Open seminar: ‘Servants’ Trade Unions and Feminist Debates on Work, Britain 1900-1914
Dr. Laura Schwartz is Associate Professor of Modern British History at the University of Warwick. She has published widely on the history of British feminism and is currently working on a monograph entitled Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class Conflict in Domestic Labour in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2018). Laura Schwartz sits on the University and Colleges Union branch committee, and is also active in the London-based collective Feminist Fightback.
This paper explores British feminist attitudes to housework and domestic servants at the turn of the twentieth century. This period of militant suffrage struggle and unprecedented labour unrest was also a moment when increasing numbers of middle-class women were pursuing professions outside the home. As a result, the meaning and value of work for women was hotly debated in feminist periodicals. This paper identifies an influential current within the feminist thought of the period, which, I argue, was complicit in the devaluing of ‘reproductive’ vis a vis ‘productive’ labour. The paper also discusses how a small domestic servants’ union contested a feminist denigration of domestic labour in their struggle to be recognised as workers. It will also explore the difficulties faced by the union in attempting to reconcile their position as domestic workers with prevalent models of feminist identity. The paper asks to what degree reproductive labour had, by the beginning of the First World War, been effectively marginalised as a category around which feminists could organise for social change.