More than 100 years ago, black domestic workers in Georgia organized for better pay. Now they’re getting out the vote for Stacey Abrams.
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.
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.
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.