Part Three (Women’s Rights)- The Womanist Tradition and Domestic Workers in the Early Twentieth Century US

African American Maids in the North: 1930s-1960s-

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In this article we will continue our series on women’s rights, honoring the 100th Anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1919. The bill officially became law throughout the United States when Tennessee adopted the legislation in 1920. This article will be devoted to women of color who were domestic workers in the early to mid-twentieth century across the United States in the homes of white Americans. We will also offer some lesson plan ideas that can be used in middle and secondary classrooms.

My grandmother
My maternal grandmother (Mattie Childs) earned a living as a domestic servant in South Florida in the early to mid-twentieth century –An occupation she called “day work.” She cooked and cleaned for the “white folk” everyday. Ms. Childs often worked from sun-up to sundown running the household of her employer, often having very little energy for her own children at the end of the day. She made $2 a week, trying to help feed a family of eight in the mid-twentieth century; slave wages even for the time period she lived in.

The experience of women of color has often been different from their mainstream counterparts. Mainstream feminism has often overlooked their experiences, giving way to the womanist tradition, a movement that arose as a corrective to mainstream feminism. Womanist theory tries to highlight the unique experiences of women of color in the United States. As we continue to pay homage to the anniversary of the passage of the nineteenth amendment we point to the unique experiences of black women in America. Below we offer a brief history of black domestic workers in the United States during the early to mid 1900’s.

Black Domestic Workers post-Civil War to World War I
After the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, slavery was legally abolished in 1865. However, many African Americans did not have any options in making a living, after all, the only skill set they had was to work on the plantation. Furthermore, the Freedmen’s Bureau told former slaves that they could either sign labor contracts with white planters or be evicted. Often the men turned to sharecropping while many of the women in the late nineteenth century became domestic workers. Furthermore, domestic work was the only work they could get because southerners wanted to keep African Americans in their place; that is, in a position subservient to whites. Many of these women migrated to the North for higher paying jobs and more opportunities, only to find out that still the primary job they could get was as a domestic servant. Domestic workers in both the north and the south  were “generally treated as poor, child-like beings that were seen as victims of their own ignorance of living in communities of crime and other societal infringements.” However, even with these hardships these women still settled for these positions, as this was often the only work they could get before World War I. In many African American homes both the husband and the wife had to work in order to have enough to support the family financially, unlike many of the women in middle class white families who could stay at home and tend to the house while their husbands worked.

Black Domestic Workers during the Great Depression
From the end of the Civil War until the 1930’s domestic servants could steadily find work. However, with the advent of the Great Depression, many of the women lost their jobs because white families lost their source of income and could no longer afford to higher them to work in their home. As a result, many of the women solicited work from various places, often working a grueling 18 hours on decreased wages. Of course the women accepted these conditions because of the desperate times and low status of black women.

Black Domestic Workers during 1960s America
Nearly ninety percent of African American women worked as domestic workers during the Civil Rights era. Domestic workers played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement. “Since many white households relied on the African American domestic workers for housework, the workers were able to have a direct impact on the white race when rebelling for their civil rights.” Typically the domestic workers rebelled in an informal manner. For example, Many women refused to live in the same home in which they worked or secretly did only a limited amount of work that they felt was reasonable for pay. “By doing this, the African American domestic workers transformed the domestic services, and collective organizations came about promoting a better work environment for African American domestic workers. Their act of rebellion gave way for a change of how they were treated, how they were paid, and how they were respected.”

Activity Ideas for Discussion
It is important to have students share their experiences. 

  • Have students talk about the challenges they have had as a woman.
  • Allow women of color, the space to freely and comfortably share their experiences. 
  • Have students compare and contrast their lives to women of color? 
  • Have students also look at how the experience of low-income women might be different from their own.

    Discussion Questions
  1. How is the womanist tradition different from mainstream feminism?
  2. How do the two movements compliment one another? 
  3. How might you address this topic in your classroom?


  1. I was not alive during this time period and I am also not a woman of color. But I hate that our ancestors treated others like that even if it was the “social norm” at the time. 

  2. This was a very interesting read! It helped open my eyes to a problem that maybe I didn’t see before. I did not realize how many women of color struggled to find work! It is crazy to me that this was less than 100 years ago. This article does a good job of bringing important issues up that someone may not have known happened in the past.

  3. In my opinion, the biggest difference between the womanist theory and mainstream feminism (mostly upheld by white women) is the difference in oppression. While the white woman is trying to rid herself of the Victorian model of the weak, a black woman is struggling with racism, sexism and classism. This makes it seem as though the feminist movement is that of a suburban, white middle class woman’s and irrelevant to the black woman. Another difference between the movements can also be seen in the reaction the two different races of women might receive when speaking out against the system. For some white women (not all because I don’t want to claim something I don’t know), becoming militant without fear of consequences is not the same privilege that can be afforded to a black woman who had to be careful in the ways she chose to speak out. She had to do it in a sly manner for fear of harsh consequences.

  4. This article helped open my eyes to an issue that I did not even know was there. I am a white woman who faces my own struggles everyday, but I have never thought about how women of color struggle in very different ways. Part of the reason is that this is not something that I had ever be told about or taught, but as I read this article it clicked that there are women of color who are struggling to be treated the same as women who are white. I think that this article did a good job of bringing that to light, and how we should be fighting for equal rights for everyone no matter the color of their skin.

  5. I found this article very informative and it opened my eyes to something I never really thought of before. I knew that the great depression was difficult for everyone, but I never thought about it from a women’s perspective, and going even deeper and African American woman’s perspective. Before the great depression the work they had to do was very difficult, but after was so much worse. It is disheartening that we put our citizens through such a thing. I think it is important as feminism continues to be talked about, that the African American women community is discussed.

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