Demanding Justice: A History of Domestic Workers

Erika Lee

Thursday, May 4, 2023, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Film Screening

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Women's History


This documentary film explores the history of domestic worker organizing in the United States, from everyday acts to larger-scale forms of rebellion and organizing. This film was produced and directed by scholar-activists (including two historians) as part of a larger political education curriculum for the National Domestic Workers Alliance membership of over 250,000 workers.

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Jennifer M. Guglielmo, Smith College
Jennifer Guglielmo is an award-winning author, teacher, and public historian. She specializes in the histories of labor, race, women, migration and revolutionary social movements in the late 19th- and 20th-century United States. She has published on a range of topics, including women’s organizing in garment, textile and domestic work, working-class feminisms, anarchism, whiteness and the Italian diaspora. She is associate professor of history at Smith College.

Presenter: Michelle Joffroy, Smith College
Michelle Joffroy specializes in cultural and literary studies of Latin America and the Latino/a U.S. with an interest in critical digital humanities and cultural production at the intersections of transnational feminist, labor, indigenous and ecological social movements. She has published on a range of topics, including representations of Mexican student movements in literature and film, transborder feminist literature, cultural imaginaries of domestic work in the Americas and multilingual, social justice pedagogies.

Joffroy is currently co-directing a collaborative, community-based digital humanities public history project with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). She and Jennifer Guglielmo (history) received a multi-year grant of over $2 million to work with NDWA to develop a multilingual political education curriculum that is rooted in the history of domestic worker organizing and cultural production. With the collaboration of postdoctoral fellow Diana Sierra Becerra, they are creating a digital timeline, a series of documentary videos and workshops to provide workers with access to knowledge about the cultural and organizing histories of domestic workers that they can use as organizing and movement-building tools. Joffroy’s research for the project focuses on the transnational cultural and organizing practices of immigrant domestic workers of the Americas, from the 17th century to the present, to illuminate the multiracial, multilingual and multiethnic imaginations that have shaped domestic worker organizing histories.

Joffroy’s courses prioritize community-based research and learning, and critical digital humanities practices. Her courses include Doméstica: Precarity and the Politics of Intimacy, Zapatismo Now!, Decolonizing Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies, and research seminars on Indigenous women’s environmental and gender movements. Joffroy also offers the first year seminar Tierra y Vida: Latinx Ecological Imagination.

Presenter: Diana Sierra Becerra, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Diana Sierra Becerra is a historian of women and gender in Latin America who specializes in social movements and revolutions.

Her book manuscript is tentatively titled, Insurgent Butterflies: Gender and Revolution in El Salvador. It tells the stories of peasant and working-class women who fought for a world without capitalists, imperialists, and patriarchs. Drawing from over fifty interviews and new archival sources, the book demonstrates how women confronted sexism and developed a vision of women’s liberation within the workers’ movement of the mid-to-late twentieth century. It narrates a dynamic and contentious political process in which rank-and-file women changed the meaning and course of revolution. Their powerful history challenges dominant characterizations of revolutionary movements as monolithic, static, and dominated by urban male intellectuals, moving us to rethink dominant conceptions about armed struggle and feminism.

As a public scholar, Sierra Becerra has collaborated with Salvadoran and U.S. museums and art galleries as well as global networks of historic sites. At the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador, she curated exhibitions and developed educational programming. At the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, which organizes food system workers in three counties in Western Massachusetts, she used her popular education training to cultivate worker leadership. These experiences have fundamentally shaped her pedagogy, which encourages students to approach history as a tool to address current-day injustices.

Most recently, she worked with scholars Jennifer Guglielmo and Michelle Joffroy, and organizers from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) to develop the project “Putting History in Domestic Workers’ Hands.” The project views history as an organizing tool to mobilize domestic workers on a massive scale. The $2.3 million project includes a digital timeline on the history of domestic worker organizing, four educational videos, a political education curriculum, biographies and hand-painted portraits of twenty-one movement ancestors, and a website for curriculum facilitators. Committed to language justice, the project translated its materials into five languages, including English, Spanish, Tagalog, Nepali, and Haitian Creole.

As the popular education coordinator, Sierra Becerra researched domestic worker history and developed a curriculum composed of 17 workshops that draw from the history presented in the digital timeline. The curriculum is divided into two parts. Part 1 explores how oppressive systems such as capitalism, white supremacy, imperialism, and patriarchy have shaped domestic work, and how domestic workers have organized radical alternatives. Part 2 explores NDWA strategies to build power and improve labor standards. Additionally, Sierra Becerra trained a cohort of sixteen domestic worker leaders as historians, and thirty-five NDWA affiliates across the country to implement the curriculum in their own organizations. As a formerly undocumented immigrant and the proud daughter of a former domestic worker, she dedicates the spirit of the curriculum to her mother.