Winner of the 2016 Sara A. Whaley Book Prize
Telling the stories of African American domestic workers, this book resurrects a little-known history of domestic worker activism in the 1960s and 1970s, offering new perspectives on race, labor, feminism, and organizing.
In this groundbreaking history of African American domestic-worker organizing, scholar and activist Premilla Nadasen shatters countless myths and misconceptions about an historically misunderstood workforce. Resurrecting a little-known history of domestic-worker activism from the 1950s to the 1970s, Nadasen shows how these women were a far cry from the stereotyped passive and powerless victims; they were innovative labor organizers who tirelessly organized on buses and streets across the United States to bring dignity and legal recognition to their occupation.
Dismissed by mainstream labor as “unorganizable,” African American household workers developed unique strategies for social change and formed unprecedented alliances with activists in both the women’s rights and the black freedom movements. Using storytelling as a form of activism and as means of establishing a collective identity as workers, these women proudly declared, “We refuse to be your mammies, nannies, aunties, uncles, girls, handmaidens any longer.”
With compelling personal stories of the leaders and participants on the front lines, Household Workers Unite gives voice to the poor women of color whose dedicated struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, and respect on the job created a sustained political movement that endures today.
“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. Look to Nadasen's history for an understanding of how the struggle began.”
“An iconoclastic history of African American women who organized and lobbied to improve their working conditions.”
“Household Workers Unite is the story of “the help” helping themselves. GIVE IT TO: Anyone still gushing about The Help.”
“As the ugliness of racism today wrenches our hearts, rendering a feeling of helplessness, it is restorative to learn about the empowering leadership of black women domestic workers and civil rights activists who have helped change laws and policies—and to whom we are all indebted.”
—Sheila Bapat, Feministing
“Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible.”
—Rachel M. Cohen, The American Prospect
“One of the most daring labor movements of the civil rights era started not on the factory floor, but in the kitchen...Nadasen’s account comes at a particularly relevant moment...Household Workers Unite calls on feminists to once again redefine the workplace, together and on their own terms. Home may be where the heart is, but it’s also where the fight is.”
—Michelle Chen, Ms.
“Nadasen’s definitive history is a must-read for workers, activists, and historians. With insight and precision, she brings to life the dynamic women who, in their courageous pursuit of respect and justice, inspired many movements and future generations.”
—Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and codirector of the Caring Across Generations campaign
“Premilla Nadasen offers a critically important look at a chapter encompassing the histories of labor, women and African Americans: the struggle of the African American domestic worker. Nadasen resurfaces a history of struggle that has been largely ignored and without which current efforts to organize domestic workers and other low-paid service workers cannot be fully understood. This book is a tribute to the thousands of Black women who were or are in this industry, and to those who took the courageous step to organize for fairness and justice. This was a book I could not stop reading."
—Bill Fletcher, Jr., host of The Global African, activist, and author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions
“Nadasen’s stirring account relies on the voices of household workers to expose the routine indignities and hopeful aspirations that encouraged some of the most disadvantaged American women workers to organize others. Nadasen’s empathetic, yet unflinching, narrative introduces us to a powerful form of historical storytelling. Bravo.”
—Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences
“Here at last is the story that finally positions black domestic workers at the center of mid-twentieth-century civil rights and anti-racist movement history. In the process of fighting for their rights as citizen-workers, the women whose phenomenal lives are explored in Household Workers Unite forged a legacy that deeply informs our social justice struggles today.”
—Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita, History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz
“Household Workers Unite is a stellar scholarly achievement, a powerful and timely political contribution, and a must read for anyone seriously interested in the confluence of race, class, gender and citizenship in the lives of women of color, and in the historic struggles for social justice, in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
—Barbara Ransby, Professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, Director of the Social Justice Initiative, and author of the award-winning Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
CHAPTER 1: “Conversations About Domestic Labor”
CHAPTER 2: Women, Civil Rights, and Grassroots Mobilization
CHAPTER 3: A New Day for Domestic Workers
CHAPTER 4: Intimacy, Labor, and Professionalization
CHAPTER 5: Space, Place, and New Models of Labor Organizing
CHAPTER 6: Social Rights, Feminist Solidarity, and the FLSA
CHAPTER 7: Women, Work, and Immigration