What Harriet Teaches Us About Black Women’s Leadership

Cynthia Enviro as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet” in theaters Nov. 1, 2019
Photo: Courtesy TIFF

When most people think of Harriet Tubman, the first thing that comes to mind is how she helped hundreds of black people escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. Other aspects of her life, such as how she led a raid near the Combahee River that freed 700 enslaved people or how she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, or active in the suffrage movement have been obscured by history. The release of the movie, Harriet, on Nov. 1 creates new opportunities to learn about her life and leadership.

As a black woman who has spent the last three years developing the leadership of black domestic workers—nannies, house cleaners, and home care workers—Harriet’s life is full of lessons for us all. In the domestic worker movement, we often find ourselves telling the stories of unsung heroes. Dorothy Bolden organized thousands of black domestic workers from 1968 through the 1980s and was appointed to several presidential commissions, but the narratives about Civil Rights figures, even in her hometown of Atlanta, often omit her contributions. When I learned that Harriet, too, had been a domestic worker, I wondered if this was a clue to understanding both the ways black women lead and the ways the stories of our leadership get told.

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Domestic work in this country is both racialized and gendered, and its beginnings date back to enslavement. Enslaved black women were responsible for household duties and caretaking and after emancipation, black women continued to do this work for very low wages.

Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was sent to care for the child of a white family at 5 years old. She served as a domestic worker until she was old enough to work in the fields, which she preferred to the watchful and critical eyes of white women. After escaping enslavement in Maryland in 1849, 29-year-old Harriet worked in Philadelphia as a laundress, maid, and cook before beginning her journeys with the Underground Railroad. Later, she continued to perform care work for her elderly parents, and eventually opened a home to care for sick and aged black people.

Despite the fact that Harriet continued to lead and to serve black people and communities long after the Underground Railroad, history only celebrates those acts that demonstrate leadership that is traditionally embodied by men—the charismatic, the public, the physical, and the harrowing. Is her work organizing and advocating for black women through the nascent club movement less laudatory? While we celebrate her for being a scout and a spy for the Union Army, is her work as a nurse and a cook during the Civil War less heroic?

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Because domestic workers labor inside of the home, feeding and caring for children, the sick and elderly, their work is rendered invisible. Because of its impact, we often say that domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible. So, too, is the leadership of black women.

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Black women know that the work we do in boardrooms, churches, and social movements, is essential, is foundational and often gets overshadowed by the charismatic work of men. Jo Ann Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, names the instrumental contributions that she and other women made to the Montgomery Bus Boycott—doing the initial planning and outreach, cooking for the community, etc.—and still many have never heard her name. When former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced that she would forego an open U.S. Senate seat to continue her voting rights work through Fair Fight, the backlash, especially from white liberals, was strong and swift. On Twitter, users called her “self-absorbed” and “arrogant, suggesting she is aiming to be vice president. Despite the necessity of her efforts (1.6 million voters were purged from the voter rolls in Georgia this decade), they have been seen as less important than her running for political office.

Black women organizers today recognize that the work we do behind the scenes is valuable, important, necessary and impactful. We are building and expanding the leadership of black women. We are pushing our way into the forefront and working to change both the narratives about who is in leadership and the very nature of leadership itself. We know that black women’s work is and always has been the work that makes freedom possible, but is too often taken for granted and ultimately forgotten.

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Frederick Douglass once wrote to Harriet Tubman: “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way.” As more of Harriet’s work gains public recognition, let us remember the black women who follow in her footsteps, and encourage and celebrate them today.


Tamika Middleton has been organizing in social movements for 17 years and is currently the Black Organizing Co-coordinator for the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s We Dream in Black program. She is an organizer, birth worker, writer, and unschooling mama who is passionate about and active in struggles that affect Black women’s lives. 

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