Working-class white, Black, and immigrant women are concentrated in the most underpaid and underinsured jobs.
“The story of Irish immigrant domestic workers provides a lens to explore white women’s history of upholding white supremacy.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Danielle Phillips-Cunningham. Phillips-Cunningham is associate professor of multicultural women’s and gender studies at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Her book is Putting Their Hands on Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers, 1850-1940.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: There is a much-needed conversation to be had about white women and whiteness. I think that my study, a comparative history of Irish immigrant and southern African American domestic workers in US northeastern cities, might be useful for this discussion. In the 2016 presidential election, over 50 percent of white women across socioeconomic class, voted for Donald Trump. He was a candidate who clearly demonstrated misogynistic and white supremacist attitudes. In 2017, Roy Moore, a senatorial candidate facing accusations of statutory rape, garnered 63 percent of Alabama’s white women’s vote.
In the book, I trace Irish immigrant domestic workers’ mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century paths to “white.” Their story provides a lens to explore white women’s history of upholding white supremacy, even when they are impacted by it. African American women’s theorizing and labor activism, which I also explore in the book, provide a significant touchstone for tracing the impact of race on all women’s lives and the importance of dismantling whiteness for the political and economic advancement of everyone.
We are currently witnessing and experiencing white rage, as Carol Anderson so precisely described in her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. This political era is reminiscent of the time period explored in the book. The current presidential administration is viscerally drawing racial divisions between citizen and “non-citizen” through xenophobic, misogynist, imperialist, and anti-African American legislation that has rolled back citizenship, voting, workers’, and women’s rights. At some point, however, Trump will leave the White House. I hope that labor and migration histories, such as those of African American and Irish immigrant women, push us to deeply interrogate race even when the most shocking forms of white supremacy fade away so that we do not experience this crisis again.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In the book, I argue that Irish immigrant and African American women’s histories help us identify overlapping issues that can lead to cross-racial labor alliances without diluting discussions of race. Along that vein, we can also look to the women’s histories as a starting point for discussing and tackling the aspects of whiteness that have threatened and prevented cross-racial alliances from developing, especially among women.
I hope that activists and community organizers will take away ideas for developing transformative alliances among women. Similar to the period when Irish and African American women were migrating to US northeastern cities for domestic service jobs, working-class white, Black, and immigrant women are concentrated in the most underpaid and underinsured jobs. A cross-racial labor alliance between women can be a powerful social justice movement in the United States. Just imagine, for example, what could happen if white teachers protesting low wages and poor health coverage in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona formed alliances with Black mothers and teachers in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta who have been organizing against the deterioration of public schools in their neighborhoods for decades? They are all addressing labor issues, yet I wonder if race is why white teachers have not thought about the intersections between their movement and the community organizing of Black women? I think that a comparative approach to women’s migration and labor histories offer important historical context for addressing persistent divisions that uphold whiteness and systemic inequalities that impact white, Black, and immigrant women.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Whiteness is an ideology that I hope readers will un-learn. I think that the particular case of Irish immigrant women underscores the reality that white supremacy never fully serves the best interests of white women, even when they benefit from it. In chapter six, I document how Irish immigrant women gained access to more occupations in the early twentieth century, but did not uniformly elevate into the white middle class after leaving domestic service. Although they had become unquestionably white, the racial and gendered construct of “Irishness” continued shaping the very materiality of their lives such that they experienced discrimination in other occupations. At times, they also had to return to domestic service.
I also hope that Irish immigrant women’s labor histories help readers un-learn the myth that whiteness only negatively impacts African Americans. The crisis at the Texas-Mexico border and mass shootings targeting specifically Latinx, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities make clear that white supremacy is far reaching. Fully dismantling white supremacy, I believe, requires that all communities do the hard work of constructing their own racial discourses to more precisely identify and resist manifestations of white supremacy that detrimentally impact their communities and the overall country. Doing so has become a matter of addressing issues of life and death.
It has become essential that Latinx and Jewish communities, for example, ask: Where do our racial histories begin? How has race impacted women and men in our communities similarly and distinctly? What are the racial issues that impact our communities, both internally and externally? My book charts African American women’s long history of exploring these sorts of questions publicly. It also begins the work of charting white women’s racial histories through Irish immigrant women’s path to “white” from mid-nineteenth century Ireland to the early twentieth century United States.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The intellectual heroes who inspire my work are African American domestic workers and clubwomen who planted the seeds for what we now call intersectionality. Outside of the groundbreaking body of literature of African American feminist scholars, few people have acknowledged the theories of African American clubwomen much less domestic workers. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington are often touted as the most important racial thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The time is ripe to expand that historical terrain. I make the argument in my book that women such as Dora Lee Jones (first president of the first domestic workers’ union), Anna Julia Cooper (scholar-activist, educator, and clubwoman), Nina Thompson (second president of the first domestic workers’ union), and Victoria Earle Matthews (clubwoman, journalist, and co-founder of the White Rose Mission and Industrial Association in New York City) labored at producing a discourse that remains critical for women achieving labor rights today. As they collectively argued, deconstructing intersecting racial, class, and gender inequalities is essential for everyone in household employment and the overall advancement of the country.
My intellectual heroes also include Black women scholars at my alma mater Spelman College. Black women there have the freedom to write and teach about race in all of its gendered, classed, and sexualized forms, without apology. As such, some of the most groundbreaking pedagogies, conferences, and scholarship have emerged from the college. It is in that daring Black women’s institution where I could imagine and think expansively about race. It is Spelman that nourished my interest in tracing the movements and labors of southern African American and Irish immigrant domestic workers.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I think that chapter six of my book, where I trace the Black communal struggle for labor rights in household employment, provides a pathway for imagining new worlds. African American domestic workers and their allies created a vital roadmap for deconstructing divisions in the labor economy and beyond through their intersectional theorizing and community organizing work. Their history teaches us that theorizing and discussing the intersections of race lead to resistance strategies that are nuanced and precise.
One of the most recent examples of the transformative possibilities that come from domestic worker organizing is the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race. Domestic workers were very instrumental to registering hundreds of first-time voters in support of Stacey Abrams’ campaign. They did not develop their organizing strategies in a vacuum. Members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) drew from a long history of domestic worker organizing that made the race competitive for a candidate who almost became the first Black woman governor in US history. Similar to nineteenth and twentieth century Black domestic workers, clubwomen, and leftist activists, the NDWA also conducts intersectional research that has resulted in pioneering qualitative and quantitative data on the exploitation of household workers. While there is much more change that needs to happen, NDWA’s research and activism have convinced several lawmakers across the country to pass laws to protect domestic workers.
I also make the argument in my book that working toward better worlds requires us to wrestle with the ugly parts of history. Until we fully engage what has been percolating underneath the surface since the nineteenth century, white supremacy will resurface with a vengeance, especially when we think we are beyond it. As James Baldwin put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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