The story begins in August 1962 in the kitchen of Elizabeth Leefolt. Aibileen is caring for the plump two-year-old Mae Mobley Leefolt whom she affectionately calls Baby Girl. Aibileen's own son, Treelore, was killed months before she began working at the Leefolt residence. Treelore fell from a loading dock and was crushed under a tractor trailer. When the story opens it is the fourth Wednesday of the month, bridge club day, and Aibileen straightens the house, manages Baby Girl, serves the women, and overhears their conversation. The women discuss the upcoming Junior League Benefit, and Miss Hilly tells the women present, Elizabeth, Skeeter, and Hilly's mother, Miss Walter, about the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a bill that requires a separate bathroom for blacks in every white house. During a break in the bridge game, Skeeter finds Aibileen and questions her about Constantine, Skeeter's childhood maid, but Aibileen says she does not know anything.
Chapter 2 introduces Minny, Aibileen's best friend. As the two ride home together on the bus, they reflect on their long, hard day: Aibileen tells Minny what she overheard from Miss Hilly at bridge—that Miss Walter is going into a retirement home and firing Minny. Minny swears revenge.
A few mornings later, construction on a separate bathroom in the Leefolts' garage begins. During the construction, Celia Foote, a newcomer to Jackson, calls Elizabeth to volunteer her services to help with the Benefit. Aibileen learns that Celia needs a maid, and she lies by telling Celia that Elizabeth recommends Minny for the job.
Aibileen's point of view develops in this chapter. As are the subsequent chapters in Aibileen's voice, it is written in first person with a prevalent dialect. Aibileen's humor gets her through bad times, and it is clear that she must keep her real self inside in order to appear the subservient, obedient maid. She is also proud of her skills at raising children and is secretly pleased that they favor her over their own mamas. These chapters also show that Aibileen thinks Elizabeth Leefolt is too skinny and too unhappy to be a good mother; and that Baby Girl has a dangerous devotion to Aibileen. Baby Girl fears her mother's impatience and runs to Aibileen for comfort. This foreshadows events where Baby Girl sees herself as belonging more to Aibileen than her own kind.
These chapters reveal the truth of what black maids think of their white employers, which is not much. Aibileen relays events that show their employers to be unreasonable and unfair to their help. Black maids are often accused of stealing and helpless to defend themselves. Their personal lives are secondary to the demands of the white family. A white woman can fire the help at will and use her friends and influence to destroy a black maid's life. Aibileen also blames the white men at the lumber mill for her son's death because they didn't get help quickly enough. This shows that the racial prejudice runs both ways.
Tension between Skeeter and Hilly is also revealed in these chapters. They've been lifelong friends, but their relationship had changed ever since Skeeter left for college. Hilly's husband has political ambitions, and Hilly sees her role as president of the Junior League as a platform for pushing her agenda to segregate the town even more. Although Elizabeth will do anything Hilly commands in order to keep favor with her powerful friend, the distance that college provided has changed Skeeter's thinking about the way people are divided in her hometown. Skeeter asks Minny if she ever wishes things could be different, which reveals to Minny that Skeeter might not be like all the rest of the white women.