Feminism at the Heart
of Racial Justice
The fight for women's rights is more complex for women of color — but it always has been. scroll down arrow

Illustration by JDawnInk/iStock

This "New" Feminism Has Been Here All Along

YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

Feminists of Color Joanne Smith (second from left), executive director of Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, with members Hyunhee Shin, Sharone Holloman, and Fariha Farzana. YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

Joanne Smith’s understanding of feminism is shaped in large part by her grandmother’s story. The now-deceased matriarch, then employed as a nurse in Haiti, wrote to President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s seeking a way out of the country for her family during the turbulent reign of Haitian President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Kennedy responded, awarding Smith’s engineer grandfather a fellowship in Tunisia. But while in the North African country ahead of his wife and children, the man started a new family. Smith’s grandmother was undeterred by the betrayal and found a way to the United States and work that allowed her to eventually send for the children she’d left with relatives in Haiti.

Dani McClain

Dani McClain is an award-winning journalist who reports on race, gender, reproductive justice, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with The Nation Institute. McClain’s writing has appeared in outlets including Slate, Talking Points Memo, Al Jazeera America, Colorlines, EBONY, and Guernica.

Smith, who leads an organization in Brooklyn called Girls for Gender Equity, said that she remembers being told about her grandmother while growing up: “She got your grandfather the job. She accessed politics. She was educated.” That example now informs the work Smith does supporting the 11- to 24-year-olds who come to her organization for training in community organizing. “Her leadership shaped everything that I know about feminism and Black feminism,” Smith said.

Smith’s own identity is rich and layered. She is a Black woman, a Lesbian, a first-generation Haitian American, and one of three daughters raised by a single mother who earned a bachelor’s degree at the age of 50. These and other aspects of her identity figure into how she understands and lives feminism. In other words, she embodies what’s often called intersectional feminism. Through her organization’s work with the New York City Council’s Young Women’s Initiative and the White House Council on Women and Girls, Smith is one of many voices exposing new audiences to this intersectional approach. In the process, she often finds herself making a critical point: While her feminism — a feminism that takes into account the totality of a person’s identity and experience — may be a new concept for some, there’s nothing new about it.

The feminism that some find more familiar, the feminism that made words and phrases like “womanism” and “intersectional feminism” necessary in the first place, is less explicitly inclusive.

Consider the plain and simple feminism that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie named in her TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” and that Beyoncé then enshrined in her 2014 song “Flawless.” As Adichie put it, “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” This is a clear, concise explanation voiced by a Nigerian writer and amplified by an African-American entertainer, one that implies a big tent with room for all kinds of people.

Yet many are turned off by the word when it stands on its own because of the exclusive ways it’s been applied throughout history. “Feminism” can serve as shorthand for a political project that, in theory, sought to liberate all women but, in practice, elevated a particular slice of womanhood. The typical student of 19th-century feminism is more likely to think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton than Anna Julia Cooper, the Black educator and author of the 1892 book Voice from the South, if asked who advanced the movement’s first wave. Gloria Steinem is nearly a household name; Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, the Black feminist and attorney who was often paired with Steinem for ’70s speaking engagements, is not. This is because of the textbooks and mainstream media projects that build and preserve standard narratives about who feminism benefits and who has kept it alive all these years.

YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

Fariha Farzana being photographed by Shenese Patterson. YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

Unfortunately, differences between the priorities of second- and third-wave feminism and those of the intersectional approach gaining more traction today are often presented in mainstream media as a generational conflict. Take, for example, the campaign-trail debate last winter over why many young women seemed unmoved by Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Most news outlets framed the phenomenon as a clash between older White women and their younger counterparts. Think Gloria Steinem suggesting that young women were simply on the hunt for dates with the young men supporting Bernie Sanders and Madeleine Albright’s “special place in hell” quote about the destination of any woman not supporting Clinton.

The coverage described both a betrayal of the old guard by women young enough to be their granddaughters and the emergence of a new guard that considers itself feminist but understands the word in entirely different ways. This framing cast millennials as the engines behind a “new” feminism — one in which efforts toward equality on the basis of sex (Clinton’s domain) get equal footing with efforts toward racial justice, immigrant rights, the eradication of poverty, and the centering of Queer and Trans people’s issues (not exactly Clinton’s domain).

“Feminism” can serve as shorthand for a political project that, in theory, sought to liberate all women but, in practice, elevated a particular slice of womanhood.

But the lack of enthusiasm about Clinton was not actually evidence of a clash between generations. Similar tensions have long existed within struggles for women’s rights, and two recent historical documentaries show just how. In She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a 2014 film about women organizing in the ’60s and ’70s, the Black feminist activist Linda Burnham talks about going to an abortion-rights rally in San Francisco in the early 1970s and being confronted by “a sea of White women, very few women of color.” She recalls that someone in the crowd grabbed a bullhorn and asked for the Black women present to gather under a tree. The idea behind the impromptu caucus, she says, was that “maybe we have something to talk about that might be different from what’s coming from the stage, and indeed we did.” The organization Black Sisters United developed as a result.

In the same film, the Lesbian feminist activist Rita Mae Brown recounts how Lesbians were excluded from mainstream second-wave organizing. On joining the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1968, Brown said, “I joined NOW, and I was the youngest person there, and I think I was the only Southerner. I called them on the carpet about class, and I called them on the carpet about race, and then I called them on the carpet about Lesbianism. I said, ‘You are treating women the way men treat you. And those women are Lesbians.’”

The 2015 documentary No Más Bebés, about the forced sterilization of Mexican immigrant women at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in the 1960s and ’70s, highlights tensions between White and Latina feminists. The latter group called for a waiting period for sterilization to ensure that women understood what they were consenting to at the hospital, thus safeguarding against a eugenicist practice that had resulted in doctors tying the tubes of unsuspecting Spanish-speaking women who had gone there to give birth. “The [White] feminists wanted sterilization upon demand,” Gloria Molina of Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, a Chicana empowerment organization, recalls in the film. “They basically opposed our waiting period. They weren’t really taking into account that, if you’re Spanish-speaking or if you don’t speak English, how you were being denied a right totally.”

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From the Editors

Let's Build a Bigger Feminism

  • Dani McClain

    McClain

  • Doug Pibel

    Copass

  • Tracy Dunn

    Dunn

As the Democratic presidential primary drama unfolds, there’s a lot of talk about glass ceilings, of how far women have come, and of how beneficial it would be for women to have a woman in one of the world’s most powerful positions.

But here’s a puzzle: Even as the nation is considering electing a woman president, more than half the states are aggressively taking away women’s access to reproductive health care and eroding the right to legal abortion that Roe v. Wade secured more than 40 years ago. Women remain targets of sexual violence everywhere. Then there’s the pay gap — the median wage for a woman working full-time is 78 percent of the median for a man. And that gap has held for 15 years.

Why, after more than a century of feminism, are we still stuck?

Cover of YES! Issue 78

One problem seems to be that there are significant differences in the political priorities of various advocates for women’s equality. To some, progress looks like a woman president or more women CEOs. To others, this leaves out too many women to feel like meaningful change. In this country, 70 percent of the poor are women and children. When you are struggling to hold a family together, raise children, pay bills, and improve your community, it’s easy to feel that glass ceilings are a pretty small part of the problem. How can feminism work to address the issues of all women?

To answer that, we called in an expert. Dani McClain is a journalist who has written extensively on reproductive justice, race, and feminism, most recently as a contributing writer for The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute. As a guest editor for YES!, McClain introduced us to writers and activists who are making a powerful case that if feminism doesn’t work to improve the lives of poor women and communities of color, it’s not enough. In her article, “This ‘New’ Feminism Has Been Here All Along,” she describes the kind of feminism that gains its strength from being inclusive.

Men and gender-nonconforming people also stand to benefit from an inclusive feminism, which seeks to do away with narrow definitions of masculinity that make all of us unsafe.

And that’s how our YES! issue on women’s rights turned into an issue about gender justice.

What does gender justice look like? A society where social and economic policy support the roles of parents, caregivers, and community-builders. Where your health and well-being and access to reproductive care aren’t affected by your race, class, or gender identity. Where the current fight for Trans rights would be embraced as a fight for human rights, and where your choices around gender expression can liberate you rather than hold you back.

This collection of articles shows that women’s equality isn’t just a women’s issue. Feminist goals should belong to everyone because strong feminism benefits us all.




Return to the story

Burnham, Brown, and Molina were taking an intersectional approach to feminism. When it comes to blind spots such as those described above, the difference between today and 50 years ago is that now people whose perspectives were once pushed into the margins — where separate organizations often took shape — are more effective in pushing right back and reshaping what’s mainstream and visible. From the democratizing role that Twitter and other social media platforms have played in broadening our view of leaders and spokespeople, to the emergence of a slightly more diverse group of scholars and commentators with large platforms (see, for example, the topics and guests Melissa Harris-Perry featured on her recently ended MSNBC show), various channels are helping age-old feminisms reach new audiences.

The introduction hasn’t been easy for everyone. Take the recent halfhearted attempt of a Los Angeles Times columnist to explain to her readers why some young women view Hillary Clinton with skepticism. In a column titled “Yes, millenials, Hillary Clinton is a feminist,” Meghan Daum writes: “‘Cis’ is short for cisgender, in case you didn’t know, and it refers to people who are not transgender. ‘Intersectionality’ refers to the idea that oppression or social inequality operates within a framework of overlapping identities. (That’s a simplified explanation; if you want to know more, Google it and prepare to get dizzy.)” Daum goes on to say, “It’s simply wrong to dismiss her [Clinton] because she doesn’t adequately hew to the orthodoxy of the latest gender-theory hashtag.”

Daum’s implication is clear: The young folks have invented a bunch of complicated words to confuse those of us who truly understand feminism. But legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw came up with the term “intersectionality” nearly three decades ago. In the 1960s, attorney and civil-rights advocate Pauli Murray coined the phrase “Jane Crow” to describe the burden that Black women shouldered as women in addition to the racial discrimination they faced as Black people. When the formerly enslaved Sojourner Truth put the question, “Ain’t I a woman?” to those gathered at a women’s rights conference in 1851, she was demanding that the first wave acknowledge those overlapping identities that Daum finds so tiresome. Multiple oppressions are real and always have been. No one who has to navigate them should be ridiculed, in the Los Angeles Times or elsewhere, because the details of her life are deemed too confusing, too dizzying, by those who understand feminism to be something more narrow and neat.

YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

Then & now Members of Girls for Gender Equity, left to right: Sharone Holloman holding Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink, Charisma Barrington holding Sojourner Truth, Miasia Clark holding Anita Hill, Feria Morisset Noé holding Myriam Merlet, Joanne Smith, Zainab Abdemula holding Vandana Shiva, Fariha Farzana holding Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, Shenese Patterson holding Shirley Chisolm. Portraits by muralist Crystal Clarity. YES! Photo by Jane Feldman

It’s not the narrow and neat we’re after, Daum and others put out by an intersectional gender justice movement might argue, it’s the attainable. They might say an agenda that tries to center the needs of each individual identity under one tent is no agenda at all; if we set the bar so high, we’ll never make progress.

But for proof that concrete victories can be achieved using an intersectional frame, look to Joanne Smith. In February, New York’s City Council announced a two-year, $20 million initiative — $10 million from the city budget and $10 million from foundations — to support the city’s women and girls in concrete ways. The funds will fuel programs to increase access to birth control, improve health care for Transgender people, and support survivors of gender-based violence, according to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s 2016 State of the City address.

What about the girls? Boys and men of color certainly face challenges specific to their race, ethnicity, and gender, but to assume that their counterparts experience similar conditions and somehow thrive despite it all is wrong.

This newly funded Young Women’s Initiative (YWI) is the result of recommendations and demands put forth by Smith’s organization and more than 200 other community-based groups and policy experts. Smith and Mark-Viverito co-chair the YWI, which has hosted listening sessions with women and girls to learn about their experiences at school, at home, and on the job, and about what they most need. “In a process that represented the diversity of New York City, the YWI ensured that the voices and experiences of Transgender women, gender-nonconforming New Yorkers, and young women and girls directly impacted by systems such as criminal justice and foster care were central to the recommendation development process,” a February city council press release reads.

The YWI is, in part, a response to the Young Men’s Initiative, a program started by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and foundations to benefit Black and Latino boys and men. When it launched in 2011, many wondered: What about the girls? Boys and men of color certainly face challenges specific to their race, ethnicity, and gender, but to assume that their counterparts experience similar conditions and somehow thrive despite it all is wrong. The same critique was made in early 2014 when President Barack Obama announced his $200 million My Brother’s Keeper initiative targeting improved education, employment, and health outcomes for boys and men of color.

Smith has helped those close to that national project use an intersectional lens to see its shortcomings. Last June, she and other advocates hosted a national listening session, like those used by the YWI, which included participation from Kimberlyn Leary of the White House Council on Women and Girls. In November, the White House, in partnership with Wake Forest University, Ms. Foundation, and academic institutions and foundations, announced a $118 million initiative focusing on women and girls of color, the very group My Brother’s Keeper had left out. “We’re providing a replicable model for the White House Council on Women and Girls with the Young Women’s Initiative,” Smith told me when I interviewed her for The Nation following the White House launch event.

Sure, correcting a glaring omission on the part of the White House is not the same as winning the White House, but both are legitimate feminist goals. The approach taken by Smith and those who stand alongside her and those who have come before offers lessons that can be applied in other fights for gender justice. The word “intersectionality” and, more importantly, the wealth of experiences that it references isn’t something to roll one’s eyes at or to feel threatened by. It’s a legacy to learn from. And in a country with shifting demographics and the widespread use of digital tools that make old ideas available to new audiences, understanding intersectionality is increasingly the only way to be relevant, the only way to win.

Dani McClain

Dani McClain is an award-winning journalist who reports on race, gender, reproductive justice, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with The Nation Institute. McClain’s writing has appeared in outlets including Slate, Talking Points Memo, Al Jazeera America, Colorlines, EBONY, and Guernica.

The UnseenI assumed it was racism — it was patriarchy

Illustration by JDawnInk/iStock

Illustration by JDawnInk/iStock

It’s almost cliché to say now, but fighting patriarchy without stating that you’re fighting patriarchy — or even knowing that you are — is quite common among people who are its biggest victims. The Vietnamese nail salon workers who fight toxic chemicals at work; the Latinas hunger striking in immigrant detention; the Native women forcing the American justice system to quit allowing non-Native men to rape them on their land; the South Asian and Arab women walking, working, and worshipping despite their Islamophobic, ignorant, White supremacist neighbors; the Black women plugging up the school-to-prison pipeline—all of these women are fighting American patriarchy without saying so.

Akiba Solomon

Akiba Solomon is the editorial director of Colorlines. She has served as a health editor for Essence and has written for Dissent, Glamour, EBONY, and VIBE Vixen, among other publications.

I have seen over and over in my own life how women do this work while dodging or not recognizing their feminisms. As a Philadelphian, raised Black Nationalist, educated at a historically Black institution that was not Spelman, and defined by hyper-masculine hip-hop, I was ambivalent about being categorized this way for all of the usual, pre-internet reasons — perceived isolation from other Black people and being caricatured as a disloyal shill for liberal racist White ladies.

My lips, so accustomed to spitting out “White supremacy” and “racism,” never once considered “patriarchy” as a way to explain why things were so fucked up for people who were not White, heterosexual, able-bodied, traditionally masculine cisgender males with money. This was true even as I saw the women closest to me doing feminist work.

My mother, who frequently declared herself a womanist, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Project and a Malcolm X legacy-preservation group for women called Sisters Remember Malcolm. When she was given an opportunity to take a women-only “fact-finding mission” in Bluefields, Nicaragua, there was no question that our father would be on his own with us for weeks.

The only grandmother we knew co-raised six kids while cleaning floors and then went on to become a social worker, anti-gentrification activist, and the one member of the Philadelphia Planning Commission who would “fuck you up” if your racist/sellout/trifling ass ever tried it. Perhaps to keep things interesting, this hellion-for-good still had outrageous ideas about housework that once led to my sister and me cleaning up after a male cousin our age.

This side of my grandmother, and the contradictory side of my mom that did all of the ironing and cooking, was where I burrowed. Moynihan Report be damned; we were strong Black women who could still keep a man. On its face, that was a sad measure. Even worse, without the anti-patriarchal label, what you get is a bunch of “strong Black women” doing so much unacknowledged labor.

As a kid, I watched this dynamic play out at innumerable early- and mid-1980s programs about freeing South Africa, political prisoners, and our minds. It was the women running around buying gallons of apple juice, typing up the flyers, cleaning the rooms, making sure the speakers got there, and providing the child care. That invisible labor made it possible for families to luxuriate in our Blackness.

That omission of “patriarchy” turned feminism and women’s work into singular examples of heroism rather than important interventions that struck at the heart of all of the more popular isms such as racism.

This is not to suggest that the men didn’t work hard at those community programs. They’d do security, lift tables, play drums, drive vans, and shame us sellout kids hiding in the back watching Grease. But I also remember how so many of them, regardless of expertise, would lecture everyone about what we as a people needed to be doing. They’d sometimes use Black women’s chemically processed hair, single-mom households, and lesbianism as evidence of our destruction. The men also led most of the demonstrations, made most of the speeches, wrote most of our “conscious” books, and owned the stores that sold them.

As I got older, it was these men who would accost me in the street to condemn my treasonous perm and (fake) gold. They’d announce without prompting that abortion was Black genocide. They’d accuse women of passing over decent Black men because they were gold diggers who secretly wanted White boys.

They did so much telling!

But for all of my frustrations — which extended through college and my time as a hip-hop-focused journalist — I never called the suffocation and policing that I felt patriarchy. And that omission of “patriarchy” turned feminism and women’s work into singular examples of heroism rather than important interventions that struck at the heart of all of the more popular isms such as racism.

Which brings me to the Black Lives Matter creation story that I believe is worth retelling, even to “movement” people like us.

On Oct. 7, 2014, about three months after the White, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed Black 18-year-old Michael Brown, The Feminist Wire ran a “herstory” of the Black Lives Matter movement written by co-founder Alicia Garza.

In the piece, the Oakland-based special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance explained how she and anti-police-violence activist Patrisse Cullors created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on July 13, 2013, the night George Zimmerman was found innocent of murdering Trayvon Martin. It also recounted how fair-immigration advocate Opal Tometi joined them in spreading the message and building the Black Lives Matter network. Garza spent much of the piece outlining how other organizations were appropriating their work and replacing “Black” with other descriptors including “our,” “migrant,” and “women’s.” She described the theft and distortion as heteropatriarchy.

As a Colorlines editor, I was spending most of my days hyper-focusing on extrajudicial violence against Black people. Exhausted, I saw the history as a thousand more words I had to read.

I should have known better.

I should have understood that mainstream media was going to omit the founders, two Queer, one not, because the leaderless social-media-as-movement story was a lot sexier than the one about Black women doing cross-movement, uncompensated labor.

And I certainly should have predicted how the master’s evaluation tools — mainstream media coverage, large social media followings, and meetings with powerful people—actually aided patriarchy by essentially erasing the Queer and Black feminist politics at the center of Black Lives Matter.

For the record, Black Lives Matter, like Occupy, has national leaders who don’t dictate policy or strategy or even have titles. Its structure coalesced in August 2014, when Cullors and the Black Gay organizer and writer Darnell Moore planned regional “Freedom Rides” that brought about 500 people (including this writer) to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend to give the incredible local organizers and protesters whatever help they asked for.

I left from New York City, and during the 21-hour bus ride, Moore and others stressed a central theme: that all Black lives matter regardless of gender expression or sexuality. They said it on the mic, during prayers, onstage, and during our march to the Ferguson police station.

That weekend, I met two 20-something Black Transwomen who said they’d never felt welcome at race-focused protests. I listened to a radical Black male pastor who drove the point home that all Black lives are blessed. I also briefly encountered Johnetta Elzie, a Ferguson protestor and prolific Twitter user who was traumatized by both the militarized policing of her community and online insults from a Black former pimp who calls women “Negro bed wenches.”

Out of the Freedom Rides emerged the local, chapter-based Black Lives Matter network, one in a constellation of organizing and direct action groups including the Dream Defenders, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, and Black Youth Project 100.

If we are to grow and replicate new anti-patriarchal movements like Black Lives Matter, we need to do it with a clear and immediate recall of how they began.

This isn’t a complicated story, until you consider how mainstream media unceasingly identifies two men with enormous social media presence — Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson—as Black Lives Matter leaders despite the fact that they don’t belong to the group.

King is a former pastor and social enterprise CEO turned New York Daily News columnist with more than 240,000 Twitter followers. DeRay Mckesson is an openly Gay former Teach for America administrator and a former 2016 candidate for Baltimore mayor. He became famous by live-tweeting protests in Ferguson and other police-violence hotspots. This February, he was one of a small group who met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

There are factions of the overall movement that publicly accuse King and Mckesson of capitalizing on the struggle and sabotaging the work of more “real activists” with a combi-nation of political naiveté and self-centeredness. I won’t address either side since the only one I’m on is the one where Black people don’t broadcast movement drama on social media.

If we are to grow and replicate new anti-patriarchal movements like Black Lives Matter, we need to do it with a clear and immediate recall of how they began. As a Black woman who knew about Alice Walker, bell hooks, and Angela Davis, but somehow missed Pauli Murray, Anna Julia Cooper, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and so many others, I’m vigilant about saying names. This remains the case even as an increasing number of young Blacks are claiming the feminisms of pop culture icons such as Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé. These women didn’t come from Wonder Woman’s fictional island of Themyscira. They emerged in tan-dem with the enormous work of Black women who confront mass incarceration, poverty, sexual exploitation, poisoned tap water, police violence, and myriad other issues.

We should all know that Black Lives Matter started the night George Zimmerman got away with killing Trayvon Martin. After hearing the verdict, Garza used the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in a Facebook post. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter,” she wrote.

We should all know that her friend Cullors turned the phrase into the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and began using it on the walls of friends and comrades. As Jamilah King reported in The California Sunday Magazine, Cullors wrote on Garza’s wall, “twin, #blacklivesmatter campaign? can we discuss this? i have ideas. i am thinking we can do a whole social media/all out in the streets organizing effort. let me know.” The two friends agreed to start a protest movement under the Black Lives Matter name, and they soon enlisted Tometi, another friend.

I’ll stop recounting here. This is a book that demands to be written. Evaluating the influence, value, and creativity of people’s work — particularly if they are women of color — is trickier than ever. News coverage isn’t straightforward, and social media privileges people with high-speed internet access and innate marketing skills. And we still have the often unpaid laborers who perform thankless movement tasks because no one else will. At the very least, we can double down on the names of those we do know.

Akiba Solomon

Akiba Solomon is the editorial director of Colorlines. She has served as a health editor for Essence and has written for Dissent, Glamour, EBONY, and VIBE Vixen, among other publications.

What the War on Reproductive Rights Has to Do With Poverty And Race

YES! infographic by Tracy Dunn

Domestic Workers Did It TogetherOver the past decade, domestic workers have won labor victories with a powerful, inclusive movement — even without the unions that traditionally excluded them.

YES! Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

YES! Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

Myrla Baldonado left the Philippines and settled in the suburbs of Chicago in 2006. She found work caring for the elderly and ill, whom she fed, bathed, clothed, and gave medication. Working in the privacy of her patients’ homes, Baldonado sometimes experienced verbal abuse from their families. Her occasional 90-hour workweeks meant starting at dawn and arriving home late at night. Baldonado’s employer, an elder care agency, also misdeclared her as an independent contractor, forcing her to pay additional taxes.

Sheila Bapat

Sheila Bapat is an attorney and writer focusing on gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers Rights was released by Ig Publishing in 2014.

This was her new life. And she earned only $5 an hour.

This story is common for domestic workers in the United States. About 90 percent are women, and the majority are women of color or immigrants. Traditional unions have historically excluded these groups, as have laws that protect collective bargaining rights, so these women found another way. Over the last decade, domestic workers have been building a powerful, inclusive movement — the domestic workers’ movement — through organizing outside of traditional unions. These nannies and caregivers have appealed directly to the public and policymakers and have successfully lobbied for local, state, and federal legislation to improve their working conditions.

This movement found Baldonado after she’d done five years of domestic work. She started advocating with the Latino Union of Chicago, a nonprofit, nonunion advocacy organization (also known as a “worker center”). Worker centers are often founded and led by women of color who are low-wage workers or children of low-wage workers. Unlike unions, worker centers are often funded through private philanthropic foundations, food or business cooperatives connected to the centers, and membership benefits like dental insurance for which worker-members can pay. Worker centers do not seek collective bargaining agreements with employers. Instead, they engage in a range of activities to empower workers, including know-your-rights trainings.

Worker centers and their members have produced significant policy change: Six states have passed legislation to include domestic workers within basic labor protections. New York led the way in 2010; Hawai‘i and California followed in 2013; Massachusetts in 2014; and Oregon and Connecticut enacted legislation in 2015. In 2013, this movement of domestic workers succeeded in changing federal rules to make overtime pay available to home care workers who had previously been exempt from federal overtime regulations. This change was particularly dramatic, given that these workers had been deliberately excluded from federal labor laws since they were enacted in the 1930s.

The domestic workers’ movement is intentionally investing in the empowerment of women of color, a departure from the historical U.S. labor movement.

In 2014, the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, a multiracial organizing project of the Latino Union to train Asian, African-American, and Latino home-care workers about their workplace rights, helped convince the city of Chicago to include approximately 20,000 domestic workers in the city’s minimum wage ordinance. The ordinance will take effect in 2019 and is poised to increase domestic workers’ earnings in the city by 40 percent.

Baldonado launched this coalition specifically for domestic workers, who have been ignored by traditional labor unions, even though their membership and resources have been declining. Now, these workers are the ones demonstrating the future of labor organizing.

The domestic workers’ movement is intentionally investing in the empowerment of women of color, a departure from the historical U.S. labor movement.

Major New Deal legislation, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act, which protected collective bargaining activity, excluded domestic workers — a legacy of slavery. Southern legislators agreed to support these 1930s laws only if they excluded domestic workers, most of whom, in the South, were Black.

Today, though women of color make up a significant portion of union membership overall, few have ascended to leadership positions. In its 2015 report “Still I Rise,” the Institute for Policy Studies notes, “[I]n 2014 Black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for White women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women. However, in no union are the leadership demographics for Black women representative of the union’s membership demographics.”

Unlike unions, worker centers are explicit about race and the need to focus on gender dynamics.
—Janice Fine, associate professor at Rutgers University

This devaluation of women of color in the labor movement stands in stark contrast to the domestic workers’ movement. Worker centers focus significantly on race, gender, class, and the intersections of the three at a level that labor unions have not. “Unlike unions, worker centers are explicit about race and the need to focus on gender dynamics,” says Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. “I think that was a huge contribution of worker centers. Because so much of domestic work is shrouded in social reproduction dynamics and private family dynamics, domestic workers have largely been invisible to unions.”

Alicia Garza encapsulates that intersectionality: She co-founded Black Lives Matter and directs special projects for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the umbrella group for 53 worker center affiliates including Baldonado’s Latino Union of Chicago.

“Our organizing model looks at the conditions that women of color, immigrant women, Black women, poor women, are facing in the economy,” says Garza. “So domestic workers are often organizing around the other interrelated issues that affect their lives, like trafficking, sexual violence, domestic violence, immigration, incarceration — all things that our communities are profoundly impacted by.”

This is key to why domestic workers are seeing success, says Garza.

NDWA’s initiative “We Dream in Black” aims to “strengthen and amplify [Black women’s] historical and current contributions to the broader domestic workers’ movement.” “We Belong Together,” another initiative, opposes deportation and fights for a path to citizenship for domestic workers (46 percent of domestic workers are immigrants). Immigrant domestic workers like Baldonado often face concerns about deportation, detention, or family separation.

She emigrated to the United States so that she could earn enough money to care for her four adopted children. Back in the Philippines, Baldonado worked as a human-rights activist and nonprofit leader, but funding was running short, and her ancestral home was deteriorating. Fleeing seemed to be her only option.

“When you have a model that centers these lived experiences, it creates room for more people to come into the movement and be active,” Garza says.

Relationships with traditional unions do play a role in this cross-community, intersectional work, too. For example, Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a worker center in Oakland, California, recently became an affiliate of the Alameda Labor Council. That affiliation allows MUA to more closely collaborate with union locals in Alameda County and San Francisco to build support for worker centers, as well as for immigrant rights campaigns.

California unions supported MUA and other domestic worker centers when they advocated for the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2012 and 2013, which granted overtime protections to domestic workers who work longer than nine hours a day or 45 hours per week. The legislation passed in 2013. “Though this bill was not a priority legislation for any unions or the labor federation, a number of them expressed solidarity by engaging in lobbying, submitting letters of support, and giving ‘Me Toos’ at committee hearings,” says Katie Joaquin, MUA campaign director.

The battle isn’t yet over: The movement must ensure employers actually follow these new laws, Garza says. Their success is even more critical today, given that the United States continues to be a hostile place for anyone — not just domestic workers — working in low-wage, under-the-radar, or historically unorganized sectors. Some waiters and waitresses continue to receive a federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. Workers in other unorganized or low-wage sectors, like nail salon workers, still experience wage theft, which includes overtaxing, deducting expenses, garnishing tips, or flat out denying pay. These workers are less likely to have access to health care or flexibility when they are sick or caring for loved ones.

We need this movement.
— Myrla Baldonado, domestic worker

The domestic workers’ movement is showing what is possible and how local, state, and federal policies can be strengthened for all workers through direct action. Domestic workers are thinking broadly, organizing across communities and issues, and empowering women of color to lead. As a result, they are weaving together a common, interconnected narrative. Even as traditional unions are losing membership and power, the domestic workers’ movement is helping to lay a new, stronger foundation for future worker organizing.

Organizing has been, she says, transformative for Baldonado. She learned multicultural skills and crossed many cultural boundaries. Because of the leadership trainings of the Latino Union and NDWA, she learned about trauma healing and transformative justice.

Now, Baldonado is in Los Angeles, where she has joined the staff of the Pilipino Workers Center, another NDWA affiliate, in developing know-your-rights trainings and outreach for L.A.-based Filipina domestic workers. Baldonado feels like she has finally come home. She speaks her native language, Tagalog, eats Filipino food, and regularly visits her L.A.-based mother, nephew, and nieces.

It is her work, however, that remains Baldonado’s passion and focus.

“We need this movement,” she says. “It is a woman-led, worker-led movement that can elevate women, immigrants, and all people of color.”

Sheila Bapat

Sheila Bapat is an attorney and writer focusing on gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers Rights was released by Ig Publishing in 2014.

IN DEPTH