Commentary Human Rights

Who Is Today’s ‘Mary Poppins’? She Doesn’t Own a Magical Carpet Bag.

Elizabeth Johnsen

Nannies and other domestic workers are very likely immigrants and women; maybe undocumented; and almost always underpaid and unprotected by labor laws.

Mary Poppins, with her signature wink of magical whimsy, has been the world’s most beloved nanny for generations.

And with this week’s premiere of Mary Poppins Returns—starring Emily Blunt and some actors from the original cast, including Dick Van Dyke—celebration of the iconic figure has been revived.

Yet, as I make plans to see the movie with my niece and nephews, I can’t help but wonder: Who would Mary Poppins be today? What would she look like, as a nanny in this country?

The answers to these questions—in real life—take us somewhere different than the film might intend.

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If she worked in the United States today, Mary Poppins would very likely be a woman of color—and just as likely an immigrant (perhaps, even, undocumented). At subminimum wage, she certainly couldn’t afford that beautifully tailored coat, white sheer-sleeve dress, and impressive carpet bag. And she’d probably be using her magic umbrella to fly above the heads of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rather than down chimneys into children’s nurseries.

So let’s talk about that.

Domestic workers are one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in America today. More than 2 million nannies, housekeepers, and home-health aides are excluded from federal labor protections such as minimum wage, health and safety laws, and the right to organize a union, placing them in isolated and stressing conditions. This fact is rooted in the United States’ legacy of slavery and the devaluation of care work (traditionally done by women of color) ever since.

The story of domestic workers’ advocate Natalicia Tracy is one startling example. Tracy was trafficked from Brazil into a nanny job in 1990, where she worked in the shadows of a family’s affluent Boston home. Without labor protections, Tracy had no clear recourse against the abuses she encountered.

Tracy went on to earn a doctorate in sociology, and today, she is a leader in labor rights advocacy as executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center, fighting for the values of safety, dignity, and listening to workers themselves. Her advocacy helped pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Massachusetts in 2014 and a similar bill in Connecticut a year later. For her efforts, she was named one of the nation’s 2013 Petra Fellows, recognizing “unsung heroes in the struggle for social justice.”

Indeed, the work that caregivers do is essential to our lives. They help raise our children, take care of our elders, clean and polish our homes. They are adored by millions of families across the country, just as Mary Poppins is adored. Yet they are still taken for granted and made invisible.

States are gradually enacting policy to change this. California, Hawaii, and New York have all adopted Domestic Workers Bills of Rights since 2010. In July, Seattle became the first city to pass one, establishing a local standards board for people who work within their employers’ households.

This is progress, but it’s not enough.

We celebrate the women (and men) who take care of our children with almost religious devotion in film, television, and literature. Mary Poppins is joined by beloved characters such as Jane Eyre, Amelia Bedelia, Maria from the Sound of Music, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Viola Davis’ Aibileen Clark in The Help. Earlier this year, Davis said she regretted that “it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard” in the film. As Davis pointed out, thousands of nannies in the United States are invisible. We can change this.

If we, as a society, were to give as much attention to domestic workers as we give to Mary Poppins, we could actually turn their lives around. A national bill of rights, along with comparable policies like family and medical leave, would do just that, which is why we must join labor rights advocates in demanding protections for domestic workers.

Because the real nannies out there deserve it.

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