Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #344 Jones 1999 Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor

Full citation: 

Jones, Ann Rosalind. 1999. “Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor" in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Maidservants of London: Sisterhoods of Kinship and Labor"

* * *

While other papers in this volume look at relations between upper class waiting women and their aristocratic mistresses (whether in life or fiction), this study concerns itself with in-group relations among ordinary housemaids and women in service. One common life path for young women from rural households (whether of the gentry or lower) was to be placed in service with a large urban household with the expectation that this would not only provide income in the immediate future but would lead to wider opportunities for marriage. In drama, such figures are often depicted as working class so they may be portrayed to comic effect as accomplices to the central character’s plans. But what evidence do we have for how actual women in such positions interacted for their own interests?

While women in such positions often had limited literacy skills, we can retrieve some understanding from pamphlets written in the voice of—and likely penned by—women in service representing themselves as speaking for the class. This article looks at two such publications: Isabella Whitney’s  “A Modest meane for Maids” (1573) and the anonymous “A Letter sent by the Maydens of London” (1567). This genre no only gave voice to an often silent class, but indicated that they considered that the use of a collective voice, representing a unified point of view, strengthened the arguments they made. Whitney, in particular, as an identifiable individual who also left a body of poetry, sheds a particularly fascinating light on the range of possible experiences for urban maidservants.

In Elizabethan England, domestic service was not simply the most available occupation for unmarried women, it was—in theory—the legally mandated occupation. One statute mandated that any unmarried woman in London between the ages of 14 to 40 who could not prove other employment could be seized by the authorities and forced into domestic service “for such wages as they shall think meet” and to be imprisoned if she refused. But women in household service were paid less than a man (1/2 to 2/3 the rate) and were often subject to sexual abuse from male members of the household which could result in job loss (and consequent prison for vagrancy) if that resulted in pregnancy. Housemaids were simultaneously required to be of strict deportment, considered to be sexually available, and had functionally no recourse to refuse sexual advances. Abortion was widely practiced (or believed to be practiced) as a preferred alternative.

Whitney’s poem “A Modest meane for Maids” tells the other side of this story, detailing how employment in service required impossible levels of patience and diplomacy, and revealing the frustration and resentment such work engendered. She alludes to a good position (with an admired mistress) lost due to false accusations of another.  Elsewhere she gives advice to her younger sisters (also in service) regarding which types of positions are worth holding on to and which might be better left. The demands of service were worth it if the household met minimal standards of decency, because any alternative might be worse.

In the guise of giving practical advice for success in service, Whitney critiques the unreasonable demands of employers and warns obliquely against those who might “infect” them with corruption (strongly implying erotic entanglements). The circumlocutions used for these hazards suggest she means male employers and their sons within the household—the men who have the power to suppress even the suggestion that they might be a hazard to maidservants’ morality.

Within this all, Whitney depicts concentric circles of alliance and connection: her sisters (both as family and as fellow maidservants), domestic workers in general, the family she serves (which relies on her loyalty and honesty for their own security). Whitney’s advice may be overtly directed to the first two, but in pointing out the hazards of service and demands on workers, she is also speaking to the last.

The anonymous “A Letter sent by Maydens of London” is more outspoken (hence, no doubt, the reason for its anonymity). This pamphlet has a specific target: Edward Hake, whose earlier (but now lost) pamphlet “The Mery Meeting of Maydens in London” accused the class of female domestic workers of sloth and dishonesty. The counter-pamphlet is structured with multiple voices and nominal addressees, calling for common cause with their mistresses against Hake’s misogyny. (Ironically, but inevitably, some scholars have claimed that the specialized legal language used in the pamphlet means that it could only have been written by…wait for it…a man.)

In contrast to other proto-feminist works of its era, the Letter avoids questions of whether the genders have an essential moral nature and focuses on the everyday dynamics of the household. The narrators refute the charges of laziness, theft, and going about in public in pursuit of men, not be addressing Hake directly, but by appealing to common cause with their (female) employers for the efficient running of the household. Should the housewives take Hake’s advice and deprive maids of their half-Sunday off, they would soon find no one willing to work under such conditions. Subverting the “body” metaphor of the household, where the master is the “head” with authority over the “body”, they embrace the image of being the limbs that are required for a body to stand and to accomplish work. Without them, the mistress is “disabled” and unable to accomplish what she desires. The arguments have a taste of collective bargaining: workers have the right to withhold their labor if the working conditions are intolerable.

Another tactic is introduced, urging the women—both mistress and maids—to make common cause against their male critic. The maids say they take pride in their work; they are too sharp-eyed and competent to allow theft under their noses. And they appeal to the mistress’s pride in her own competence: surely she knows her own resources and inventories well enough to be able to testify that no theft is takin place? If they give a candle-end to a beggar woman, surely they do it with their mistress’s knowledge and permission for she believes in charity? Further, they say, Hakes makes little distinction between giving charity to beggars at the door and paying housemaids their earned wages—so how can he understand the valid dynamics of the household economy? Hakes would forbid mistresses from rewarding hard work or offering charity as they see fit, and it isn’t his business to judge their actions!

Then the female alliance shifts again, as the maids defend “Mother B” a labor broker who appears as a villainous figure in Hake’s pamphlet. Mother B has done nothing but arrange for labor contracts and, if those contracts are not honored, will help the maids to leave and find better employers. Surely this is their right if the contract is broken or has been completed? Without the assistance of Mother B, maids who are summarily dismissed from service might turn to dishonesty to live, rather than being helped to another position.

And as for railing against maids going to plays and public spectacles, he would forbid both mistress and maid from doing so, and the alliance shifts back to common cause between those groups. Plays—like sermons—depict stories of virtue and vice, teaching moral lessons, they argue. And further, this attack on enjoying public entertainments places the fault more on the mistresses (who allow it) than the maids who indulge in it. Once again, the narrators leverage their employers’ sense of their own authority and judgment to undermine Hake’s demands.

Both publications discussed here set up a two-level structure of female alliance: first, among the maidservants in opposition to their employers, but second, identifying themselves as part of a larger household and including their female employers in an alliance of women’s concerns against external dangers (e.g., housebreaking) or misogynistic attacks on all women.

Time period: 

Add new comment