Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers In the South, 1865 - 1960
By Rebecca Sharpless
University of North Carolina Press
182 pages, Notes, Index
Though I have not read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, I have seen the movie. It has unleashed furious criticism, especially in the black blogosphere. The most common criticism is that The Help sanitizes an important and painful part of African American history: the role of black female domestics in white homes. Not to worry, though: the real story has been told, and more than admirably, in Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens.

Sharpless explores three issues in relation to black female domestics: the manner in which they moved from slavery to paid employment as domestics; how the women survived the brutal discrimination, racism and poor working conditions common to their roles, and the myths and stereotypes surrounding African American female cooks.

The period know as Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 through 1876, saw African Americans leave the plantations and pour into southern towns and small cities looking for work. African American women were firmly caught in the vise of race, class and gender, and found it incredibly difficult to secure employment. Jim Crow and the inability to get an education forced black women into domestic work in which they took care of generations of white families while their own families were often left unattended or in less-than-ideal situations.

Many cooks had no skills in preparing or cooking food, and oftentimes the women of the household was similarly situated. Furthermore, the work was fraught with minefields: the mistress of the house controlled what was collected, cooked and how it was served. This meant that every aspect of the work involved a power struggle. Black cooks worked with inferior ingredients in insufficient quantities in poorly equipped kitchens, yet were expected to produce elaborate and delicious meals at any time of the day or night. The miracle is that so many black female cooks developed the necessary skills to satisfy their employers.

African American female cooks also worked under deplorable conditions. On average they worked six days a week if the cook lived out; a live-in cook was expected to be on call twenty four hours a day. Most cooks made fewer than five dollars per week, and many even less than that as white employers used things such as left over food and second hand clothing and furniture as payment. If ill, they dared not miss work; when they became pregnant, they often worked right up to the time they delivered, and were expected back at work almost immediately thereafter. Indeed, Sharpless found that during this time period, black women had higher rates of miscarriages, still births and complicated deliveries then did white women. These were no doubt related to the conditions under which they worked.

Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens also addresses an important issue left untouched by The Help: the sexual exploitation of black female cooks by their white male employers. African American cooks were often placed in a terrible predicament, just as they were during slavery: resist the advances of their employers, and risk being fired; acquiesce to those advances, and risk losing their self-respect.

Sharpless makes it plain that some women made a deliberate decision to enter into sexual relationships with their employers, and in turn saw improvements in their working and living conditions.

Under the worst of circumstances, however, black female cooks managed to make spaces for themselves, their families and friends. They refused to be defined by their employers or their jobs. They used various strategies, including attempting to organize, to lessen their isolation and improve their working conditions. For the most part, these women knew that cooking for white families was only a means to an end.

Sharpless, an associate professor of history at Texas Christian University, has written a marvelous and important study of the workaday black female. While scholarly–there are hundreds of source notes from oral histories, cookbooks, autobiographies, and letters the women wrote describing their predicaments to various New Deal agencies–Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens is also highly accessible reading. Sharpless skillfully weaves a rich tale of how the work of these women ensured that their young female relatives had more options. Her book is a terrific counterbalance to The Help.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Columbus State Community College. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.