Domestic servants cannot complain of their wages, but I have always felt that they have a just grievance in the long hours of labour and the curtailment of their freedom. Probably none of us will live to see it, but there will come slowly a revolution in the terms of domestic service. Why should it not be made as honourable as sick-nursing?
This is how it is: We must pay women to do our household work, and if we can afford it we buy release from all wearisome drudgery. There must be someone always on duty in a house, and the question is, how far is it right to expect a servant for so much board and wages to be never off duty for an hour in the day, with the exception of the recognised evening out?
Not one of us would like to be compelled to stay in the house —- and that another person’s house — every night of the week but one: to be at the call of a mistress from six — or five — in the morning till eight at night. Looked at without prejudice, it ought not to be asked of anyone at any price.
That is the crux of the whole difficulty. The work is pleasant and healthy, both in the country and the town, and the wages are good, but the constraint upon personal liberty will become more and more objectionable to young women.
A friend of mine, with no leanings towards democratic notions always ends up her complaints about the difficulty of getting maid servants to stay contentedly in her quiet country house by saying that after all we have no right to expect them to be very different from ourselves.
They see the mistress and daughters of the house, perhaps doing plenty of work, but always at liberty to go out shopping or visiting when they so incline and having their friends in for pleasant recreation thus causing more work for the servants. All classes go about much more than they used to owing to better roads, better means of locomotion etc.
I know a great many families where the daughters would think it a great hardship if they had to stay in for three days in succession. They are always “going about.” Indeed, it is a sort of test of your social standing to what extent you visit, and how frequently you are seen at functions in the neighbourhood. Is it so extraordinary that the young servants, just as fond of pleasure and liberty, should chafe at the great disparity between their lot and that of the class the serve?
There are tens of thousands of people who cannot see this. A typical example is an experienced elderly mistress who professes to be unable to understand what her maids want to get out for: “They’re far better in,” she says, and she enlarges upon the fact that she is quite contented to sit in her own house for a week at a time — with, by the way, plenty of company, the pleasantest room to sit in, the garden to roam in and a great variety of occupations which she can take or leave as she chooses.
Yet it is a perpetual conundrum to her why a young girl of 20 finds it dull to spend all her leisure hours in a back kitchen, with no one to speak to! The conditions are different in a farmhouse and the girls cannot complain of dulness, although they might reasonably complain of the long hours, not so much in which they work as in which they are tied. In many important respects, the servant’s life is much easier than ours. They have not the care or responsibility nor have they any added burden from outside; but we would not give up our greater liberty for a simpler round of mechanical duty.
There are three ways in which domestic service might be reformed. The first is that it should be undertaken by properly-trained and efficient women who will work with their brains and their cultivated skill. The great majority of girls “muddle” away at their housework without method or knowledge and mistresses are given the dreary task of attempting to train a long succession of ignorant workers who resent being taught.
The second much-needed reform lies in the improving of the kitchen arrangements, of grates, the simplifying of houses and furniture so that labour — useless, disagreeable labour — may be reduced to a minimum. How many houses we know which are ingeniously built to give the greatest possible trouble and inconvenience to those who have to work them!
The last reform, without which the first two would be useless, is that there shall be a different relationship between the mistress and maid, in this respect, that the latter would be free for a certain time each day, in non-working hours. It is a difficult position of course, when the worker lives in. But the difficulty exists now in acute form, and it might be lessened if domestic service did not entail so complete a servitude.
I do not forget that the lower grade women servants who supply farm houses and go out as “generals” in small establishments are very frequently drawn from a class wholly uneducated in mind or in morals. Better conditions of service would have no good effect on multitudes of these. But that does not alter the truth that an employer should not have the power to keep an employee in bondage for all but a few hours one evening a week.