Striking Down the Nostalgia for Mammy: Black Women and Labor Activism
September 03, 2015
Nearly eighty years ago, Margaret Mitchell published what would become a best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind. More than thirty million copies have sold worldwide, and in 1939, the film adaptation was released. The novel tells the tale of a young white woman slaveholder, Scarlett O’Hara, who struggles to come to terms with her descent into poverty in the South during and after the Civil War. The story is hailed as a classic in American literature and beloved by audiences for its heroic portrayal of one headstrong woman’s journey for independence and self-discovery.
Published in 1936, Gone with the Wind represents a particular moment in the history of domestic work. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many European women—Irish, German, and Scandinavian—worked as domestics, especially in the North and Midwest. With the curtailment of European immigration in the 1920s, African American women, who had long served as the primary domestic worker labor force in the South, came to dominate the occupation in the North as well. This context of African American women becoming synonymous with domestic work enabled the warm reception of the representation of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
Although the popular stereotype of Mammy was powerfully resonant for many white Americans, the history of African American domestic workers tells a different story. Two years before Mitchell’s book was published, household workers in New York City had formed the Domestic Workers Union—with an estimated one thousand members—to challenge the ongoing exploitation and mistreatment of household workers in the context of the Great Depression. Led by Dora Jones, who lived in Sunnyside Queens, they established a hiring hall, insisted on minimum wages and a contract signed by employers, and fought for state-based labor protections. The DWU eventually affiliated as a local of the Building Services Employees International Union. And it was not the only organization of household workers. Similar groups emerged in other parts of the country. Domestic workers, it seems, were far from passive or content.
Examining the character of Mammy in light of the organizing and resistance by African American women, who were challenging the racialized nature of the occupation, illuminates how this novel entered into a contentious and highly-charged debate about the labor of black women. Black women activists were trying to break free of the history of slavery and servitude and end the rampant labor exploitation that characterized the occupation. Indeed, the New Deal offered some hope for a new racial order. In Gone with the Wind, however, Mitchell landed firmly on the side of seeing African American women as the servants of white women. It was no accident that Scarlett’s struggle for survival was aided and supported by the black women around her.
Gone with the Wind is still a favorite among American audiences. What’s to account, then, for the novel’s ongoing popularity even though African American women are no longer the primary household worker labor force? The themes of feminist success and racial subordination seem timeless and continue to play out in multiple ways. In contemporary political debates, the context is the corporate boardroom and (white) women’s struggle for voice, autonomy, and leadership. Female corporate leaders encounter sexual objectification, the work-family balance, and dismissive attitudes in high-powered meetings. Their success has become, for some people, representative of the feminist struggle. They are quintessentially women, mothers, and professionals. Missing in their stories of success (and this goes for corporate male leaders as well) is the staff of workers who help raise the children, clean the house, and tend to the lawn. In fact, most professionals depend on a supporting cast of low-wage service workers to carry out much of the day-to-day drudgery that enable them to be the best that they can be. Success and subordination, the central themes of Gone with the Wind, are still very much with us today.
About the Author
Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @premillanadasen.