Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1905

Women’s Interests

Mistresses and Maids.


Source: New Age, p. 42-43, 19 January 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


“I hope never to have a house so large that I cannot do my own housework,” was the remark made to me the other day by an energetic Dutch woman Socialist. And she added: “My experience is that when you take a servant to help you in your work you introduce the class war into your own home. There is much that is shrewdly true in this remark and there is also an underlying fallacy in the rough and ready generalisation; but, at the best, the present estate of things between mistress and maid is unsatisfactory; and the social relationship shows signs everywhere of strain and variability. These remarks do not apply, of course, to the well-oiled springs of the social mechanism, where every upper servant has an underling, whose duty it is to carry the full burden of the primal curse, but to the smaller and less well equipped households, where one or two maids act as more or less unskilled helps and where the jars and jerks caused by antiquated and worn-out social machinery are often too painfully apparent. There is no class war visible in those regions where the gentleman’s gentleman lounges through a comfortable and well-remunerated career, or where the housekeeper and maid sip their afternoon tea in suitably luxurious surroundings, and exchange weighty whispered confidences as to the “doings” of the family. But the class antagonism becomes sharply apparent in proportion as wages and creature comforts become scarcer, and working hours grow longer; in a word, in households where the income, not being large enough to allow the heads of the household many luxuries or much leisure, the life of the domestic helps is necessarily poorer in comfort, and restricted in opportunity. In these households also the wage-earner and the wage-payer are brought into close contact, and frequently into the clash of hostile interests, without the interposing “buffer state” represented by the housekeeper or confidential maid. The class an antagonism becomes, in consequence, much more apparent and breaks out at times into demonstrations of real class war. The remedy for this state of things it is impossible to find under existing social and economic conditions. It is certain that differentiation of work must exist; it is equally certain that simplification of life, and shorter hours for domestic and unskilled workers generally, must become the rule; but these at the best are only palliatives, and the problem will eventually have to be faced on wider and broader grounds.

“The End of the Servant Question”

is the title of one of the promised lectures early this year by Mrs. Perkins Gilman (a friend of mine has characterised it as “a ravishing title”); and a little book, which lies before me, called Mistresses and. Maids, by Miss Isabel D. Marris, bears the sub-title A Handbook of Domestic Peace. Given present conditions, I should like to recommend the book to both mistresses and maids, because it is written in the right human spirit; and the assimilation of it will, I believe, lead to better understanding and truer conceptions of what the relationship, even in small households, might become, between women who mutually respected and trusted each other. It is quite true, as Miss. Marris says, that a woman’s work is never really finished; but it is equally true, as she goes on to say, that “no woman is a machine to go on working twelve or fourteen hours a day without a breathing space. If only women would realise this a little more, both women in the serious professions and those engaged in the equally arduous duties of home life, what friction and nerve-wear they would save! This is not merely a counsel of perfection, it is a clear duty for all women – wives and mothers, servants and professional or business women – to secure to themselves at least one half a day for rest and relaxation, otherwise nerves and tempers must give way, and where then will be the “graciousness of living” that is the ideal of so many, and which is a woman’s highest achievement? The following remarks are also excellent, and in the best spirit; I commend them to the modern woman (myself included), who often finds it difficult to square ideals and realities in the practical difficulties of every-day life. “Those who are used to horses know very well that there is such a thing as a nervous touch in the matter of handling an animal, which is often responsible for much irritation and bad behaviour, if not for more serious trouble. .... Women, like horses, are nervous creatures, and half their troubles come from anticipation. Only let them face their ‘jumps,’ so to speak; taking them straight as they come, without shying, and they will be over half of their difficulties before they can realise they have had any. What is wanted by women in dealing with each other is a firm and steady, but a gentle hand, and above all a sense of humour.” I would like, with Miss Marris’s permission, to underline the last three words. A sense of humour does much, very much, to sweeten life and to help us bravely and sunnily through its trivial rounds and its common tasks. Life without humour is as an egg without salt, and if we would put more of this salt into our domestic pot-au-feu we should not, perhaps, need, to such a great extent as we do, the less wholesome seasoning of the artificial humour of the music-hall or of doubtful comedy.

Honour where honour is due.

As women’s educational opportunities extend, they are not found backward in taking advantage of them. Mr. Will Crooks tells us of a girl in Poplar, the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer, and one of nine children, who last year took her University degree. This fact makes us ask with anxiety, how much more talent may there not be awaiting development among the children of the people, when only one out of possible thousands is able to break through the barriers of class and sex and claim her place in the light of day; and, how much poorer is the country for the loss of those possible thousands! As I write there hangs on the wall in front of me Vanity Fair’s portrait of Madame and Monsieur Curie: I prefer to place their names in that order, as it was the discovery of the wife that rendered the husband famous. Madame Curie earned distinction under her maiden name of Marie Sklodowska, when pursuing her studies in her native town of Warsaw. Later on, she taught in Germany, and then came to Paris as a lecturer in a girls’ school at Versailles. It was in Paris she met Monsieur Curie, the professor of a small technical college. It was their joint unobstrusive, and self-denying study and experiment that resulted in the discovery, through a woman’s final flash of intuition, of the new element known as Radium. Their own and foreign countries have showered honours on her and on her husband – in the conventional phrase, her “helpmate.” In the Paris-Exhibition of 1900 a watch-glass containing a powder was exhibited marked “Radium, discovered by Madame Curie.” When they came to England, Monsieur Curie only was received into the sanctum of the Royal Society, and when their portraits appear in an English publication, Monsieur Curie is depicted holding up the vessel containing the precious discovery, while Madame Curie stands by in the attitude of an admiring and wondering assistant. The world moves slowly, but it does move; and we welcome with pleasure the fact that the LinnŠan Society is divesting itself of its purely masculine character and is admitting women to equal honours and privileges with men.

DORA B. MONTEFIORE.