The servant problem

by
18 January 2019

January 17th, 1919.

THE domestic service question has become acute. Mistresses are wondering how much longer it will be possible for them either to obtain maids, or, having obtained, to afford the payment of the wages they will exact. Before the war, the trouble had begun. During the war, women of the class from which domestic servants were drawn went into war work, attracted by the extravagant rates of pay and the freedom of such leisure hours as they could get. Now that they are no longer needed in munition works, some of them at least are willing to undertake housework, but on their own terms. They demand shorter and fixed hours of work; more days or half-days of leave; the exclusion of the mistress from her own kitchen; the abolition of the cap, that hated (though becoming) “badge of slavery”; and high wages. As regards the last item, it is impossible for that most numerous class of employers whose incomes, instead of expanding, have shrunk in purchasing-value by a half, and are further curtailed by heavy taxation. They simply cannot afford to give higher wages than before, and certainly not so long as profiteering in food is allowed to continue. If the wages difficulty could be got over, perhaps it would be possible for mistresses and maids to hit upon some reasonable modus vivendi. It is quite certain that the former will have to give way on some points which they have hitherto regarded as absolutely unalterable. But concessions on the one side demand them from the other. Maids must not expect to have it all their own way. They must learn the nature of a contract; understand that they must do what they engage to do, and that their relation with a mistress involves for them certain responsibilities. There are, of course, impossibly households and impossible mistresses, and the servant’s lot in such circumstances is sad beyond expression. But there are also impossible servants, and unfortunately the casual, not to say the immoral, practice of giving them “characters” in which there is a suppression of their unsatisfactory conduct prevents their extinction. With the demand of girls and women to be treated not as machines but as human beings we are in entire sympathy, and so, we believe, are more householders than we should be led to suppose by the controversialists on the maids’ side.

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