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Fierce Activists, Fierce Agitators: Women at the Vanguard of the Labor Movement

By Rachael Marks

Edith Barksdale Sloan speaking at the first national conference of household workers, in 1971. (Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, National Archives for Black Women’s History)

I’d been following the domestic workers movement here in Massachusetts as they campaigned to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In 2014, Massachusetts became the fourth state to approve the domestic workers bill of rights which guarantees basic work standards, such as meal and rest breaks, parental leave, protection from discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. I wanted to know more about the movement and this lead me to Premilla Nadasen, who was involved as an activist and historian.

I tend to gravitate towards stories of fierce activists and agitators on the margins, so naturally I was fascinated by the history Premilla unearthed in Household Workers Unite. The women she writes about—Dorothy Bolden, Geraldine Roberts, Josephine Hulett—were all brilliant organizers who responded to the challenges that were unique to their profession, challenges that were so severe that mainstream labor regarded them as “unorganizable.” For instance, domestic workers were isolated in the home, they could have any number of employers at any given time, and perhaps most problematic, their work was categorically disregarded as work. They were excluded from basic state and federal labor rights; and were, to quote Geraldine Roberts, “invisible workers.”

In response, they recruited other domestics on buses and street corners, made alliances with black freedom movements and women’s rights groups. They sought to professionalize the occupation through technical training programs.

Some of the most remarkable passages in the book are the stories of how these women resisted, often publically: they organized forums, lobbied the government, distributed pamphlets, and told stories. Storytelling became a crucial organizing tool and a way to build community and develop a domestic worker identity. By sharing stories of their experiences as domestics, and of racial and gender discrimination, they situated the struggle historically. For African-American women, this history of exploitation and resistance stretches back to slavery in America.

Here, Nadasen shares Sloan's history with us:

Born in the Bronx into a working-class African American family, civil rights activist Edith Barksdale Sloan had never been employed as a domestic when she was chosen in January 1969 to head the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE), an organization of mostly middle-class women committed to reform. Despite having little firsthand experience of the occupation, Sloan’s family had a long tradition of domestic work. As a child she had heard stories about her own family history and about the slave market of the Great Depression, which connected her to the history of domestic-worker exploitation as head of the NCHE.

In a feature article in Essence magazine in 1974, Sloan wrote about the stories she was told as a child about the “Bronx Slave Market” of the 1930s: “It resembled a slave auction with the prospective buyers looking over the workers like so many head of cattle; looking for the strongest and sturdiest.” The stories merged with her personal and family history. “Although I never actually saw the ‘Slave Market,’ I do remember seeing the women from our neighborhood on their way to cleaning someone else’s house. One of them was my great-aunt Rie. She would leave every morning about 7:30 with her housedress in a satchel, on her way to Mrs. So-and-So’s house to do her ‘day’s work.’ She would return before dark with her satchel stuffed full of leftover matzos, chicken fat and gefilte fish, and maybe a garment or two that her employer had given her...Aunt Rie always looked forward to her sixty-fifth birthday so she could retire and draw her deceased husband’s social security. She did retire at age 65—and died the next year with every ounce of strength worked out of her.” “I don’t ever remember her arriving home with a bonus or her ever receiving paid sick leave or a paid holiday or a paid vacation.” Her aunt’s story was one of years of hard labor, long days, and very little payoff at the end; her life seemed to have been given over to her employers.

Household Workers UniteEducation and opportunity ultimately ended this occupational quagmire for Edith’s mother and herself. Her mother was raised in Laurens, South Carolina, by her grandmother, Adoline. Adoline, a household worker, was raped repeatedly by her employer when she was a teenager and bore two children by him. At the age of twenty, she quit domestic work and started her own catering business. Edith’s mother was sent to New York when she was fourteen to live with her aunt Rie and her husband, “with hopes of breaking the domestic cycle by attending college.” Edith’s mother went to vocational school and became an expert dressmaker. Both her mother and her father, a postal worker and electrician, exposed her to prominent African American political leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Ralph Bunche, instilling in her a political and cultural sensibility. According to Edith, “She and my father vowed that their children would all have the opportunity to go to college. And we did.”

Under her leadership beginning in 1969, the NCHE brought together workers such as Dorothy Bolden and Geraldine Roberts at a national convention that led to the establishment of the Household Technicians of America (HTA), the first-ever national organization of household workers. Sloan shifted the political orientation of the NCHE from the needs of employers to the rights of domestic workers. Less interested in training domestic workers to expand the pool of available employees than on empowering workers in the workplace, Edith Sloan’s family history and personal connection to domestic work proved to be significant in her leadership. Her family stories of domestic work and those of other domestic workers were central to building the movement for household workers and helped frame her understanding of the occupation. These narratives became the starting point for arguments for reform.

Household Workers Unite is in the same spirit as another of our books, Sex Workers Unite by Mindy Chateauvert. In that book, Chateauvert shows how sex workers have been involved in the historic struggles for gay liberation, women’s rights, reproductive justice, union organizing, and prison abolition movements. She documents a vibrant history of sex workers as activists, not as victims. Similarly, Premilla shows how these aren’t the passive women of The Help in need of rescue. Both activist histories shine a light on people organizing for self-determination on their own terms. Their successes might’ve been overlooked, misunderstood, or co-opted by other movements, but their impact is long-lasting.


About the Author 

Rachael Marks, Associate Editor, joined Beacon Press in 2010 after receiving a M.A. in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College. She acquires in education, with a special interest in educational equality and democracy; cultural environments of urban, suburban, and rural educational settings; issues of difference, diversity, social justice, and alliance building.