Both my mother and aunt’s first job in England after arriving from Ireland in the 1940s was as servants. Both of them hated it. My aunt ran away from her employer and my Dad had to return to pick up her clothes and the paltry wages she was owed. The title of this book is ironic: it was not the servants who were “the problem” but the nature of the relationship between them and their mistresses.
In this new and fascinating history Laura Schwartz unravels the complexity thrown up by the rise of suffrage movement and the response of working class women to the rapidly changing roles between them and the women they served. When I was transcribing the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council the irony of the roles played by the women was not lost on me. The organisation was funded by upper class women and men who raised money by having “at home” socials. At these fundraising events for the benefit of working class women they were being served by another group of working class women; the maids.
What I really enjoyed about this book was that it gives a voice to the servants – some of them like suffragist Hannah Mitchell – who, in her autobiography The Hard Way Up spoke bitterly about her experience of being a servant and who “absolutely refused to don the muslin badge of servitude”.
Jessie Stephen is a prominent voice in the book who was founder of Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers. Jessie won a scholarship to train as a pupil teacher, but due to the poverty of her family was forced into domestic service. Even whilst working long hours in service (16 hours per day), she took her anger out onto the streets, organising her sister servants. Laura uses Jessie’s unpublished biography “Submission is for Slaves” to chart her activity and the rise of the SFDW.
Feminism was, and still is, today about the ability of women to make choices about their life but there was an uneasiness in expanding this ideological view to the women who enabled many suffragettes to have an active life within the movement. Domestic workers were excluded from the WSPU’s newspaper the Suffragette and there were no images of domestic servants in their propaganda.
It was in other suffrage newspapers that the voices of domestic servants started being heard. Angry letters challenged an article in the Common Cause in August 1911 which said domestic servants were well paid. Servants responded (anonymously in order not to get sacked ) calling for better wages and shorter hours. I like the response of “A Domestic Servant” “I wonder if she would feel she had been well paid when she had paid for two uniforms out of her wages.”
The anger and bitterness of working class women did find a home in the foundation of the Domestic Workers Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1909, part of the National Federation of Women Workers. Unfortunately, neither the NFWW or the DWU’s official papers survived. So Laura has used the correspondence pages of the Woman Worker, the Glasgow Herald and local and radical press to piece together the history of this organisation.
The significance of the DWU was, according Laura, that “It sought to reconfigure the mistress-maid relationship as a formal employment contract, and did not shy away from the potential for class antagonism between these two groups of women.”
Kathlyn Oliver, a twenty four year old cook, took up the formation of the union in London, and branches in Manchester and Oxford followed. Organising domestic workers was not easy. Leaflets were printed about the union and circulated to the workers at their back doors. By January 1913 it had a membership of 400 servants. It was open to women and men. The only time most domestic servants had any time off was Sunday afternoons,so the union opened its offices to members on that day so that they could share ideas and experiences which would shape the direction of the union.
The DWU had to deal with all the contradictions of trying to establish domestic service alongside other forms of manual labour. Domestic service was unlike other work as it dominated women’s total life: not just the long hours, but its psychological hold over the women’s minds. Kathlyn Oliver summed it up that mistresses failed to see their servants “as an intelligent being with a mind and soul to cultivate and not merely a machine.”
The demands of the DWU forced the suffrage movement to examine the politics in their own home and their relationships with their female servants. The First World War, which saw many servants escape into the munitions industry, led to the demise of the DWU. The 1918 Representation of the Peoples Act excluded servants alongside many working class women, as only women householders over 30 got the vote
Laura calls for more research and a feminist approach to this history “which takes account of more than just the male working class, not only highlights the long-standing economic significance of the service industry, but also reveals how, although it was difficult to organise domestic workers, the impulse for collective struggle never was and never can be limited to the factory.”
You can buy Laura’s book here