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.