In 1963, Aibileen Clark is an African-American maid in Jackson, Mississippi. She works for socialite Elizabeth Leefolt and cares for the Leefolts’ daughter Mae Mobley, whom Elizabeth neglects. Aibileen’s best friend and fellow maid Minny Jackson works for Mrs. Walters, whose daughter Hilly Holbrook leads the women’s socialite group.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss and an aspiring writer, is a friend of Elizabeth. Skeeter is uncomfortable with her social circle’s racist attitudes toward their maids, including Hilly’s insistence on installing separate bathrooms for the help. Skeeter learns that her mother Charlotte fired Constantine, the maid who raised Skeeter, and decides to write a book of interviews with African-American maids working for white families.
Minny is fired by Hilly for using the guest bathroom and is rendered unemployable, but finds a job with Celia Foote, a housewife ostracized by the other socialites. Celia treats Minny with respect and they become friends, but keep Minny’s employment secret from Celia’s husband Johnny, who is Hilly’s former beau. Celia suffers a miscarriage, and reveals to Minny that she has had two previous miscarriages.
Skeeter reaches out to Aibileen, who eventually agrees to be interviewed, as does Minny. Elaine Stein, Skeeter’s editor at Harper & Row, advises her that the stories of two maids are not enough, but fear of retribution prevents other maids from coming forward. Aibileen tells Skeeter about her struggle to cope with the death of her son, and believes the book will help her find closure.
Hilly refuses to advance money to her replacement maid, Yule May, who is struggling to send her twin sons to college. Yule May discovers a discarded ring and pawns it, but is brutally arrested as Hilly watches. This incident and the assassination of Medgar Evers inspire more maids to tell Skeeter their stories.
Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny fear the maids’ stories will be recognized. Minny reveals the “terrible awful” she did to Hilly: after her termination, Minny brought Hilly her famous chocolate pie, but revealed that she baked her own excrement into the pie after Hilly had finished two slices. The inclusion of this incident in the book would prompt Hilly to crusade in denial that the book is about Jackson.
Skeeter confronts her mother about firing Constantine, and Charlotte reveals that during a Daughters of America luncheon, Constantine’s daughter Rachel disobeyed Charlotte’s orders to enter through the kitchen, embarrassing her. To save face, Charlotte fired Constantine; Rachel took Constantine to Chicago, where she later died.
The book is published anonymously and is a success. Minny reveals the “terrible awful” to Celia, who finally sees what a manipulative bully Hilly is, and writes a cheque to one of Hilly’s charity groups, made out to “Two Slice Hilly”. Incensed, Hilly threatens Skeeter with legal proceedings, but she reminds Hilly that the incident is in chapter 12. Charlotte intervenes, letting on that she knows about the “terrible awful”, and orders Hilly off the property. Charlotte and Skeeter reconcile when Charlotte tells her how proud she is of her courage, the book, and her job offer in New York City.
Johnny reveals to Minny that he knows she has been working at his house, and how appreciative he is for her friendship with Celia, how it saved her life, and that she has permanent job security. This kindness gives Minny the courage to take her children and leave her abusive husband.
Seeking revenge for helping Skeeter, Hilly pressures Elizabeth to terminate Aibileen, framing her for theft. Aibileen stands up to Hilly, who breaks down and storms out, and Elizabeth orders Aibileen to leave. Aibileen bids farewell to Mae Mobley and pleads with Elizabeth to give her daughter a chance, as Elizabeth begins to cry. Aibileen reflects on the ordeal and finds closure, looking to her own future as a writer.