the Movement’s success. Many domestic workers, including Bolden, were inspired by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger and her subsequent arrest in 1955. Once the Montgomery Bus Boycott launched in response to Parks’ arrest, domestic workers served as some of the key organizers of this year-long protest. During the boycott, many chose to walk to their employers’ homes instead of riding the bus, which caused them to arrive at work late and, in many instances, fatigued. Many white employers unintentionally helped the boycott because they had to pick up their Black domestic workers who refused to take public transportation. Movement scholars have argued that because over half of the Black women workers in Montgomery during the boycott were employed in white households, the boycott simply would not have succeeded without their support. 

After the boycott, domestic workers were still at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement’s mobilization efforts.  Dorothy Bolden first entered the Black freedom struggle by uplifting education discrepancies among Black students. She eventually evolved to fighting for fairer treatment of domestic workers.  During World War II, Bolden migrated North and worked in Chicago factories. These labor experiences shaped Bolden’s commitment to domestic workers rights activism because she witnessed first hand the power of collective action. At the height of the Movement, Bolden worked alongside organizations such as SNCC to bring economic freedom to the forefront of the Movement’s mission. She believed that legal integration efforts would only be effective if the widespread economic disparities amongst Black communities were also addressed. 

Bolden and Louise Bradley co-founded the NDWUA in 1968, with a focus on advocating for underpaid and overworked domestic workers. She began organizing on the city buses, where many household laborers would ride from their neighborhoods to the downtown transfer point and then transfer onto another bus to travel to their employers’ homes in white areas. Bolden rode on the buses alongside Black women traveling to work and distributed flyers with information about upcoming NDWUA meetings. The downtown transfer point became an important meeting site for the “network of maids” to converge and connect while sharing stories from their work experiences. Bolden was at the center of these organization efforts on the city bus lines that would eventually become known as “freedom buses.” Once the NWDUA gained traction, it became respected as an official organization committed to the revaluation and respect of household labor, with Bolden serving as its leader.

A year after the NDWUA was established, Edith Sloan was appointed as the head of the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE) in New York. Sloan did not have firsthand experience as a household worker, as many of the middle-class Black women involved in the NCHE did not. However, due to the historical employment marginalization of Black women, they were aware of what domestic labor entailed because many of them were descendants of household workers. As scholar Premilla Nadasen highlights, many of these women used storytelling as an impactful form of activism and an avenue for continued political mobilization. By sharing the stories of their loved ones and their experience on the job in white households, NCHE activists were able to sustain a movement of concerned middle-class women that were committed to reforming domestic labor. 

By 1970, 19.5 percent of Black women workers in America worked in private households, as opposed to the 42 percent of employed Black women that worked in households in 1950. This was largely attributed to the expansion of labor and educational opportunities available to Black women after the passage of Civil Rights legislation. However, the labor was still unregulated, meaning workers did not have the same legal right to labor protections as workers employed outside of the home. This led Sloan and the NCHE to mobilize household worker-activists, such as Bolden, towards the goal of ensuring that household work was recognized as legitimate labor deserving of inclusion under federal labor protections. Together Sloan and a team of household-worker activists established the Household Technicians of America (HTA) in 1971, which became the first national household worker organization. 

The HTA organized to fight for what they referred to as the three p’s: “pay, protection, and professionalism”. At their inaugural first national convention of domestic workers, hundreds of household workers and movement allies gathered together to share their experiences and raise awareness for their mission. Among the participants was congresswoman Shirley Chisholm—a staunch supporter of the domestic worker’s rights movement. Chisholm, like many of the NCHE members, was deeply impacted by her own family history of domestic labor, as the child of a Bajan immigrant who had worked in white households. 

In 1971,  the HTA, NCHE, and a coalition of other organizations lobbied for Congressional legislation that would increase the minimum wage and include household workers under the legislation’s protections. Chisholm was at the forefront of this mobilization. She exemplified the power of  storytelling in a speech she delivered before the House of Representatives in 1973, where she explained that “my own mother was a domestic so I speak from personal experience.” After over two years of household labor organizing and lobbying, Congress eventually passed the proposed amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that would raise the minimum wage and extend minimum wage protections to domestic workers.

Although domestic worker activists celebrated this victory, they also recognized that it was limited in its scope. The legislation excluded live-in home health care aid workers— an industry that was quickly recruiting many former domestic workers. As the struggle for the revaluation of paid and unpaid social reproductive labor continues today, we must remember its roots in the domestic worker’s rights movement. The activists involved in the mobilization effort worked to dispel the mammy trope and fight for domestic work to be respected as legitimate labor. While collective organizing efforts existed as early as the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement served as a catalyst for the height of domestic worker’s rights mobilizations. The workers and allies of the organizations committed to the rights of household workers utilized the strategies of storytelling, refusal, and collective organizing to sustain a movement that would serve as the foundation for contemporary movements fighting for the rights of marginalized workers. 

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Ashley Everson

Ashley Everson is a PhD student in Africana Studies at Brown University. Ashley earned her B.A. with honors distinction in Social Thought and Political Economy and her M.A. in Political Science with a graduate certificate in African Diaspora Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research interests include Black feminist thought, political theory, labor history, and Black women’s political histories. Her most recent research seeks to investigate the relationship between Black political mobilization in the Tennessee Valley region and decolonial organizing throughout the African Diaspora during the interwar period. She tweets @aevers0n.

Comments on “Domestic Workers and the Civil Rights Movement

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    Great work Grand Daughter! Very informative writing and reading! Keep up the Great Work!

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    Having studied the National Fair Labor Standards Act during my undergraduate studies at Savannah State University, I do recall the discussion on domestic workers not being unionized during this time. This article explains and informs as to why. So amazing the struggle continues along all fronts of our fore parents and ancestors’ lives. Good article, very interesting and inspiring.

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