(Written from Skeeter's point of view.) A college graduate who has recently moved back to her parents' home, Skeeter is facing a number of difficulties. She is hurt and angry about her best friend Hilly's threat to kick her out of the League, which indicates just how far apart the two women have grown. Skeeter's mother is concerned that her daughter has not gotten married yet at the late age of twenty-three, so she constantly nags Skeeter to do whatever she can to get a man. Skeeter, however, is much more interested in finding a job where she can pursue her passion for writing. The only job to which she has applied (an editor position at Harper & Row) has not gotten back to her. Flipping through the employment listings in the local paper, Skeeter notices that many jobs offer women lower pay than men for the same work.
Skeeter misses her childhood maid, Constantine, who was mysteriously dismissed from the household during Skeeter's senior year of college. Skeeter reminisces about her close relationship with Constantine, remembering a time when a boy called her ugly and Constantine comforted her by saying that true ugliness comes from being a mean and spiteful person. Skeeter's mother constantly harangued her to brush her hair or wear more flattering clothes, but Constantine was interested in what Skeeter's thoughts and ideas. Still, Skeeter understands that there's much about Constantine's life that she doesn't know; for example, Constantine once casually mentioned that her father is white, which surprises Skeeter and raises a number of questions. Skeeter and Constantine remained close even when Skeeter goes off to college, writing letters to each other frequently. In Constantine's last letter to Skeeter, she mentions that she has a surprise for her, but Skeeter's mother says that Constantine left to live with her people up in Chicago. Skeeter is certain that there is more to the story than this.
(Written from Skeeter's perspective.) One September morning, Skeeter is delighted to see that she has received a reply from Harper & Row. She hasn't gotten the job, but one of the editors, Elaine Stein, has decided to give her some career advice. Stein tells Skeeter that she should get an entry-level job at a newspaper, and should write about the things that disturb her. She offers to read some of Skeeter's ideas as well, and Skeeter sends her a list of topics such as drunk driving, illiteracy, and so on. Skeeter heads to the Jackson Journal, asking about any reporter positions that they have open. Though the editor, Mr. Golden, is rather rude (he asks if she managed to have any fun in college), he offers her a position writing Miss Myrna's weekly cleaning advice column.
Skeeter is elated with her new job, but her mother comments about how ironic it is that Skeeter - who has never cleaned anything in her life - is writing a cleaning column. Her mother is dismayed that this job will give Skeeter no opportunities to meet a potential husband. Skeeter realizes that her mother is right about her lack of knowledge of cleaning, and decides to ask her friend Elizabeth Leefolt's maid, Aibileen, some questions about cleaning in order to write the column. Elizabeth grudgingly allows this, and so Aibileen answers Skeeter's questions about scrubbing bathtubs and getting stains out of clothing. Skeeter casually mentions Constantine and how she moved up to Chicago, but Aibileen says that Skeeter’s mother fired Constantine. Skeeter confronts her mother about this, and her mother refuses to explain further, saying only that Skeeter will understand when she hires help of her own.
Skeeter continues asking Aibileen about cleaning advice for her column, and the two begin to grow close. Aibileen casually mentions Constantine's very light-skinned daughter, who appeared at Skeeter's mother's house shortly before Constantine was fired. Aibileen stops herself and says she is scared to say anything more.
Skeeter receives a reply from Elaine Stein, who is not impressed by her dull and passionless list of ideas. Skeeter is devastated, but she also realizes that she should have chosen ideas that interest her rather than ideas that sound impressive. The seed of an idea begins to grow in her mind, a dangerous but compelling one that won't go away....
(Written from Aibileen's perspective.) Little Mae Mobley is growing up fast, and Aibileen reminisces about her other "used-to-be" babies while Mae plays in the yard. Mae Mobley's mother steps in to snap at her for not eating in her high chair, and Mae Mobley calls herself a bad girl. Aibileen denies this, and tells Mae that she is smart and kind; she prompts her to repeat this and remember it.
Aibileen realizes it's time to potty-train Mae Mobley. This is made more difficult by the fact that Miss Leefolt refuses to let Mae Mobley watch her using the toilet, which would set an example for the young girl to follow. Mae has a great deal of trouble figuring out how to use the toilet, so Aibileen realizes that she will have to show the girl what to do. Aibileen faces a conundrum: show Mae Mobley on the white toilet, or on the "colored toilet" in the garage set aside for the black maids? She decides that the best course of action is to take the girl to the colored toilet; Aibileen sits down and uses the toilet. After she is done, Mae immediately jumps up and uses the toilet herself for the first time, to Aibileen's great pride.
When Miss Leefolt comes home, Aibileen proudly tells her that Mae Mobley has learned to use the toilet. Eager to show her mother, Mae runs to the bathroom...the "colored" bathroom in the garage. Miss Leefolt flies into a rage, spanking her daughter harshly, and telling her never to use that bathroom because it is dirty and diseased.
Aibileen continues to give Skeeter information about cleaning for her newspaper column, and she finds herself talking to Skeeter about things she has never spoken to any white person about, such as the politics of her church or her son Treelore's excellent grades. Still, she can't bring herself to talk to Skeeter on the third anniversary of Treelore's tragic death.
But life goes on. Aibileen goes grocery shopping to supply the Leefolt family's Thanksgiving, and while there she runs into another maid who tells her about another tragic event: a young black man named Robert (who is the grandson of Louvenia, one of the matriarchs of the black community) used an unlabeled white restroom, and two white men beat him with a tire iron until he was blind in one eye. Aibileen is horrified.
Aibileen is shocked to find Skeeter waiting for her when she gets home. Skeeter says she wants to interview Aibileen about what it's like to be a maid, and what it's like to work for a white family. Aibileen says that this is extremely dangerous, and points out the violence meted to black people who challenge the status quo, most recently Louvenia's grandson. Skeeter asks her to think about it, but Aibileen says no and walks away.
Thus far we have mainly heard the about the difficulties faced by black women (which are substantial), but chapters 5 and 6 indicate that white women also face some difficulties. Though she is only twenty-three, Skeeter is under enormous pressure to marry; all of her friends have done so, her mother is constantly badgering her about getting a boyfriend. Skeeter knows that marriage will mean the end of her professional ambitions, and moreover, it will mean subordinating her intellect to that of her husband. But though she tries to avoid marriage, her family, friends, and society do not let her forget that she will be considered a failure until she marries.
As a woman, Skeeter's position in the white world is inferior. She is discouraged from getting a job despite her education and talents, and she discovers that she will be paid less than a man for performing the same work. When she appears for a job interview at the local paper, she receives inappropriate comments from the managing editor about her appearance and social activities. She persists despite this disrespect, and manages to get a minor position writing a column about women's work. Still, it's a start.
Despite her gender, Skeeter still has a great deal of power over the maids. She essentially plagiarizes Aibileen's experience to write her column and doesn't think twice about it. However, Skeeter also begins to question some of the things she has been taught since childhood, such as the idea that black people are all dirty and diseased.
Chapters 5 and 7 offer the reader a more detailed perspective on the relationship between black maids and the white children they raise. Skeeter treasures her memories of Constantine, and had a more loving relationship with her than she did with her own mother. However, Skeeter is stunned to learn that Constantine had a daughter; despite their close relationship, Constantine never felt safe telling Skeeter about this major aspect of her personal life. Though maids might seem to be family or even closer than family, this is still a tenuous economic arrangement that does not favor the maids. The black women are dependent for their livelihood on this work, whereas white families know they can always hire another maid.
The black maids struggle with having so little official influence over the children they care for; this is made clear through the relationship between Aibileen and Mae Mobley. After Miss Leefolt spanks her daughter for using the colored bathroom, Aibileen feels deep guilt for indirectly causing harm to the girl, but she also hates that Mae Mobley is being taught to believe that black people are dirty and diseased. Aibileen is responsible for daily activities like feeding, cleaning, and playing with Mae Mobley, and she is the one the girl spends most of her time with. However, she has absolutely no control over the major decisions in Mae's life, and she has a limited capacity to instill important values.
The vicious beating perpetrated against Louvenia's grandson marks a major turning point in the narrative. We begin to see an indication that racism can be even more serious than separate bathroom facilities or snide remarks from employers - racism can literally kill. Dread of similar treatment will haunt all of the black characters throughout the rest of the novel. They know very well that the price for challenging racism can be violence or death.