My review of “Feminism and the Servant Problem Class and Domestic Labour in the Women’s Suffrage Movement” Laura Schwartz



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”.

Hannah Mitchell

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 Laura uses Jessie’s unpublished biography “Submission is for Slaves” to chart her activity and the rise of the SFDW.

Jessie Stephen

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.

Kathlyn Oliver

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.”

Jessie Stephen’s autobiography is at the Working Class Movement Library as are the Minute Books of the MSWTUC.

More about Jessie here

You can buy Laura’s book here

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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3 Responses to My review of “Feminism and the Servant Problem Class and Domestic Labour in the Women’s Suffrage Movement” Laura Schwartz

  1. Gail Malmgreen says:

    Great review, and a great topic, long overdue for study. I have never forgotten a brief article I saw more than 40 years ago, possibly in Spare Rib (I’m not sure; maybe a more ephemeral publication). It was based on an oral history of an elderly woman who had worked as a cleaner in the offices of Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End. The outspoken comments on her poor treatment by Sylvia and others really stuck with me to this day, no doubt because I had always seen Sylvia as a heroine.  I wish I could find that article again. G

  2. mlsurridge says:

    Hi Bernadette,thanks both to you and Michael for your reviews.For me lockdown has brought a real hit to my reading.My reading ‘guilt pile’ has grown so much that I have imposed an embargo on book buying.Hopefully some hint of normality will see more reading for me. Have you booked a swim?I’m really looking forward to getting back in the water.Hopefully will see you both.x

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