There has been a war of words over “The Help” since the phenomenal success of both Kathryn Stockett’s book and the recent movie adaptation. One argument has to do with how Hollywood (and white authors) portray Black women. A second argument has to do with applicability of “the Help” to today’s domestic workers. The argument goes like this: “It’s a great story, but it’s about the civil rights era. It has nothing to do with domestic work today.” The other side argues that today’s nannies face many of the same challenges as Abilene and her friend Minnie. One side argues that to make the connection between today’s domestic workers and those living in the Jim Crow South is an insult to the violence and degradation faced by African Americans after slavery. The other says that to ignore the similarities to today’s domestic workers is to deny the oppression going on under our noses. Which side is correct?
Both are. Nothing in contemporary domestic work can compare to the caste system enforced by the threat of violence and permanent unemployment that reigned in US prior to the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. The status of African American women as the ultimate “other” in American society made “colored woman” synonymous with “maid” and vice versa. Thus, the beautiful economy of Stockett’s title: “The Help” simultaneously captures what it meant to be a black woman in the South, and what it meant to be a domestic worker. Like those at the bottom rung of any caste society, the dirty work simultaneously defined both status and occupation.
But there is also a through-line to this story. Declared “obsolete” in the 1970s by eminent Sociologist Lewis Coser, domestic workers have not disappeared but rather, domestic work has proliferated as economic disparities have increased, and the 71% of mothers in the labor force seek relief from the double day of the first shift in the office and the second shift at home. Today’s domestic workers are overworked, underpaid, often unprotected by labor laws and made more vulnerable by immigration laws. However, there is no one group designated to fill the contemporary role of “domestic.” Rather, multiple groups of women, immigrant and native-born, fill increasingly specialized roles of hourly cleaner, mother’s helper, and nanny.
Black women in the south might spend a lifetime cooking, cleaning, and raising children for generations of the same white family. In today’s era of competitive mothering, however, most employers are not content to have the same person who mops their floors raise their infants and toddlers. In my interviews for “Shadow Mothers,” I found that employers hired nannies based on “Ethnic Logics” – developmentally-specific criteria designed to match the right type of nanny with the age-specific needs of their children: a patient, older immigrant for infancy, an outgoing, younger au pair for the social-skill building years of toddlerhood, and perhaps someone with a degree in early childhood education for the crucial pre-school period. Rather than one all-purpose maid who stayed with a white family until her employer threw a tantrum, nannies now turn over based on children’s developmental needs. As one respondent who bounced between care for children and care for the elderly explained, “they either die on you or they go to pre-school.”
Employers have changed, too since the 1960s. The caricatures of status-conscious ladies of the “league” have been replaced by harried, working professionals. Their concerns have changed as well. The wife in the “companionate marriage” of the 1950s and 1960s concerned herself primarily with enhancing her husband’s status at work by being a hostess and by improving her family’s social status through engagement in civic and volunteer organizations. Mothering was an important, but lesser concern. Contemporary women, by contrast, are judged by the upward mobility of their children, not of their husbands. Evidence of “competitive mothering” is everywhere from Baby Einstein to enrichment classes for one-year-olds, to the long waiting lists for the best pre-schools. Demographer Susan Bianchi has shown that the at-home mothers of that golden age of the nuclear family actually spent less time with their children than do the working mothers of today.
Thus, in today’s domestic work relations, the stakes are higher in drawing the line between mother and not-mother. The white mothers in “The Help” express relief one moment at their children’s desperate clinging to the maid, and the next moment pitch a fit because the child misused the word ‘mommy.’ Among the nannies I interviewed, allowing a child to cross the boundary between “mother” and “not-mother” was often a firing offense. The employers in “The Help” were less threatened by children’s attachment to their maids because the caste line was unbreakable, and because mothers were not held so deeply accountable for how their children “turned out.” For the help of the 1950s and 1960s, the sacred, uncrossable barrier was the color line; for the today’s help it is the line the “mother/not-mother” barrier.