I Like What I Do and I’m Good at It
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Opal Broadway is married and the mother of two children. After learning about the National Committee on Household Employment, she has begun organizing a Memphis chapter.
I’ve catered for the airlines. I’ve been a production worker in a factory. I’ve worked in hospitals, worked in hotels. I’ve been doing housework for about 16 to 18 years. Out of everything else I’ve done, I got the most satisfaction out of it. So many of the times, especially in the ones where there were children, I know I was needed. So many of the times the parents were away. I still have the respect and the love of those children today. They loved me and respected me and I could see where I was accomplishing something.
Those other jobs that I had, the majority of them, it was just eight hours work for eight hours pay and that was it.
Believe it or not, housework is one of the most difficult jobs anyone could undertake. It really is because it demands everything, physically and mentally. You have to be bright, you have to be alert. I’ve worked for single people. I’ve worked for couples. I’ve worked for the elderly. When it’s a single person or a couple, it’s not as demanding. But, when children are involved, then it’s something altogether different. It’s a whole new ballgame.
The children tend to lean on you more. The parents tend to lean on you more, they tend to expect more of you. When you first undertake a job like that you say, “Well, this is just a job. I’m not going to get emotionally involved.” This is the way it starts out. But, when you walk into a home and you see a child, you look in a child’s eyes, and then you start to be with this child on a daily basis or a live-in basis, you cannot help but become attached. Once you become attached to this child, then it stops being just a job.
It makes it easier for people to take advantage of you. See, if it was just the housework you had to do, you could do it on a daily basis and just forget it. It’s just a job. But when you got children involved, you gonna fall. If you got any kinda heart, you gonna get hooked. This is why you find so many of us work in one place for years and years and years: because of the children.
There are some of us that are able to make a living out of being a maid. There are some of us that are blessed enough to get employers that respect us, pay us well and treat us like we are human beings. They really care what happens to us. By the same token, there are a lot of us that really need to work, have to work, but are unlucky enough or unfortunate enough to get employers that don’t care and that will drive you into the ground if you let them.
You make a terrible, terrible mistake in this kind of work when you let these people know that you really, really got to have this job. Even today, you have people that want to pay you $2.50 an hour. You have people that don’t want to take out any social security on you. You have people that want you to be a mother, philosopher, father, nanny, governess and everything else to then children. They want their house kept. They want their dogs walked. They want their dogs cleaned up after.
I had worked in maid work about six or seven years, and I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, from Memphis. I was a live-in there. I made the mistake of letting them know that I was not from there, I had nobody there, and I had no place to go if I were fired. Once they found this out, that was it. I worked 16 hours a day. I had not one, not two, but seven girls to attend. Each girl had her own dog. The dogs lived in the house. One side of the house was done in all glass and it had to be immaculate at all times. If you mess around and stay around your home on your day off, you still would be working. They give you Sunday off because they felt like you wanted to go to church. But that s it. You didn’t have a day through the week to go get your hair done or something like that because those were their days. You worked day and night, not just through the day hours. My name is Opal. Very simple, very Southern: Opal. When she would talk to me, I was called everything but that.
At that time, I had to have this job in order to send money back here [to Memphis] because I had a sick mother and two brothers in school. Finally the day came when I scrimped and saved enough to come back home. I promised myself then that I would never do that again, work at a job or work with somebody that I didn’t like. There are not many of them still around, but there are some. I require references on the people that I work for now. I don’t work for just anybody.
For centuries, many, many years, we’ve been made to feel that housework is the lowest thing you could do. This is what uneducated people do. This is what drop-outs do. So many mothers use this as a weapon to frighten their children: “You’re going to end up washing somebody else’s dishes. You’re going to end up slavin in somebody else’s kitchen.”
Now, me myself, I’m a proud person and I’m proud of what I do. I’m not ashamed of being a maid. I like what I do. And, because I like what I do, I believe I’m good at what I do. Believe it or not, domestic work is a profession. It’s not just a job. It’s an art to being good at it. You gotta really know what you’re doing to manage a family.
You know, people go to school for years and years to be doctors, lawyers, surgeons, what have you: professional people. Even after they go to school all these years, get their degrees and land their position, if they don’t like what they’re doing, they’re not going to be satisfied. To do a job well, no matter what it is, it has to start in your mind. You have to have a satisfied mind.
That’s the same way I am about domestic work. It pleases me when I please my employers. If I clean your house and I can walk through here and I say, “This looks good to me!” then that pleases me. It’s self-satisfaction that I get.
I don’t know how soon but one of these days we’re gonna be unionized. The only way you’re gonna be able to get a domestic worker any kind of way is through the union. I would like to see us form a domestic union all over this country, not just locally.
This needs to be done and it needs to be done right away. There are an awful lot of us that are not even scratching out an existence, let alone talking about a living. Like I say, I’m one of the blessed ones. I’ve been blessed to work for people that paid me well. But there are some of us that are working, and we’re not able to make ends meet.
I would like to see all of us get decent salaries. We have families too, and they have to be fed and clothed. It gets just as cold on my children in the wintertime as it does on anybody else’s.
We can’t live off $2.50 an hour. We can’t live off $ 1.50 an hour. You take domestics in the Midwest, on the East coast, West Coast, they make more money than we make in the South. The most that they want to pay here for a day’s work is $21. With the prices and things the way they are now, it’s just hard.
I don’t say that I should be making $35,000 or $40,000 a year, but let me at least keep my head above water. Don’t try to keep me down. Some man — a senator — was making $ 150,000 a year and he couldn’t survive. Well, if he can’t survive on $150,000 a year, I can’t even crawl on what I make, can I? Ain’t no need in me even gettin out the bed then, is it? That’s something to think about.
I’m working but I still got to stand in the food stamp line. I still got to stand in the welfare line. If I’m going to work, let me work and maintain my pride. We can’t survive on what we make. Seventy percent of us are without mates. Seventy percent of us are without any other help other than the welfare rolls, and the food stamp lines. I’ve been there and I know what it’s like. It’s not easy.
I would like to see the people that employ us take us more seriously. Recognize that we are human beings and not just something there in the house; something to fetch your slippers when you don’t feel like getting them yourself. We’re more than that.
By the same token, I would like to see our people concern themselves with the job, not just the eight hours pay. We’ve got to get some pride about ourselves and what we do. Hold our heads up and say: “I’m a maid and I’m proud.”
We’re not taking anything, we’re working for it. That makes it just as good as any other job. We’re doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Don’t be ashamed to say, “I like what I do.” That’s my motto. “I like what I do and I’m good at what I do.” Anybody I’ve ever gone to work for, I tell them that. “I like what I do and I’m good at it.”
Bonnie Thornton Dill is a member of the Sociology Department faculty at Memphis State University. After January 1, 1982, she will direct the Center for Research on Women at Memphis State, which will focus on the lives and work of women of color in the United States and working-class women in the South. (1981)