Opinion | When Domestic Workers Rose Up in Atlanta
All across Atlanta, hundreds of domestic workers have been knocking on doors for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, hoping to turn her into first black woman in that role.
These domestic workers, mostly black women affiliated with Care in Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are using new technologies, like a smartphone app to identify the homes of voters of color.
But they’re also carrying on an 140-year-old tradition of domestic workers fighting for economic empowerment. Despite their marginalized positions and the many obstacles in their way, they insist on making their voices heard.
In July 1881, washerwomen in Atlanta, toiling outside in the hot summer as they lugged buckets of well water and scrubbed their white patrons’ laundry, finally had enough. They decided to go on strike to demand increased wages and respect for their work.
They and a few male allies mobilized supporters by going door to door in black neighborhoods, despite threats of being arrested for “disorderly conduct.” The women held meetings in churches, hundreds packing the pews. They formed the Washing Society, a cross between a labor union and a mutual aid organization, with subsidiaries in the city’s five wards.
In Southern cities, black domestic workers, including maids, nurses, cooks and laundresses, performed the most intimate and the most undesirable jobs for white families. They were paid substandard wages, expected to work long hours and were subjected to insults and sometimes even physical assaults.
And in the beginning of the Jim Crow era, domestic work was more than a system of labor. It also symbolized an ordering of society by race in which black people were always considered subservient.
When the strike broke out in July, the women faced a chorus of boos and laughs from employers, city officials, businessmen and reporters from the The Atlanta Constitution newspaper. The women were called “Washing Amazons.”
But the nickname soon proved to be apt. “I tell you, this strike is a big thing,” the police chief admitted after the first week when it was clear that there was no end in sight. Unlike other domestic workers, who labored in isolation in their employers’ homes, the laundresses shared work sites and were thus able to build solidarity.
The white power structure was not going to sit idly by as the strikers and their sympathizers soon grew to 3,000 people. The City Council, for example, debated passing an exorbitant “business tax” on members of the Washing Society.
The women responded by writing an open letter to the mayor, which was published in The Atlanta Constitution: “We, the members of our society, are determined to stand our pledge and make extra charges for washing, and we have agreed and are willing to pay $25 or $50 for licenses as a protection so we can control the washing for the city.”
They were bluffing, of course, considering their limited resources. But, by embracing a penalty as an advantage, they showed they were astute strategists. The letter concluded with defiance: “We mean business this week or no washing.” The tax measure failed to pass.
The washerwomen organized the largest strike in the city’s history, forcing white people to do their own laundry in an era when washing was still mostly done by hand. Few of the laundresses were able to achieve higher wages, but they still scored a political victory in making their voices heard and asserting their rights at a pivotal moment.
This shrewd organizing occurred amid a flourishing grass-roots political campaign for full citizenship rights that began during Reconstruction. The women were a part of Republican Party coalitions that were thriving, despite the concerted efforts of conservative Democrats to suppress their husbands’ rights to vote and hold office.
Meanwhile, Atlanta was preparing for the opening of the International Cotton Exposition that fall. City boosters bragged that the event would showcase Southern workers as “teachable, tractable, thankful for employment and utterly unacquainted with the strike.” The washerwomen’s strike was a loud public dissent.
The domestic workers who are canvassing the streets and sending phone texts for Ms. Abrams also stand on the shoulders of a national mobilization that began in the 1960s and in which the Atlanta civil rights activist Dorothy Lee Bolden played a crucial role.
She was the daughter of a cook–laundress and a chauffeur and began helping her mother when she was 9. Bolden held domestic jobs throughout her life. Building on skills she learned through organizing for better public schools for black children, she founded the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968.
Bolden recruited women at bus stops, on the buses themselves, and in neighborhood meetings — echoing back to the washerwomen. And, like them, she capitalized on the civil rights movement to highlight the economic issues most important to their lives. She received the blessing of her comrade the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, before his death.
Bolden, in alliance with domestic workers and feminists in other cities, helped achieve national benefits for an excluded group. Domestic workers had been left out of progressive labor laws passed during the New Deal of the 1930s. They petitioned and lobbied state legislatures and the federal government and secured inclusion in minimum wage laws in 1974 and unemployment insurance in 1976.
Now, the domestic workers’ ground game is risky; it’s being conducted in public spaces where whites could call the police on them, making them the victims in the increasingly common meme of “doing X while black.”
Similarly, they are working in an environment of voter suppression disproportionately aimed at black voters. On Friday, a federal judge ruled that the Georgia secretary of state and Ms. Abrams’ Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, must stop using an “exact match” law that flags slight discrepancies on registration rolls that could prevent people from voting.
It is more than symbolic that domestic workers would support Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman from the birthplace of their movement. Most important, she stands for the issues they have long fought for, like the expansion of health insurance, a living wage and quality public education. No one should be surprised that these women, following in the long tradition of their foremothers of grass-roots activism, might help her to win.
Tera W. Hunter (@TeraWHunter) is a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton and the author of, most recently, “Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”
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