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A Job Like Any Other? Feminist Responses and Challenges to Domestic Worker Organizing in Edwardian Britain*

  • Laura Schwartz (a1)

Abstract

This article focuses on the Domestic Workers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland (est. 1909–1910), a small, grassroots union organized by young female domestic servants in the years leading up to the First World War. This union emerged against a backdrop of labor unrest as well as an increasingly militant women's movement. The article looks at how the Domestic Workers’ Union drew inspiration from the latter but also encountered hostility from some feminists unhappy with the idea of their own servants becoming organized. I argue that the uneven and ambivalent response of the women's movement toward the question of domestic worker organizing is significant not simply as an expression of the social divisions that undoubtedly characterized this movement, but also as reflecting a wider debate within early twentieth-century British feminism over what constituted useful and valuable work for women. Attitudes toward domestic worker organizing were therefore predicated upon feminists’ interrogation of the very nature of domestic labor. Was it inherently inferior to masculine and/or professional forms of work? Was it intrinsically different from factory work, or could it be reorganized and rationalized to fit within the industrial paradigm? Under what conditions should domestic labor be performed, and, perhaps most importantly, who should do it?

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*

I would like to thank Carolyn Steedman and Barbara Taylor, who read early drafts of this article; also seminar participants at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, for the extremely useful discussion following the paper upon which this article is based.

Footnotes

References

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NOTES

1. Servants constituted thirty-four percent of all women employed in 1891 and still twenty-three percent in 1930, Davidoff, Leonore, “Mastered for Life: Servant and Wife in Victorian and Edwardian England,” Journal of Social History 7 (1974): 406–28, 410. The 1911 census recorded 1, 359,359 women employed as indoor servants.

2. Selina Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910–2010 (London, 2014), Chapter 1.

3. Cathy Hunt, The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906–1921 (Basingstoke, 2014).

4. For a detailed account of the founding and politics of the Domestic Workers’ Union, see Schwartz, Laura, “‘What We Think Is Needed Is a Union of Domestics Such as the Miners Have’: The Domestic Workers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland, 1908–1914,” Twentieth Century British History 25 (2014): 173–98.

5. Common Cause, December 7, 1911, 621–22.

6. C. Violet Butler, Domestic Service: An Enquiry by the Women's Industrial Council (1916; repr. London, 1980), 6, 11. See also, Labour Leader 3 June 1910, ‘Press Cuttings’, The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library. London Metropolitan University, Box 21, Reel 10, 504e/1; Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1913, ‘Press Cuttings’ The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/23.

7. Census return for 1 Barton Street, London (1911). Sheepshanks became Secretary of the Alliance in 1913 and the editor of the newspaper Ius Suffragii. Sybil Oldfield, Spinsters of this Parish: The Life and Times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks (London, 1984), 159–60.

8. Woman Worker, August 11, 1909, 126; Freewoman, February 22, 1912, 270; Kathlyn Oliver to Edward Carpenter, October 25, 1915, Sheffield Local Archive, Edward Carpenter Collection, Carpenter/Mss/386/262; Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality 1885–1914 (London, 1995), 281–82, 291–92; Bland, Lucy, “Heterosexuality, Feminism and the Freewoman Journal in Early Twentieth-Century England,” Women's History Review 4 (1995): 523 , 14; Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain (Oxford, 2011), 26.

9. The precise dates of the Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers as well as the point at which it formally merged with the London-based Domestic Workers’ Union are somewhat unclear. See Schwartz, “‘What We Think Is Needed,’” 17–19. See also Audrey Canning, “Jessie Stephen (1893–1979), Suffragette and Labour Activist,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition).

10. After the First World War, Jessie Stephen worked for Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers’ Suffrage Federation, the successor to the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and later for the Workers’ Birth Control Movement; see “Miss Jessie Stephen,” “Oral Evidence on the Suffragist and Suffragette Movements: The Brian Harrison Interviews,” The Women's Library @ LSE, London, 8SUF/B157; Jessie Stephen, Submission is for Slaves (n.d.), Working Class Movement Library, Salford; Suzie Fleming and Glodan Dallas, “Jessie,” Spare Rib, February 1975, 10–13.

11. Stephen, Submission is for Slaves, 56; Suffragette Fellowship, “Roll of Honour Suffragette Prisoners (1905–14)” (n.d., c.1950), The Women's Library @ LSE, London, 7LAC/2.

12. Votes for Women, November 25, 1910, 129; December 2, 1910, 143; November 23, 1910, “Register of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction sitting at Bow Street,” Part 1, 1910 (July, September, November), London Metropolitan Archives, PS/BOW/A/01/040. NB Votes for Women incorrectly records her arrest as November 24.

13. 1911 Census return for One Ash, Rochdale; Manchester Guardian, February 22, 1908, 10; March 3, 1908, 5; Rochdale Observer, February 19, 1908. Edith Bright and her daughter Hester were both active in the Rochdale branch of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage, allied to the constitutionalist National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies; Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain and Wales: A Regional Survey (London, 2008), 11.

14. Woman Worker, July 31, 1908, 239.

15. Woman Worker, September 25, 1908, 430.

16. For the distribution practices of feminist periodicals, see Maria Dicenzo, Lucy Delap, and Leila Ryan, Feminist Media History: Suffrage, Periodicals and the Public Sphere (Basingstoke, 2011). It was also relatively common for servants to have access to their employers’ newspapers; see Margaret Beetham, “Domestic Servants as Poachers of Print: Reading, Authority and Resistance in Late Victorian Britain,” in The Politics of Domestic Authority in Britain Since 1800, ed. Lucy Delap, Ben Griffin, Abigail Wills (Basingstoke, 2009), 185–203. A couple of mistresses even complained to the Common Cause that the paper's content was either too sexually explicit or too informative about workers’ rights to leave it lying within reach of their domestics. Common Cause June 26, 1911, 682; December 7, 1911, 621–2.

17. The name was changed to Women Folk February 2, 1910, and Winifred Blatchford took over as editor. The paper retained “Woman Worker” in the subtitle, and this article will refer to all editions as Woman Worker for ease of reference.

18. Bland, “Heterosexuality, Feminism and the Freewoman,” 5–23; Lucy Delap, “Individualism and Introspection: The Framing of Feminism in the Freewoman,” in Dicenzo, Delap, and Ryan, Feminist Media History, 159–93.

19. Dicenzo, Delap, and Ryan, Feminist Media History, 2.

20. Common Cause, November 9, 1911, 543.

21. Woman Worker, July 10, 1908, 174; October 28, 1908, 555.

22. Woman Worker, June 5, 1908, 1; September 4, 1908, 367.

23. Woman Worker, October 28, 1908, 555.

24. Woman Worker, February 24, 1909, 189.

25. Woman Worker, July 17, 1908, 190; July 31, 1908, 239; November 25, 1908, 634; December 9, 1908, 694; June 2, 1909, 518; June 23, 1909, 590; July 14, 1909, 30; July 28, 1909, 78; August 4, 1909, 102.

26. Woman Worker, August 25, 1909, 182.

27. Woman Worker, September 8, 1909, 230; September 22, 1909, 275.

28. Common Cause, October 19, 1911, 484.

29. Common Cause, February 9, 1911, 710. See also October 19, 1911, 484.

30. Common Cause, October 19, 1911, 486; October 26, 1911, 594; November 2, 1911, 521.

31. Freewoman, January 25, 1911, 187.

32. See, for example, Common Cause, August 24, 1911, 349.

33. Woman Worker, August 28, 1908, 332.

34. Common Cause, November 9, 1911, 542–43. See also November 23, 1911, 579.

35. Woman Worker, July 7, 1909, 6. See also December 2, 1908, 617.

36. Common Cause, November 9, 1911, 542–43.

37. Woman Worker, December 8, 1909, 517; November 24, 1909, 475.

38. Woman Worker, December 2, 1909, 670; November 24, 1909, 475.

39. Common Cause, January 4, 1912, 672–73.

40. Common Cause, November 9, 1911, 543.

41. Common Cause, November 30, 1911, 600.

42. Common Cause, October 12, 1911, 466; November 2, 1911, 521.

43. Woman Worker, December 2, 1908, 670.

44. Caroline Davidson, A Woman's Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650–1950 (London, 1982); C. Christine Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave: The Mechanisation of Household Work (Cambridge, 1988); Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870–1918 (Oxford, 1993), especially Chapter 2.

45. Woman Worker, November 1, 1908, 591; June 12, 1908, 9.

46. Woman Worker, November 1, 1908, 591.

47. Common Cause, September 21, 1911, 409–10.

48. Woman Worker, November 1, 1908, 591.

49. Woman Worker, August 25, 1909, 189–190. See also Freewoman, December 7, 1911, 42–44; Woman Worker, December 16, 1908, 719. For cooperative housekeeping in Britain, see Alistair Thomson, “‘Domestic Drudgery Will Be a Thing of the Past’: Co-operative Women and the Reform of Housework,” in New Views of Co-operation , ed. Stephen Yeo (London, 1988), 108–27; Lynn F. Pearson, The Architectural and Social History of Cooperative Living (Basingstoke, 1988); Carol Dyhouse, Feminism and the Family in England 1880–1939, (Oxford, 1989), Chapter 3; Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (London, 2011), Chapter 6.

50. Woman Worker, August 25, 1909, 190; October 23, 1908; Freewoman, December 7, 1911, 42–44; February 29, 1912, 296–97. For exchange between Alice Melvin and Kathlyn Oliver on this question, see Freewoman, April 4, 1912, 386–87; April 11, 1912, 410–11; June 20, 1912, 98; July 4, 1912, 137.

51. Woman Worker, June 12, 1908, 20.

52. Joyce Senders Pedersen, “Victorian Liberal Feminism and the ‘Idea’ of Work,” in Women and Work Culture, Britain c.1850–1950, ed. Krista Cowman and Louise A. Jackson (Aldershot, 2005), 27–47.

53. Woman Worker, June 5, 1908, 18.

54. Woman Worker, November 18, 1908, 611.

55. Woman Worker, June 12, 1908, 20; December 16, 1908, 719.

56. Woman Worker, November 1, 1908, 591; see also June 12, 1908, 20, 23.

57. Rona Robinson, the recent holder of the Gilchrist Post-Graduate Scholarship for the course in Home Science and Economics at Kings College for Women, resigned her post and publicly stated her support for the position of “Educationalist.” Freewoman, February 15, 1912, 256–57.

58. Freewoman, November 23, 1911, 16–18. My emphasis.

59. Freewoman, November 23, 1911, 16–18.

60. For an overview of debates on university curriculum for women, see Laura Schwartz, “Feminist Thinking on Education in Victorian England,” Oxford Review of Education 37 (2011), 669–82. For housewifery as an academic subject, see Dena Attar, Wasting Girls’ Time: The History and Politics of Home Economics (London, 1990).

61. Freewoman, December 7, 1911, 54.

62. Delap, Knowing Their Place, 2; Woman Worker, December 30, 1908, 767.

63. Freewoman, July 18, 1912, 178.

64. Freewoman, July 4, 1912, 136.

65. Common Cause, August 24, 1911, 349.

66. Common Cause, October 19, 1911, 484.

67. Woman Worker, September 29, 1909, 306; Diane Aiken, “The Central Committee on Women's Training and Employment: Tackling the Servant Problem, 1914–1945” (Ph.D. diss., Oxford Brookes, 2002).

68. Woman Worker, April 7, 1909. See also Woman Worker September 29, 1909, 396; January 5, 1910, 602.

69. Daily Mirror, August 28, 1909; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/5.

70. Liverpool Courier, August 30, 1909; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/6; Woman Worker, November 9, 1911, 542–43.

71. Butler, Report of the Women's Industrial Council, 60, 82.

72. Kathlyn Oliver, Domestic Servants and Citizenship (London, 1911), 14–15.

73. Woman Worker, October 13, 1909, 345.

74. Woman Worker, December 22, 1909, 566.

75. Common Cause, January 4, 1912, 672–73.

76. Even if the value of board and lodging was added, “our services cannot be considered well-paid, for wages would average 2d an hour,” Common Cause, October 19, 1911, 486. Jessie Stephen claimed that “the average wage of the domestic servant worked out at ¾ d to 1 ½ d per hour,” Glasgow Herald, October 16, 1913, 10.

77. Common Cause, November 23, 1911, 578.

78. Stephen, Submission is for Slaves, 16–18.

79. Oliver, Domestic Servants and Citizenship, 18.

80. Weekly Dispatch, January 5, 1913; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/21.

81. Woman Worker, June 2, 1909, 518; Glasgow Herald, October 3, 1913, 5; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1928; repr. Harmondsworth, 1975), 67. Of course, Woolf's writing career was to a large degree made possible by the hard work of her own domestic servants; Alison Light, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (London, 2007).

82. Common Cause, November 23, 1911, 578.

83. Stephen, Submission is for Slaves, 26–27.

84. Woman Worker, June 2, 1909, 518.

85. Woman Worker, July 14, 1909, 30; August 25, 1909, 182. For servants complaining about being treated as machines rather than as human beings, see Glasgow Herald, October 2, 1913, 3; September 20, 1913, 3; September 26, 1913, 5; Woman Worker, July 21, 1909, 54. For a long tradition of servants as “automata,” see Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge, 2009), 47.

86. Woman Worker, January 12, 1910, 626.

87. Common Cause, November 9, 1911, 543.

88. Common Cause, September 28, 1911, 432.

89. Common Cause, September 28, 1911, 432.

90. Woman Worker, October 20, 1909, 382; Labour Leader, May 20, 1910; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/11.

91. Common Cause, November 23, 1911, 578–79.

92. Common Cause, December 7, 1911, 610.

93. Woman Worker, October 20, 1909, 382; Oliver, Domestic Servants and Citizenship, 14.

94. Oliver, Domestic Servants and Citizenship, 18.

95. Common Cause, December 19, 1911, 486.

96. Woman Worker, October 28, 1908, 555. Lucy Delap has noted how the position of domestic servants was used as an “index” by which to attend to the condition of women more generally; Delap, Knowing their Place, 2.

97. Freewoman, November 23, 1911, 1.

98. Freewoman, December 7, 1911, 43.

99. Freewoman, February 29, 1912, 281.

100. Common Cause, August 10, 1911, 313; August 24, 1911, 349.

101. Daily Dispatch, September 11, 1912; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/19.

102. Daily Dispatch, September 16, 1912; “Press Cuttings,” The Gertrude Tuckwell Papers, Trades Union Congress Library, London Metropolitan University, Box 25, Reel 12, 609/20.

103. Feminist Fightback Collective, The Cuts are a Feminist Issue,” Soundings 49 (2011).

* I would like to thank Carolyn Steedman and Barbara Taylor, who read early drafts of this article; also seminar participants at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, for the extremely useful discussion following the paper upon which this article is based.

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