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The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

by Premilla Nadasen

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8070-1450-9
Publisher: Beacon Press

Scholar/activist Nadasen (History/Barnard Coll.; Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement, 2011, etc.) showcases the stories of African-American women who helped organize domestic workers from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Valuable for its recovery of a largely neglected piece of labor history, particularly one in which race, class, immigration, and gender intersect, this work may prove most useful as a how-to guide for those looking to effect change in the landscape of the new economy. Inspired by the civil rights and women’s rights movements, operating largely outside the formal labor movement, postwar household workers by necessity developed guerrilla strategies for demanding respect and fair treatment. The best parts of Nadasen’s book are the firsthand accounts from the women who embodied tactics like remaking the public image of domestics, using public spaces to organize, and employing storytelling to galvanize the need for change. They include Georgia Gilmore, who played a leading role organizing domestic workers in support of the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott; Atlanta's Dorothy Bolden, who helped found the National Domestic Workers Union; Cleveland-based Geraldine Roberts, who formed the Domestic Workers of America; and Detroit’s Mary McClendon, founder of the Household Workers Organization. These women and others strove to dispel the pernicious “mammy stereotype," and their stories are powerful and inspiring. Nadasen’s analysis, however, descends frequently into the wearisome academic jargon that too often accompanies her forthrightly admitted social justice perspective. However, specialists will likely appreciate her treatment of numerous subthemes, including feminists struggling with the ethics of paid household help, the mainstream labor unions mistakenly deeming domestic workers “unorganizable,” the racial tension within the movement arising from shifting demographics, and the peculiar dynamics of the mistress-maid relationship.

The fight on behalf of household workers for the “3 P’s: pay, protection, and professionalism” continues. Look to Nadasen’s history for an understanding of how the struggle began.