In this column over the years we’ve featured such notables as Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Association of Colored Women; Fannie Peck and the National Housewives League; and now we discuss the equally important and often overlooked National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU) and its founder Dorothy Bolden.
Bolden, an unwavering and tireless advocate for domestic workers, formed her union in 1968, at a time when the nation was amid one of its most turbulent social and political periods. Her fearless fight for the impoverished, for common folks may have sprung directly from her own background and a sense of self-determination.
She was born Dorothy Lee Bolden on Oct. 13, 1923, in Atlanta. Her father was a chauffeur and her mother a housekeeper. Her poor eyesight, stemming from an injury as a child, impaired her educational pursuits. When her eyesight improved by the time she was nine, she began her long career as a domestic worker, changing diapers.
Although she acquired a modicum of education, she only finished the ninth grade (some sites say the 11th grade and cite different high schools) before working to support herself. Later, as a young woman, she tried her skills as a dress designer in Chicago, but again her poor eyesight interfered and she returned to domestic work. Her activism began in the 1940s when she refused a demand from her employer that she stay overtime and wash the dishes. Her boss called the police, who arrested her and took her to jail for psychiatric evaluation.
During an oral history interview in 1995, Bolden explained the incident: “They told me I was crazy because I had talked back to a white woman, and [they] called in some psychiatrists to prove it. A white woman’s word is gospel, and two psychiatrists actually thought I was crazy… This was the way you got locked up… This was the system.”
This encounter and its consequences spurred her activism and with assistance from members of the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bolden was fully engaged and began canvassing and conversing with domestic workers, learning of the challenges and difficulties they faced. At the same time, as she gathered a deeper understanding of the workers’ plight, she began consulting with union organizers and gaining information and tactics on how to forge her own union. In a slow but efficient manner, she assembled some 13,000 workers from all across the country, and laid the groundwork for the NDWU. Through her union she promised to increase salaries and to improve working conditions for domestics, who, for the most part, earned only $3.50 for 13-hour workdays.
Soon she had garnered an iconic standing in Atlanta and her reputation began spreading across the country. Under her leadership, the NDWU was critical in commanding more respect for domestic workers. It also increased wages in Atlanta by 33 percent over a two-year period and it won workers’ compensation and Social Security rights for the workers.
Bolden’s dedicated resolve at the union soon ramified into the civil rights arena and it helped to register thousands of African-Americans to vote. Her work had such a widespread impact that it even caught the attention of the Nixon administration and Bolden was appointed to an advisory committee on social services and welfare.
“There wasn’t in her lifetime a branch of government that wasn’t influenced by Ms. Bolden,” said Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., who represents District 3, which includes Bolden’s Vine City neighborhood, which she fought so valiantly to preserve. “Ms. Bolden was honest to a fault. One hundred percent of the time, with the spirit of God working through her, she would convey the truth in a very unique and special way. The truth for her was, ‘How does this affect ordinary people?’”
Along with her advisory duties, Bolden also served as vice president of the Black Women Coalition of Atlanta and she worked for the state and the National Departments of Labor.
More than one domestic worker related how influential Bolden’s commitment was to his or her own careers. Jacquelyn Arnold, a longstanding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that “organizing isn’t just about workers knowing their rights and how to negotiate with employers. It’s also about coming together to break the cycle of isolation. Being around a group of other powerful care workers helps people believe that change can happen. This is the lesson taught to us by Dorothy Bolden. She built an organization of 13,000 domestic workers across 10 cities. Her work helped increase wages in Atlanta while winning workers’ compensation and Social Security rights for all domestic workers.”
Among a galaxy of notables was U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper who expressed his admiration for Bolden and her guidance. “Her legacy is that you can’t trust government,” he told a reporter. “You must be forever watchful. You have to bring pressure to bear on the system to see that the homeless and poor and locked out get justice. She was a warrior.”
Bolden closed the union office in 1994, but continued her advocacy. “I’ve been there for a lot of history,” she noted. “I’ve seen history. I’ve made history.”
Her living history ended on July 14, 2005, but her legacy continues through the Dorothy Bolden Fellowship, a program inspired by Ai-Jen Poo’s MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award in 2014, which is another testament to Bolden’s bold quest for social and political equality.