This week, we celebrate the 95th birthday of Dorothy Lee Bolden, a woman whose name belongs in the pantheon of civil rights activists alongside people like Rosa Parks and Representative John Lewis.
If you’ve never heard of her, that’s not surprising. Even the New York Times neglected to write an obituary for her when she died in 2005–an error they corrected this year as part of their belated obituaries series, “Overlooked No More.”
Like AOC and so many other visionary change-makers, Dorothy Bolden was the daughter of a domestic worker in Atlanta. She began working alongside her mother when she was still a child.
After high school, it became her career, too: She described her routine each day as waking up “at 4 a.m. to leave home by 6 a.m., and be on the job by 8 a.m., perform all those duties necessary to the proper management of a household for eight hours, leave there by 4 p.m. to be home by 6 p.m. where I would do the same things I’ve done all over again for my own family,” according to sources referred to by the Times.
In adulthood, she began organizing fellow maids (the term she used) on the bus—just as today, they often had long commutes from the communities where they lived to the wealthier neighborhoods of their employers.
Rosa Parks had just made the public bus a major site of civil rights activism in 1955. Dorothy Bolden helped start the National Domestic Workers Union of America in 1968, and it ran until the mid-1990s, according to the Times obit.
Much like today’s National Domestic Workers Alliance (our founding partner), her group fought for workers’ rights, created training programs, and taught workers to advocate for themselves. One of her main objectives was to teach communication. In the book ‘Household Workers Unite,” she’s quoted as saying “You have to teach each maid how to negotiate,… And this is the most important thing — communication. I would tell them it was up to them to communicate.”
She was powerful enough of a force that she eventually consulted presidents Ford, Reagan, and Carter–and received threats from the KKK, according to her recollections in an oral history project. As the Times relates it:
She said that men claiming to be members of the Ku Klux Klan called her house and spoke about “whipping my behind,” but in coarser terms.
“I told them any time they wanted to, come on over and grab it,” Bolden said.
“It didn’t scare me, didn’t bother me,” she added. “It made me angry, it made me determined to do what I had to do.”
Her legacy lives on in the work of our partners today at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and in the way we at Hand in Hand emphasize and offer resources for fair working conditions and productive communication. (i.e., Don’t make it all the worker’s job!).
If we pass the National Bill of Rights, that will be the most exciting tribute to her groundwork.
Here are a few ways you can honor Dorothy Bolden, today:
- Read her obituary in the New York Times
- Tell her story to others
- Support the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to continue her efforts to end the exclusion of domestic workers from rights and protections
And if you currently employ someone in your home: