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Law is simultaneously at the center and the periphery of Premilla Nadasen’s engaging study of the domestic workers’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The absence of regulation made the household a largely lawless space in which the shadow of the law—and of the civil rights movement—nevertheless loomed large. Though not primarily a legal history, Household Workers Unite highlights how the law’s limitations can foster collective action in sometimes surprising ways. Beyond the reach of New Deal legislation and of labor and employment regulation generally, the African American women who dominated the ranks of household laborers for much of the twentieth century campaigned not only for legal rights but for material and dignitary benefits beyond the law, pioneering new organizing strategies that paved the way for the twenty-first century labor movement.

The power of storytelling is central both to Nadasen’s book and to the legal and extralegal activism of the women she profiles therein. In spare, accessible prose, Nadasen introduces little-known characters who made history: Dorothy Bolden, a civil rights and economic justice activist who used city bus lines as an organizing site; Geraldine Roberts of Cleveland, Ohio, whose functional illiteracy did not stop her from launching one of the first domestic workers’ organizations; Josephine Hulett, a household worker in Youngstown, Ohio who mediated between local workers’ rights groups and the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE); Edith Barksdale Sloan, the granddaughter of a domestic workers who became a lawyer and activist who facilitated the formation of the first national organization of household workers; Carolyn Reed, who used money earned from her household labor to gain financial and emotional independence from a loveless adoptive family and later became a national organizer and head of the NCHE.  Better-known figures such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks, Women’s Bureau head Esther Peterson, National Council for Negro Women leader Dorothy Height, and Representative Shirley Chisholm also make appearances, but it is household workers themselves whose stories rightfully dominate this thoughtful, often riveting narrative.

The long civil rights struggle spurred many domestic workers from private indignation to public action—action that Nadasen persuasively argues should place them not in the shadows but at the forefront of labor and social movement history. Accounts of Depression-era “slave markets,” in which housewives selected domestic workers as casual day laborers resonated with African American women who began to see their own struggles not as isolated instances of unfairness but as part of an intergenerational pattern of injustice.  Local organizing in cities throughout the country followed, often deeply connected to racial and economic justice movements.

Domestic worker organizing had historical antecedents, but it accelerated at midcentury, when a perceived convergence of interests between middle-class and professional (white) women, on the one hand, and domestic workers, mostly women of color, on the other, prompted professionalization initiatives to provide training, combat stigma, and improve working conditions. Labor feminists hoped these efforts would counter the casualization and de-skilling of household labor brought about by technological and social change while assuaging the domestic labor shortage that attended married white women’s increasing labor force participation. The work of national organizations such as the NCHE also dovetailed with the anti-welfare discourse that emerged as public assistance increasingly became associated with single black mothers rather than the “deserving” white widows and deserted wives who dominated early twentieth-century images of mothers’ aid programs. Nadasen identifies the late 1960s as a new departure for domestic worker activism at the national level, as Edith Barksdale Sloan took the helm at NCHE and household workers themselves increasingly assumed a leadership role in defining the organization’s goals and strategies. This shift toward grassroots organization and self-determination reflected a broader political ethos of community empowerment that enjoyed a brief ascendancy during the War on Poverty.

Nadasen explores the fraught relationships between employers and employees in the home and the intimate nature and location of work in a domain usually considered intensely private and proprietary. While workers’ stories of unjust treatment rightfully predominated in the rhetorical arsenal of household labor activists, accounts of “good” employers served to underscore that domestic work was not an inherently oppressive occupation: it was possible to create working conditions and relationships based in mutual respect and fair remuneration. Employers’ stories conveying the depth of their appreciation for the difficult and valuable work of caring for loved ones and maintaining a home could further workers’ efforts to bolster the dignity and honor of their profession. But at the same time, Nadasen notes, these tales of devotion above and beyond the call of duty reinforced employer values of loyalty and self-sacrifice at the expense of the health and well-being of household workers and their own families. As Nadasen writes, “even though household workers expressed love of their labor, they did not see their work as a labor of love.” (P. 88.)  As household worker and activist Carolyn Reed said, “I don’t need a family. I only want a job.” (P. 89.)

The home as workplace reinscribed racial and class boundaries, contributed to the degradation of domestic labor and the commodification of domestic workers’ bodies, character, and emotional labor. Nadasen’s account recalls Dorothy Roberts’ classic analysis of “spiritual and menial housework,” in which white women’s maternal labor is valorized as intimate and nurturing, while the carework of women of color is demoted to the status of manual labor. She draws explicitly upon the work of Darlene Clark Hine on African American women’s “culture of dissemblance” to understand how household workers often presented a congenial and open countenance to mask their closely guarded private thoughts and selves. At the same time, Nadasen notes that “[t]he personal relationship that made this job so capricious and unpredictable could also be a source of power for domestic workers.” (P. 109.) Protagonists’ stories include small but satisfying moments of resistance: “accidentally” spilling a tray of hot food on a disrespectful dinner guest; telling an abusive employer off; quitting without notice.

The challenges facing domestic labor organizing were manifold and profound: chief among them, isolation in homes where household workers were often their employers’ sole employees; the lack of a regular labor market or a structure for collective bargaining; and, of course, the exemption of domestic workers from legal protections and benefits, such as minimum wage laws, workers’ compensation, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Employers could insist that workers perform duties outside their original job description and work inhumanely long hours for no additional compensation and if they refused, fire them with impunity. Wage theft, dangerous and exploitative working and living conditions, undercompensation, and emotional abuse were more difficult to combat under conditions of isolation and extreme power imbalances.

Distrustful of traditional unions with their frequent disregard for marginalized workers generally and women and men of color in particular, household workers pursued looser and more democratic organizing styles. Lacking a centralized workplace, they often organized in public spaces. Organizing strategies included not only collective action and mobilization but also empowering individual workers to engage in one-on-one negotiations with their employers, sometimes with the help of mediators. They also engaged in law reform advocacy, accelerating in the 1970s with a “strategic alliance” between predominantly white middle-class feminists and household labor activists who campaigned to amend FLSA to extend minimum wage protections to private household workers. Thanks in large part to earlier feminist labor activism, by the 1970s household employees were among the few categories of workers excluded from minimum wage protections. To claim protection from labor laws and fight for access to the “fringe benefits” many American workers took for granted was a powerful statement of social and economic citizenship. Congressional opponents raised the specter of “the federal bureaucracy” invading “the kitchen of the American housewife,” but Nadasen contends that a deeper fear motivated their resistance to the regulation of domestic employment—the fear that combating the devaluation of household labor would denaturalize the gendered division of family labor itself. As Secretary of Labor Peter Brennan pithily put it, recognizing the value of household labor would “open the door to a lot of trouble. Your wife will want to get paid.” (P. 132.)

Once again, the household workers’ movement effectively capitalized on the convergence of interests between feminists primarily interested in expanding opportunities for women outside the home and household workers themselves. Not only did professional and middle-class working mothers depend upon household labor, some came to understand its devaluation as affecting most or all women across class and racial lines. Nadasen rightfully emphasizes the limitations of this alliance: for one thing, many middle- and upper-class feminists prioritized equal employment opportunity, and antidiscrimination laws did little to alleviate racial and economic inequality. For another, household workers’ movements had more in common with welfare and economic rights movements in their ideological and experiential roots.

Notwithstanding the penultimate chapter’s focus on the legislative battle over FLSA extension, what is perhaps more striking about the role of law in Nadasen’s narrative is its absence. And even when domestic workers succeeded in winning inclusion in FLSA protections, the law had a “mixed legacy,” stemming in part from the failure to create an effective enforcement apparatus to make real the “abstract construct of individual equality.” Nadasen makes clear that while rights were important to domestic workers, they were more a means to the end of building “a profession that is respected and pays adequately,” in the words of worker-activist Josephine Hulett. (P. 145-46.)

Further, by the 1970s many domestic workers were leaving private household employment and turning instead to agency-mediated home health-care work—which was exempt from the FLSA amendments. So too was live-in employment, increasingly the province of immigrants. Nadasen’s final chapter addresses the status of immigrants in the overwhelmingly African American household workers’ movement. The immigration reforms of 1965 both increased migration from previously restricted countries in Asia and Africa and tightened controls at the Mexican border; migration from the Caribbean and from Puerto Rico also increased during this period. Although activists worried that an influx of immigrants and migrants would further degrade wages and working conditions, Nadasen notes that domestic workers’ organizations did not resort to the xenophobia that elsewhere fueled calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Leaders’ efforts to reach out to immigrant workers enjoyed limited success, but Nadasen suggests that they were both symbolically important and reflective of the movement’s inclusive conception of labor rights. Moreover, domestic workers joined a larger campaign to organize low-wage workers, offering a critical perspective on feminist activism that often minimized or overlooked the concerns of low-income women at the margins of the labor force.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the world described in Household Workers Unite is largely familiar—for better and for worse. Familiar in the relative lawlessness of the home as a workplace, despite some significant advances at the local state and federal levels. Familiar in the complicated relationships between employers and employees in the sphere of intimate labor. And, unfortunately, all too familiar in the stories of degradation, exploitation, and abuse that continue to characterize the experiences of many marginalized workers.

Also familiar is the courageous activism of domestic workers who continue to organize and to forge uneasy but sometimes powerful alliances with employers and with feminist organizations. As Nadasen suggests, the organizing model pioneered by African American domestic workers in the 1960s and 1970s informed the larger labor movement in subsequent decades. And, increasingly, domestic workers’ organizations have begun to win significant victories—promoting a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, promulgating model employment contracts, passing legislation to protect household employees at the state and local level, and encouraging the prosecution of some of the most egregious abuses.

The most striking shift, already underway in the 1970s, is the emergence of the transnational market that now characterizes domestic work and the predominance of immigrants among household employees, especially in major population centers. Now the lawlessness that enabled exploitation with impunity stems in part from exemptions from legal protections and in part from the precarious immigration status of many domestic workers. Today, undocumented workers and noncitizens suffer from a vulnerability which exacerbates preexisting power imbalances and renders the isolation of domestic employment all the more dangerous and terrifying.

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Cite as: Serena Mayeri, The Lawless Workplace, JOTWELL (June 29, 2017) (reviewing Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Built a Movement (2015)),