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Life Story: Dorothy Bolden (1924–2005)
Founder of the National Domestic Workers Union of America
The story of an organizer of domestic workers and a civil rights activist.
Dorothy Bolden was born in 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. When she was three, she injured her eyes in a terrible fall. She struggled with vision impairment for the rest of her life.
Dorothy was involved in domestic work from a very early age. Her mother was a maid and washerwoman. Dorothy and her brother delivered the laundry that their mother washed for other families. At the age of nine, Dorothy took an after-school job with a local family. She cared for their baby, washed diapers, and cleaned the house. In the eleventh grade, Dorothy dropped out of high school to work full time as a maid. Each day, she worked from 8 a.m. to early evening yet made only $3.00 a week.
Dorothy longed to leave the domestic workforce. She attended design school but had to drop out because of her poor eyesight. She briefly worked in a company mailroom. However, she almost always found herself back in Atlanta doing domestic work.
Dorothy was not alone in this struggle. For generations of Black women, domestic work was the only option readily open to them. People wrongfully assumed domestic work was unskilled. This resulted in long hours, low wages, and bad treatment.
Dorothy experienced this poor treatment firsthand. At the end of one long day in 1940, Dorothy’s employer told her to stay late and wash the dishes. Dorothy refused and left. On her walk home, two police officers arrested her for talking back to a white woman. Dorothy’s family intervened and got her out of jail.
In 1944, Dorothy met Abraham Thompson. Dorothy and Abraham married and had nine children together. Three died at a young age and six survived to adulthood.
After taking a few years off to care for her own family, economic necessity pushed Dorothy back into domestic work. With years of experience, Dorothy obtained better paying positions. In some large houses, she managed a staff and made $90 each week. In many ways, Dorothy liked the work. She enjoyed making a homerun efficiently. But she often felt powerless and exhausted. She woke up 4 a.m. to take a bus to the white part of town. When she returned home after a long day, she had to prepare meals, clean, and raise her own children. Her employers told her she was a member of their family, but Dorothy knew those were just words. Even the children she helped raise treated her as inferior because she was Black.
In 1955, Dorothy was watching TV when she saw Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. Dorothy found herself talking to the TV. She told Rosa to stay seated. She understood how tired Rosa felt. Dorothy was tired too.
Watching Rosa Parks motivated Dorothy. She volunteered with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped build a strong local network. Regional leaders soon learned that Dorothy could get things done. She worked on issues like school desegregation, voter registration, and housing. She was grateful that her husband Abraham was willing to watch the children while she became more involved in activism.
However, Dorothy worried about her fellow domestic workers. Dorothy believed that civic engagement was a luxury most Black women could not afford. She argued that school desegregation meant little to Black mothers who couldn’t afford to buy their children school clothes. It was hard for Black women to care about politics while they worked thankless jobs for very little money.
We aren’t Aunt Jemima women, and I sure to God don’t want people to think we are. We are politically strong and independent.
Dorothy approached Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with an idea. She wanted him to help her form a domestic workers union. Dr. King knew about Dorothy’s hard work and told her she could do it on her own. Dorothy took his vote of confidence and got to work.
Dorothy knew the only time domestic workers had to themselves was when they were in transit between their jobs and homes. The bus was where domestics could meet, share stories, and support each other. Dorothy decided this was the perfect place to start organizing. She rode buses all over Atlanta and spoke to hundreds of women. Almost all of them agreed that a union was needed.
Eventually, Dorothy had enough interest to call a meeting. In the summer of 1968, over 70 domestic workers elected Dorothy as the president of the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA). It was one of the first formal organizations to support domestic workers in the country. Although it had the word national in the title, it primarily served women in the Atlanta area. Members paid dues in exchange for two key services.
First, NDWUA trained members in skills such as cooking, shopping, driving, child care, elder care, and first aid. Most members already had these skills. Dorothy often said domestic workers earned a “PhD in common sense” on the job. However, by creating a formal training program, the NDWUA publicly declared that these women were trained professionals worthy of respect. Graduates even received a certificate they could show to potential employers.
NDWUA also supported workers in the negotiation process for better wages and hours. Because each domestic worker had a different employer, it was almost impossible for NDWUA to negotiate on behalf of all members, as a typical union might do. Instead, NDWUA trained each member to be her own advocate. Members learned how to bargain for better pay, better hours, and other requirements.
Over time, Dorothy noticed a change in the domestic workforce. Domestic workers in Atlanta were more confident and less ashamed of their work. Even the way they dressed suggested they felt better about themselves. In addition, the work of NDWUA inspired similar organizations to form in other cities. The conversation around domestic workers changed for the better.
In 1970, NWDUA announced the first annual Maids’ Honor Day. Employers nominated their employees for “Maid of the Year,” which was announced at a gala event just for workers and their loved ones. In 1972, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter announced a statewide Maids’ Honor Day. Dorothy stood next to him during the big announcement.
As Dorothy predicted, the better domestic workers felt and were compensated, the more likely it was that they cared about other issues. Dorothy required every member of the NDWUA to register to vote. With thousands of members, NDWUA became a powerful voting bloc. Elected officials in Georgia knew they needed Dorothy’s approval to gain votes of Black women. Dorothy’s reputation in politics and labor reform even reached the national level. During her career, she counseled presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.
The NWDUA remained influential until Dorothy’s retirement in the mid-1990s. Dorothy died in 2005.
- bloc: A group that shares common interests or goals.
- domestic worker: A person who performs paid work in someone’s home, including cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.