Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1904

Women’s Interests

The Domestic difficulty

Source: New Age, p. 26, 14 January 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Under this title comes a wail which echoes throughout the length and breadth of the land. The Plesiosaurus and the Dodo are extinct, and Mary Jane threatens to follow their example; wherefore there is woe in the habitations of the faithful, for whose mothers and grandmothers that now mythical functionary used (in the good old days) to wash, bake, cook, and scrub. The domestic difficulty, by the way, does not appear to be the only labour difficulty voiced by the perennial outpourings of journalism; the mine-owners in South Africa have been for some time past as sorely put to it as the mistresses of households in the old country to find subservient workers who will do their odd jobs of mining at the price and under the conditions which they choose to dictate. But the mine-owners, lucky dogs, can appeal to Imperial Legislation to help them out of their difficulties, and flood South Africa with Chinese coolies on the hire system. It never seems to occur to the harassed heads of households in the United Kingdom to make their domestic difficulties a matter of Imperial moment, and to declare with one voice (through subsidised newspapers, of course) that all domesticity, all housekeeping, all rearing of children must be at a standstill until the revolting Mary Jane, like the revolting South African native, can be brought to her senses by the competition of coolie swarms, armed with frying pans, brooms, and dusters. It is possible that the heavy burden of disfranchisement pressing for so many generations on the shoulders of the head of the household, and keeping her, along with Mary Jane, in a subservient and subordinate position, may militate against such drastic initiative as marks the policy of the enfranchised and plutocratic mine-owner. At any rate, the head of the household contents herself with journalistic wails, and onslaughts on empty Registry Offices, while the mine-owner acts and scoops in the coolie.

Exit Mary Jane and enter the trained Help.

Most of these journalistic wails of which I have spoken may be divided into two parts – the setting forth of the grievances in reproachful and warning spasms, and the elaboration of what is termed “The Remedy.” This remedy wears a variety of disguises, and fluctuates between “better technical training for both Mistress and Maid” and suggestions “for making kitchens and bedrooms more comfortable – the latter even dainty, as being often the only refuge from pots and pans.” No one, I have observed, in the recently published articles and correspondence on the subject quotes Mrs. Stetson, whose book, “Women and Economics,” is a valuable and practical contribution to the subject. Mrs. Stetson shows, and shows shrewdly and humorously, that collectivism is the remedy for the anarchy of individualism, which too often reigns in the homes of which we make such a boast. Household industries, she shows, will need to be organised and specialised like all other industries. Scientific improvements and labour-saving appliances will have to be introduced into dwelling-houses, as they have already been introduced into factories and workshops and houses will need to be planned, built, and plumbed in such a way as to meet and provide for existing social and economic conditions; instead of for those of the Middle Ages. “The majority of domestic servants,” she writes, “are young girls, who leave this form of service for marriage as soon as they are able, and we thus entrust the physical health of human beings, as far as cooking affects it, to the hands of untrained immature women of the lowest social grade, who are actuated by no higher impulse than that of pecuniary necessity.... The art of cooking can never be lifted to its true place as a human need and a social function by private service. Such an arrangement of our lives and of our houses as will allow cooking to become a profession is the only way in which to free this great art from its present limitations. It should be a reputable, well-paid profession, wherein those women, or those men, who were adapted to this form of labour would become cooks, as they would become composers or carpenters.”

A common sense view of the question.

The most sensible letter in the recent correspondence on the question is one signed with the initials E.G.H. in the Manchester Guardian. The initials give no clue to the sex of the writer, but I gather from internal evidence the writer is a man. He begins by denying the assertion of a distinguished lady novelist that the present dearth of servants is a calamity, and adds: “Risking the anger of my lady friends, I will go further, and assert that it is one of the most hopeful signs of the times.... The dignity of labour was never more earnestly believed in and acted up to than at present.” He then points out that windows must be cleaned by contract, as also spring cleaning and carpet sweeping, and urges the employment, in all cases where possible, of outside specialised labour. The problem before us is not to hang on to the vanishing skirts of Mary Jane, but to start domestic centres in every town and village where skilled domestic help can be obtained by the hour or day at a fixed rate of wage, and freed from the trammels of “indoor service.”