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  • Citizenship Rights, Domestic Work, and the Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Premilla Nadasen (bio)

Before a national convention of domestic workers in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, urged them to action: "Organize and work together with the women's groups and labor and civil rights groups in your community." The daughter of a household laborer, she exhorted, "Hold meetings and rallies. Talk to the local press. Let everyone know that you are first-class citizens and that you will not settle for anything less than a fair and equal chance to share in the fruits of this country."1 Chisholm was speaking to the already mobilized. In the 1960s and 1970s, private household workers around the country organized to improve working conditions, raise wages, professionalize their occupation, and claim their rights to social citizenship. Inclusion in labor law became a major goal.

The domestic worker rights movement, which came together as the Household Technicians of America in 1971, consisted of dozens of locally based organizations made up largely of poor African American women. Some of them had direct ties to the civil rights movement.2 Others were, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, simply "sick and tired of being sick and tired." They were responding to the conditions of an occupation with a long history of exploitation and abuse, one in which employers had overwhelming power and much of the mistreatment took place behind closed doors. Most domestic workers were poor women of color who had few occupational [End Page 74] choices. They were often underpaid, frequently overworked, and excluded from key labor laws. Now they were acting to claim their rights.

This article examines the national campaign by domestic workers in the 1970s for coverage under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which assured minimum wage protections and overtime pay to many workers. Phyllis Palmer has persuasively argued that the civil rights movement and the women's movement were politically influential and helped reconstruct cultural ideas of work, race, and gender regarding agricultural and domestic labor. I build upon Palmer and other previous scholarship on this campaign to discuss the normative racial and gender assumptions that profoundly shaped understandings of domestic work and undergird congressional debates about the amendments. In doing so, I highlight a neglected set of actors, domestic workers themselves.3 How African American women domestic workers made their claim to social citizenship through lobbying for amendments to the FLSA in the 1970s—their policy arguments—is as significant as the policy process itself to understand the position of domestic labor under the law. Domestic workers had an expansive definition of labor that challenged fundamental assumptions about work enshrined in the New Deal. Since the 1930s, labor legislation, such as the FLSA, constituted differences of race and gender through its exclusions as well as actual provisions, creating a hierarchy within the category of citizenship derived from labor.

Domestic worker activists forged a feminist alliance of working women and housewives, professionals and domestics, to revalue women's household labor and claim it as legitimate work. Through their campaigns, they sought to remake the meaning of citizenship for African American women and to expand the definition of "worker" that had been circumscribed in the 1930s. If the civil rights campaigns were intended to de-racialize American political citizenship, then the domestic worker rights movement aimed to deracialize and de-gender the meaning of work embedded in American social policy.

Despite the fact that this campaign spoke to the needs of some of the most marginalized African Americans, domestic workers' pursuit of social citizenship rights is an often overlooked part of the struggle for African American equality in the postwar period. After World War II, African Americans mobilized to dismantle the structures of Jim Crow segregation, to attain full and unhindered access to the ballot, and to fight for fair and equitable hiring practices.4 In their struggle for full citizenship rights, African Americans achieved some notable successes that opened educational and job opportunities for the African American community and enhanced its electoral power. The FLSA [End Page 75] amendments belonged to this expansion of rights. Yet, at the same time, the campaign for FLSA...


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