Women’s History Month has become an important time each year to commemorate the struggles of women in the past for equality and emancipation. Yet in only celebrating the victories we risk ignoring battles that are still far from being won.
This week cleaners at the London School of Economics will go on strike to demand the same rights as other staff at this elite university. At present the cleaners have only very limited access to pensions, holidays, and parental leave, while sick pay is so bad that some cleaners have no choice but to come to work when they’re ill or injured. In the words of one LSE cleaner, “we’re treated like the dirt we clean”.
Historically, cleaning has been women’s work because it is underpaid, and has been underpaid because it is women’s work. LSE recently appointed its first permanent woman Director, Minouche Shafik, who will take up the post later this year. Yet this commitment to feminism does not seem to extend to ensuring decent wages and conditions for the women and men who clean its offices, libraries and classrooms.
Over 100 years ago, Britain’s domestic workers faced very similar problems. At a time when workers in other industries were beginning to win increased wages and shorter hours, servants were still expected to work 16 hour days and lacked legal protection. “What we feel is needed,” wrote two Scottish servants, Sadie and Margie, “is a union for domestics such as the miners’ have.”
The Domestic Workers’ Union of Britain and Ireland was founded in 1910. Kathlyn Oliver, who worked as a cook and general maid, was one of its main instigators in London. In 1913 the union merged with a parallel organising project, the Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers, established by a general servant named Jessie Stephen. Its first object was “To raise the status of domestic work to the level of other industries, so that domestic workers shall cease to be a despised species, and to educate these workers to a proper sense of their own importance.”
The union developed a blacklist of bad employers and demanded better pay and a shorter working week. Glasgow domestic servants called a strike and succeeded in winning an extra weekly half-day holiday – a significant achievement for a group of workers who usually only had Sunday afternoons off.
The Domestic Workers’ Union faced significant obstacles. Many in the male-dominated trade union movement did not think it was worth wasting time and resources on such a fragmented workforce, isolated in the homes of their employers, who would anyway leave their jobs on marriage. Many middle-class feminists insisted that their servants had little to complain of, and preferred instead to focus on campaigns for women to enter higher status professional work.
Over the course of the 20th century, servants’ pay and conditions did begin to, slowly and unevenly, improve. Many working class women also voted with their feet and domestic service went into sharp decline after the Second World War.
Yet in the last few decades, the domestic service industry is once again as big as it was in the 1930s. Most domestic workers no longer live in the houses of their employers, but have become an invisible workforce outsourced to often unscrupulous employment agencies. How many of us pause to consider how our offices and public buildings end up so clean and tidy each morning? Or how the people who do that work are treated?
Often, when I talk about my historical research, I’m told how strangely contemporary so many of the issues facing domestic workers in the early 1900s feel today. Sometimes it can feel to those of us who work on women’s history that we’re going round and round in circles. Domestic labour is still mainly women’s work, it is still undervalued and underpaid, and therefore it is still mainly women’s work. The strike by the LSE cleaners this week offers all of us a way out of this circular logic. I hope that when Women’s History Month comes around in 100 years’ time, it’s their victory that we’ll be commemorating.
Laura Schwartz is Associate Professor of Modern British history at the University of Warwick. Her book ‘class conflict and domestic labour in the British women’s suffrage movement’ is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant