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Behind the Green Baize DoorAlison Light
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Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

Behind the Green Baize Door

Alison Light

3238 words
Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class and Domestic Labour in the Women’s Suffrage Movement 
by Laura Schwartz.
Cambridge, 248 pp., £75, July 2019, 978 1 108 47133 6
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Thevast majority of those who worked in service never set foot in a stately home. The country house, with its uniformed staff and rigid hierarchy, looms large in the British imagination, but the experience of service in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was far more mundane and far more various. Most servant-keeping households employed only a cook and a maid or a single maid-of-all-work or ‘general’. Domestics frequently worked in their own neighbourhoods; some even sat down to eat with their employers in homes not that different from their own. Family members often worked together. Rather than a tribe set apart from their fellows, they were constant presences: on the doorstep or in the back yard, bantering with tradesmen and taking in deliveries, gossiping on the street or at the village shop, on the lookout for future spouses. Going into service was rarely a matter of choice, but many women were glad of the housekeeping skills they learned. And servants were canny. They moved regularly, swapping mistresses until they found themselves suited. Only the very poorest girl straight from the workhouse was without options, until they found their feet. Domestic service was the most common female employment – male servants were a rarity – but it was a staging post, not a career. Most women left their jobs when they married and knuckled down to housework in their own homes. Servants were neither the ‘lackeys and lickspittles’ of Marx’s sour characterisation nor silent, suffering drudges.

Servants have generally been given walk-on parts in British history, seen as emblems of the social status of those who employed them but not as workers in their own right. They were expendable: no matter how friendly or kind the employer, no matter how mutual the dependence, servants knew that, when push came to shove, theirs was an unequal relationship built on cash not care. If a servant was unable to do her job for whatever reason – pregnancy, repeated illness, old age – she was shown the door. In Feminism and the Servant Problem, Laura Schwartz writes trenchantly, with one eye on the present: the failure of labour historians and others ‘to define domestic labour as real work has ensured that it was, and still is, undervalued and underpaid.’

Schwartz’s servants are generally shirty. Many of them are politicised or on the brink of being so. She focuses on the years running up to the First World War, when strikes, disputes and grassroots political activity in Britain were at a height. Female membership of trade unions was growing and suffrage agitation brought women onto the streets in unprecedented numbers. Both movements fostered self-confidence and a sense of entitlement; they gave women a political vocabulary in which to describe their experience. Live-in service came increasingly to be understood as no better than Victorian vassalage. Where other work was available, particularly in manufacturing districts, women voted with their feet, preferring employment with regular hours and weekly pay. At the same time, the ‘white blouse revolution’ took another tranche of women into new commercial and professional jobs – teaching, nursing, education, clerical and shop work. ‘The servant problem’ – related to the ‘getting and controlling of servants’, as the OED of 1911 defined it – was considered a pressing national issue. The subject of numerous surveys and government reports, housework – and how to persuade women to do it – became a political concern. And nowhere was the debate more intense and more divisive than among feminists.

In the press, on the platform and, later, in their memoirs, suffragists prided themselves on ignoring the social distinctions between women. Unlike other political struggles in Britain, the actress and playwright Cicely Hamilton claimed, the campaign for women’s suffrage ‘was not a class movement; every rank and grade took part in it.’ As Jill Liddington and others have shown, working women joined the suffrage associations in droves. Servants were there too. Schwartz tracks them down in court records and newspaper reports: she finds them attending meetings, distributing leaflets and street-corner propaganda, going on marches and landing up in prison. Among them are militants like Eliza Simmons, sentenced to 14 days in Holloway in November 1910 for breaking three windows in Winston Churchill’s house in Eccleston Square. Or the outspoken Rhoda Churchill (no relation), who had trouble holding down jobs because of her radical politics. She wrote to a former suffragist mistress that she had been dismissed ‘because I refused to wear a blue [Conservative Party] rosette’. ‘I refuse to be bought over,’ she added, ‘and have just as much right to my opinion as they.’

Many servants, especially from the North of England, brought a knowledge of trade unionism and its tactics to the campaign for the vote. They also organised themselves. Central to Schwartz’s book – and closest to her heart, I suspect – is her research on the Domestic Workers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland. It was launched in the spring of 1910 by Kathlyn Oliver, a 24-year-old cook-general, in response to a challenge from the Woman Worker, the organ of the National Federation of Women Workers. The DWU had offices in Belsize Road in London and membership cost 2d a week. Grace Neal, its general secretary, gave up her job as a cook to work for the union full-time. Public meetings were held only on Sunday afternoons, which servants usually had free, but the union aimed to be both national and international. Servants were organising in northern Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In Glasgow, on ‘Red Clydeside’, a 20-year-old maid inaugurated a similar union, the Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers. Jessie Stephen told the assembled crowd of mistresses and maids that she was ‘out to preach the divine doctrine of discontent’. Soon blacklisted by employers – one of the dangers of unionisation – she made her way to London and joined forces with Oliver.

The DWU, as Schwartz concedes, never represented domestic workers as a whole –its membership barely reached a couple of thousand – and didn’t survive the First World War. But it signalled an important shift in the expectations of working women even so. Insisting that for millions of women the private home was a workplace, the union demanded the same rights for them as for factory or shop workers. No longer ‘skivvies’ or ‘slaveys’, labels with more than a tinge of abjection, servants were to be called ‘domestic workers’ and their mistresses and masters would for the first time be ‘employers’. While DWU members wanted ‘a union such as the miners have’, many of their demands reflected the peculiarly intimate nature of living in. Better food, the right to use the same bathrooms as their employers, the right to be called by their own names, the right not to be ‘kept in like prisoners or watch dogs’: all marks of dignity and respect. ‘Unfortunate girls’ needed help, not instant dismissal. ‘Wherever you go you are exposed to advances from your employers,’ Grace Neal told the Daily Herald. ‘If it isn’t the husband, it’s the sons or the visitors.’

‘This servant agitation,’ Oliver wrote firmly to the Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, ‘belongs to the feminist movement.’ Most mistresses did not see it that way. Among the suffrage publications, as Schwartz discovers, only the Common Cause gave official support to the DWU. Even there it was an explosive topic. Employers protested against interference in the relations between mistress and maid. Some believed that their servants had it easy – novel-reading was a particular irritant. One cautioned against leaving the suffrage paper lying around the house: it was too sexually explicit and political discussion might give servant girls the wrong idea. Mrs C.H.M. Davidson thought her inferiors ‘only too pleased to have an excuse to be “independent”’, without seeing the irony of her remarks. Unfortunately for Mrs Davidson and her kind, sneers at ‘board-school literacy’ backfired. Those domestics who were beneficiaries of the 1870 Education Act could now answer back in writing. ‘Why don’t suffragists begin their reform work at home?’ one woman, in service since the age of 13, demanded. A ‘Greenwich domestic’ wondered ‘how women getting much better salaries would like to be boxed up in uncongenial surroundings and to be unable to choose their friends?’ They wrote anonymously for fear of being sacked.

Why was it so hard for more affluent feminists to see the servants’ point of view? Schwartz bends over backwards to be fair. Mining the household books and private papers of campaigners, Schwartz unearths many instances of kindness and encouragement. The DWU’s Kathlyn Oliver had worked for Mary Sheepshanks, a leading suffragist and principal of Morley College in London. Sheepshanks gave Oliver time off to attend adult education classes there. Yet servants were always part of the hospitality package offered to visiting suffragists: they served meals, made beds and cleaned the rooms. They are rarely named in suffrage memoirs and their work is just as rarely acknowledged. Schwartz argues persuasively that the figure of the servant was just too troubling. Despite being the most common type of woman worker, the servant was all but invisible in suffrage propaganda and public spectacle. Ladies might sympathise with the mill girl in her shawl and clogs, safely distant, or with the victimised sweated worker, earning a pittance. But they were responsible for what went on in their own homes.

There was plenty of agreement among suffragists that the burden of housework was immense. Most recognised that working men’s wives did a double shift. It seemed quite reasonable, as mistresses maintained, to rely on servants when households had no piped water and minimal sanitation, when cooking meant stoking a range with fuel and washing had to be done by hand, taking all week to dry, iron and put away. Buckets of coal had to be lugged to and fro, smuts cleaned off windows and lace. The appurtenances of the respectable home needed constant dusting and polishing – the list goes on and on. Schwartz records many laments – all too familiar in our own times – from professional women, juggling home and work: ‘please tell me whose fault it all is,’ one exhausted doctor’s wife, who wanted her servants at least to be grateful, wrote to the Woman Worker.

For servants the amount of work was never the sole issue. They resented what Schwartz calls the ‘feminist work ethic’. Suffragists reacted against the enforced idleness of the bourgeois wife, cooped up indoors: gainful employment outside the home was one of their earliest demands. Work was all but revered as both the route to economic independence and as a moral duty to society. Among the more avant-garde, it was zealously promoted as the primary means of self-realisation, a symbol of emancipation. Turning aside briefly, Schwartz highlights current concerns about the ‘neoliberal compulsion to overwork’. For contemporary feminists, she adds, it is a matter of being careful what we wish for.

At home, mistresses were determined to be busy, if only by proxy. Every minute in a domestic’s life was to be accounted for, often literally: Schwartz finds relentless timetables detailed in household logs. Running the home like an industrial enterprise gave mistresses lessons in managerialism which stood them and future generations in good stead. The household economy was also a moral economy, with industriousness and thrift as supreme virtues. To servants this often looked like meanness. Helen Clark, for instance, had impeccable credentials. Of good Quaker stock and the daughter of the Radical MP John Bright, she campaigned in her twenties for the Reform Bill and women’s enfranchisement; later she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and was honorary treasurer of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Affectionate and caring towards her staff, she ran a very tight ship. Three ounces of tea to the cook and the housemaid; two ounces to the lower servants. Servants had clean sheets fortnightly while employers had them weekly. Cultures clashed. Mistresses could not conceive that there were values other than their own, and that they might include putting your feet up, treating yourself to little luxuries or having a good time.

Schwartz is a guide to the internecine debates within suffrage, on both sides of the green baize door. Suffrage was never only about the vote: religion, trade-unionism, same-sex desire, housing, abuse, as well as legal and political reform were all involved. Suffrage-supporting publications varied enormously – from the Englishwoman, priced at 1s and aimed at the higher echelons of society, to the Woman Worker, priced 1d, with its links to socialism, and its brother publication, the Clarion. At times mistress and maid were equally ambivalent about the status of housework. Was it essentially degrading? Feminists tied themselves in knots wanting to renounce ‘drudgery’ and yet not demean the work of women in the home. Some thought that motherhood should be remunerated, Eleanor Rathbone and H.G. Wells among them – but was this not tantamount, others asked, to treating women like paid servants or even prostitutes? Freedom from the home, the more radical argued, was freedom to make a life for one’s self, and to love out of desire rather than the need for a roof over one’s head. Housework should be collectivised and, like childcare, publicly provided. Contempt for housework shaded easily into contempt for those who did it. The young Rebecca West, writing in the Freewoman, the most daring of the suffrage publications, thought that housework was only ‘suitable for those with the intelligence of rabbits’.

Very few in the suffrage movement or in the trade unions suggested that men take on more domestic work; anti-suffragists loved to make political capital from jokes about ‘the downtrodden husband’. Numerous schemes were floated to make housework more ‘scientific’ and efficient: better training, it was suggested, would turn domestics into skilled workers entitled to equal pay with men. Kathlyn Oliver thought the living-in system should be abolished altogether in favour of the state employment or ‘nationalisation’ of domestic workers. Others imagined hostels for women who would go to work as domestics just as typists or shopgirls did, paid by the hour – a forerunner of outsourcing? The most heretical suggestion came from a Mrs Knight, a working woman from West Ham, at one of many conferences on industrial training for girls and women. ‘What they had to do,’ she said, ‘was to alter the system so that the people who created the wealth of the country had proper leisure and opportunities of looking after their own children.’ By ‘people’ she meant ‘women’.

Schwartz gives a splendid and original account of experiments in what was called ‘co-operative housekeeping’, frequently proposed as a solution to the servant problem. However innovative they might appear on paper, from the servant’s point of view little changed. Alice Melvin, writing in the Freewoman, boasted that Brent Garden Village in the suburbs of North-West London – set up in 1910, with communal laundry, communal dining hall and ‘all the most modern labour-saving devices, heating, hot water and so on’ – would dispense with private servants. The publicity photos in the Daily Sketch tell a different story. In starched cap and apron, domestics stand to attention, waiting to serve the food, as if still in a private home.

At Waterlow Court in Hampstead Garden Suburb, egalitarianism was not the aim either. Set up with the housing difficulties of professional women in mind, its 49 ‘spinster flats’ were arranged around an Oxbridge-type quad. The ladies relied on 14 servants, including Annie Heather, the 16-year-old housemaid, and Agnes Hawker, a skivvy of 15. The servants’ hall was smaller than the residents’ ‘common room’ and their bedrooms were shared – sometimes between three or four – with a single bath and toilet between them all. They weren’t invited to their employers’ clubs but were offered ‘wholesome recreations’ instead. Since marriage was the escape route from live-in service, how were they to meet their future husbands in what the Clarion called an ‘Adamless Eden’, miles from the city centre and its musical halls, theatres and pubs? The paucity of applicants for servants’ jobs at Waterlow Court suggests that dancing, singing and drinking, rather than political discussion, were priorities. The social gulf between the classes remained unbridgeable.

Service, in Schwartz’s words, was exploitation. Its cheapness freed employers to pursue more lucrative and higher status work. The imbalance of power between mistress and maid was structural: it was part of the labour relationship. Echoing socialist feminist arguments from the 1970s on, she stresses that domestic labour underpinned not only the household but the capitalist economy. The feminist idea of independence, of an identity based on the fantasy of being in charge – of one’s self, of one’s purpose (what might now be called ‘empowerment’) – left unresolved the question of domestic labour and one’s actual dependence on other women to do this work. Occasionally her politicised language jars – the Edwardian home, for instance, as ‘a site of struggle’. But that may be her point.

I am less certain than Schwartz about the politics of her angry, articulate domestics. So many of her sources, often taken from press cuttings and newspaper correspondence columns, are hard to judge. Many remain anonymous and, as she notes, the literate are over-represented. They are mere glimpses of lives. Sharing grievances was one way for servants in different households to realise their collective interests, but these are public voices, energised by breaking taboos, speaking out with impunity. ‘Do not the mistresses think that the maids study them many times?’ one domestic wrote ominously to the Glasgow Herald in 1913. Surveillance is an age-old servants’ weapon, as is the threat to turn the tables. But are we hearing class consciousness in the making or the venting of class feelings: envy, resentment and belligerence – feelings which might as easily lead to apathy and hopelessness?

Between the wars live-in servants declined in number but domestic labour remained a fallback occupation, especially in times of personal need or of economic distress. It took another war to make personal service appear antediluvian. Slowly the Edwardian cook-general, herself a sign of straitened times, became the ‘daily’ or the ageing char who came in ‘to do the rough’. Domestics provided a staple of ‘colourful’ comic characters, from Mrs Mopp of It’s That Man Again on the wireless with her catchphrase, ‘Can I do yer now sir?’ and the further innuendo of her being sent by ‘the Labour’ to dust the mayor’s dado, to the racist cleaner of Monty Python’s restaurant sketch, with her head in a bucket of vomit. Whether from guilt or embarrassment, or downright shame, in British society at least, the more menial you are, the more likely you are to be the butt of jokes.

Schwartz tops and tails her book with reference to the present. Since the 1980s paid domestic labour has returned with a vengeance, drawing on a now globalised migrant workforce. Unions have given greater recognition to domestic workers – though mainly in offices and other public institutions – and there have been successful strikes. But comparisons across time, across sectors, and between cleaning and other forms of carework are tricky. Schwartz acknowledges that care as a social value needs another set of arguments – moral and ethical. But it also needs another language, in order to explore our relations to the body, to helplessness in infancy and age, and to our waste products. The concept of work stretches only so far.

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