DETROIT — At age 9, Mary Upshaw McClendon started cleaning a white family's house near her hometown of Red Level, Ala.
Relelie Rogers (most people call her Lillie) was 15 when she took over her mother's job cleaning for a family near Birmingham, Ala. She also cared for the family's daughter, not quite a year old.
Evelyn Goff, 80, started cleaning suburban homes after she and her husband moved to Detroit from Eudora, Miss., in 1949. She retired from domestic work after 32 years.
Mildred Hooper, 86, of Detroit, puts it this way: “That's the only kind of work they had for black women back then.”
Historians estimate 70 to 90 percent of the black women who worked before the end of World War II did some type of domestic service for whites.
“The Help,” a movie based on the best-selling book, spotlights a line of work that still struggles to break free from social stigmas. The movie opened this month.
When McClendon, 87, moved to Detroit from Alabama in 1955, she carried a burning desire to improve conditions for domestic workers. She started the Detroit Household Workers Organization in 1969. The goal was to encourage fair wages, benefits and respect for women doing domestic work.
“I never shall forget I was working for one woman, and she told me to eat my food in the room where the dog was, not in the room with the family,” McClendon said. “Some of these people were treating their dogs and cats better than we were treated.”
McClendon said that when she worked in the South, she was paid “a dollar and some change,” a day. In Detroit, she earned about $12 a day.
Data from the Michigan Employment Security Commission reports that in 1971 maids were paid $15, car fare and one good meal each day for their work. If they lived with a family, they were paid $75 a week.
Goff was paid $8 a day when she started working as a maid but made $75 a day when she retired 32 years later in 1983. She said she enjoyed the work because it gave her a level of independence, and the families she worked for treated her well. “I had a key so I let myself in; I knew what I needed to do, and let myself out.”
She said she knows some people looked down on her job.
“But I didn't mind. I was making an honest living and helping to take care of my family,” said Goff, who raised five children.
Beyond film, book
Book clubs and church groups are making movie-dinner dates to see “The Help.” The Home Shopping Network has featured a collection of beauty products, home decor items and fashions inspired by it. The August cover story of “Food & Wine” magazine examines the authenticity of the gorgeous soul food served in the movie, and “The Help” social action campaign has launched a contest encouraging people to share their stories the way the characters do.
Women who worked those jobs and historians who study domestic workers then and now say they hope the reality of the women's experience and contributions isn't glossed over in the film hoopla.
Melba Joyce Boyd, chairwoman of Wayne State University's Department of Africana Studies, said people should be aware of the challenges that confronted domestic workers of that time.
“It was extremely difficult work,” she said. “They worked long hours for very little pay. But these women's work and determination helped to make a way for future generations to live better lives.”
Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, who has done extensive research on domestic workers, said most women doing domestic work these days are Latina.
“It's difficult to count exactly how many because much of it remains underground work,” said Romero, who authored “Maid in the U.S.A.” and “The Maid's Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream” (NYU Press, $27.95), which will be released next month.
“A great deal of it remains part of the underground economy, so a lot of employers don't think of themselves as employers, so they don't offer any kind of benefits. ... There's no sick leave, so if they're ill or someone in their family is ill for a long time, they risk being fired.”
Romero said there has been limited progress in the field — mostly for white women. Many have turned the cleaning field into lucrative professional businesses. “These women get bonded, start companies and own their own equipment, but what you find is that many of those actually doing the work are Latinos,” Romero said.
Cleaning, cooking and taking care of children
Domestic workers were often far more than house cleaners. Many cleaned the house, the clothes, took care of the children and cooked. Today, it would cost an estimated $364 a day to hire a person to do all that, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here are the mean hourly rates from the bureau's Occupational Employment and Wages data released in May 2010:
Private household cook: $14.95
Child care worker: $10.15
Laundry worker: $10.21