American Dilemma: What Do You Call The Help? : NPR Public Editor Reporting on the Strauss-Kahn case underscores an American squeamishness over employment of domestic workers.
NPR logo American Dilemma: What Do You Call The Help?

American Dilemma: What Do You Call The Help?

Nafissatou Diallo leaves a New York office building with her lawyer Kenneth Thompson. AP Photo/Seth Wenig hide caption

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AP Photo/Seth Wenig

When judges dismissed the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn this week, Morning Edition guest host David Greene introduced the story:

"We may never know what really happened between former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a chambermaid this past May..."

A 'chambermaid'? Some listeners were offended. They found the term a little "Upstairs, Downstairs" and best left to that class-ridden British society of yore.

As Johanna Bender from Seattle, WA, wrote: "By referring to the accused by name, and referring to the accuser by an antiquated and demeaning term reserved for female house staff, Mr. Greene and (correspondent Carrie) Johnson reinforced the very power imbalance they had sought to examine through their otherwise insightful reporting."

In America, we call women who are paid to clean...the uhh...uhh...Well, what do we call them? The cleaning lady? A housekeeper? Certainly not the maid.

This month a movie was released called "The Help." Based on a book by Kathryn Stockett on a Mississippi household in the 1960s, the movie centered on the relationship between upper income white housewives and their black "help," a Southern delicate term that in its vagary would seem to sidestep any more distasteful term. But the whole point of the book and film was that the black women were often demeaned or dismissed as invisible.

Outside a tiny upper class, Americans in their sense of democratic equality have always had a hard time with the concept of a maid or nanny. This is different from Europe, where working in a household is more protected by labor laws and is seen as more honorable. In the past several decades, however, as American women have broken in ever greater numbers into executive and professional ranks, they have resorted ever more to hiring domestic help for support at home. Husbands and day care centers often just aren't enough. Aiding the charge of professional women for the corner office is that a great surge in unskilled immigration has been taking place at the same time, providing a large pool of foreign women to hire at relatively low wages.

And yet, as one who has lived about half my life abroad, I remain amused by how otherwise confident American women and men sheepishly stumble over their words in trying to give a name to the woman covering their backs at home. Few admit to having a "maid" or a "nanny." Perhaps most hilarious to me is that the person taking care of their children seems usually to be called a "babysitter," as if somehow it were still the teenager next door, an image of sweet Americana. (And I am proud to say that I babysat as a teenager.)

So, America, what should we call these often noble women who increasingly work in our houses and hotels and take care of our children? And we are talking about women here. The men have their own issues over contentious words like "janitor." Not many "butlers" have re-appeared.

Bender, the listener who complained about "chambermaid," says that in the case of Nafissatou Diallo, the Strauss-Kahn accuser, NPR should have said "the alleged victim." Her concern for people with little power is admirable, but Diallo's job was central to the case and the job had to have a name. I don't think calling Diallo a chambermaid took anything away from her, though it is a bit of a British affectation.

Lori Grisham contributed to this post.