A Worker from a Young Age
In 1933, Dorothy Bolden began working as a domestic worker for a white Atlanta family near her Vine City home in the Westside community. She was nine years old. Every day after school, she’d work at the family’s home, caring for their baby, washing diapers and cleaning the house.
In 11th grade, she dropped out of school and began working full-time as a domestic worker. She would begin at 8 a.m. and finish in the early evening, just after dinner. Despite working nearly 12 hours a day, she only earned $3 per week.
For Bolden, domestic work was the only lifestyle she knew. When she was born in 1924, her mother was a maid and washerwoman. Before she began working on her own, Bolden and her brother would deliver the laundry their mother washed for other families.
The work was grueling. From the beginning, Bolden longed to leave the domestic workforce, but was limited by an injury she suffered at age three, which left her eyesight severely damaged. She attempted to attend design school and work in a mailroom, but her poor vision made it near impossible. She ultimately landed back as a domestic worker.
Unfortunately for many Black women at the time, this was a vicious cycle. Domestic work was one of the few careers readily available to them due to a litany of restrictions caused by segregation. It was unrightfully viewed as an unskilled job, resulting in low wages, long hours and poor treatment.
At the age of 16, Bolden experienced poor treatment firsthand. Her employer demanded she stay late one evening to wash dishes and tidy up the house. With nightfall just around the corner, she refused and left. On her way home, she was confronted by two Atlanta police officers who promptly arrested her for talking back to a white woman. She was jailed and eventually bailed out by her family at great financial expense.
Family, Misfortune and Motivation
A few years later in 1944, Bolden met Abraham Thompson and the two were married. The couple had nine children together— three passed away at a young age and the other six lived on to adulthood.
Bolden took a few years off from work to care for her family, but economic conditions were unfavorable and forced her back into the domestic workforce. This time around, with years of experience under her belt, she was able to command a higher rate with some larger homes paying her as much as $90 per week.
Still, the pay did not satisfy the exhaustion. Each day, she would wake up at 4 a.m. to travel to the white neighborhoods she served, then return home in the evening to prepare meals and care for her children. While she claimed to like the work to some degree, the exhaustion it caused and the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of families she served were taking a toll.
One day in 1955, Bolden was watching TV when she saw the news of Rosa Parks in Alabama refusing to give up her seat. The exhaustion she saw in the fellow labor worker’s eyes inspired her to move for change, and that’s when her mission began.
A Quest for Change
Bolden quickly dove into the world of activism, volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and her impact was immediately noticeable. She played an integral role in school desegregation, voter registration and housing reform.
Bolden was still unsatisfied, arguing that desegregated schools and housing was pointless when Black women working as domestic workers couldn’t even afford clothes for their children to attend the schools. That’s when she turned her attention and activism toward the cause closest to her heart, supporting her fellow domestic workers.
Having grown up in Vine City and working tirelessly to build an activism network in the community, she turned to her new neighbor on Sunset Avenue and asked for some guidance on how to form a union for her fellow workers. That neighbor was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King had heard of Bolden’s work with local organizations and encouraged her to move forward with the formation of a union, saying he knew she had the ability to do it herself. So she did.
Forming a union required her to meet with her constituents. With years of domestic work experience herself, she knew there was little to no time for them to meet outside of work hours, so she met them at the one place she knew they’d be every day— the bus.
For months, Bolden would ride buses at the same time domestic workers were traveling to and from their jobs. She championed her cause, urging domestic workers to join her in forming a union – and they agreed.
A Union is Born
In 1968, more than 70 domestic workers elected Bolden as president of the newly-formed National Domestic Workers of America, one of the first of its kind in the country. While the organization had national in its name, it primarily served women in the Atlanta area.
The union’s first goal was to train the domestic workers in skills, including cooking, shopping, child care and elder care. Though most workers already possessed the skills, Bolden and the union provided a formal training program, which helped them argue that the workers were now professionally trained and worthy of higher pay and better treatment.
The union’s impact was noticeable; domestic workers were now receiving reasonable pay and there was a clear shift in the overall environment of the career, with many workers feeling more confident and proud of their work. Soon, similar organizations began to sprout up around the country, and the government took notice.
In 1970, the union announced the first Maids’ Honor Day, during which employers nominated their employees to be recognized at a local gala to celebrate their hard work. Two years later, then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter announced the day would be recognized as a state holiday. Bolden stood next to him during the address.
Over the next three decades, the union would remain a prominent force for protecting the rights of domestic workers. Bolden’s success earned her national recognition, and over the years she acted as an advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. She remained a key leader of the union until her retirement in the mid-1990s. Bolden passed away in 2005.
While the traditional domestic worker role has changed significantly over the years, Bolden’s legacy was crucial to providing the safe and fair work environment that home caretakers experience today.