Whatever you think about The Help, at least it's sparked a larger conversation about domestic workers' lives — and maybe even their rights.
The domestic workers rights movement had the smart idea of capitalizing on the conversation around The Help to talk about their rights campaign by and for actual "help" today. Supporters of California's domestic workers rights bill — similar to the one passed in New York last year, the first of its kind — had a rally yesterday outside a mall showing the film, which opened yesterday. The bill has already cleared the state assembly, and the next step is the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 15.
That the right to basic work protections has had to be fought for state-by-state is no accident. Historically, domestic workers were excluded, along with farmworkers, from New Deal-era labor protections, in a deal made as a concession to specifically racist concerns.
Then there are the structural problems of regulating a workplace that is inherent informal and intimate. A Houston Chronicle piece that manages to tie together The Help, Arnold Schwarzenegger fathering a child with his housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo's rape case against Dominique Strauss Kahn, and the News Corp. hacking scandal (because a computer in a dumpster was blamed on a "cleaner") has a quote that neatly sums it up:
In part, the struggle of domestic workers then and now stems from the false notion that cleaning, cooking, even caring for children and the elderly isn't really work, says Eileen Boris, who chairs the Feminist Studies Department at University of California-Santa Barbara.
By design, it's "an invisible job in an intimate space - a home or a hotel room - where the outside world doesn't look in," Boris explains. Typically, domestic workers are "vulnerable women with little power."
It's a chicken-and-egg situation: Do we implicitly believe these jobs are less worthy than say, construction or lawn work because women, especially women of color, do them, or are women relegated to them because of their general disempowerment? Is the work devalued, because, like sex work, the work occurs in intimate spaces, because it's conflated with care and affection that in other contexts are uncompensated?
The entire point of the Domestic Workers United Movement has been that this work is valuable and deserves to be accorded with dignity. The mantra has been, ""Women's work is real work." And though affordable child and household care can feel like a zero sum game for working parents who aren't millionaires or cheerful bigots, they've gotten organized support from employers who organized to have less ambiguity — and as a result less guilt — about the parameters of the arrangement.
The relationship between contemporary upper-middle class women who work outside the home and the women they employ to work inside it can be fraught — Caitlin Flanagan even argued in 2003 that feminism had defined work as a means to self-actualization but achieved it on the backs of black and immigrant women. (There are no black feminists who ever made a similar critique of white, middle-class, careerist versions of feminism! Also, Barbara Ehrenreich never existed!)
In a profile of one of the lead organizers of the Domestic Workers Movement, Ai-Jen Poo, Ehrenreich wrote, "To my knowledge anyway, there has never been a successful career woman — or man, for that matter - who's responded to being praised for "doing it all" by saying, "Actually, [my nanny] does most of it." Maybe we're getting closer, thanks to the work of the activists bringing the job out of the shadows, and other ways it's creeped into public discussion. At the Time 100 dinner, Amy Poehler did just what Ehrenreich said she'd never experienced, thanking her own nannies and "every sister and mother and person who stands in your kitchen and helps you love your child…I celebrate you tonight."