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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 275 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 11: Employment Relationships

Sunday, December 17, 2023 - 18:36

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 275 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 11: Employment Relationships - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/12/16 - listen here)


This episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes,” examining how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

Today’s topic is employment-related tropes—any situation in which one member of the romantic couple works for the other member of the couple. In addition to considering gender dynamics, we’re also going to talk a little about the historic context of “employment”—in various forms—and how that intersects with gender as well.

As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

It can help to split up employment tropes into three basic categories. Using the term “employment” for the first category is misleading, because that category covers enslavement and similar not-at-all-voluntary associations. I’m not going to address this category directly, but it draws on many of the same dynamics as the other categories—just more intensely on the consent-related issues. The second category is domestic employment, where the employee works in the employer’s home and provides various personal support services. The third category is non-domestic employment, covering situations where the employer and employee don’t reside in the same household—although even this category can get fuzzy around the edges in certain time periods.

Regardless of the type of employment, the relationship—and an important part of the dynamic for people who like these tropes—involves the presence of power differentials and associated consent issues. This can make the subject tricky to discuss, because for some fans of employment tropes, problematic power and consent issues are a major attraction, while for other fans, those issues represent a hazard to be worked around carefully.

On a more generally positive note, employment tropes generally bring in dynamics of compulsory proximity, and often the overlap between dynamics of trust, loyalty, and support that operate on both a personal and professional level.

Situating the Trope in Time

The ways in which employment tropes play out are strongly shaped by the historic setting. What types of employment were available? How did one enter a particular job? What restrictions or requirements do the jobs have on who may do them? How does the job shape other parts of your character’s life? What are the social and legal expectations of the employment contract? These are all factors that will be part of your general historic background research before considering the specific dynamics of your characters’ relationship and there isn’t space here to consider them in any detail.

Furthermore, when considering popular examples of employment-based relationships, there ways in which the difference between contemporary settings and historic settings are far more relevant than the gender of the participants. As modern people, we’re accustomed to a situation where employees expect much more control over their workplace conditions than they had in pre-20th century settings. We have more legal recourse and the power differentials—though still significant—are nowhere near as serious as in previous centuries. An employee can walk away from a problematic workplace without automatically putting all future employment at risk. So placing an employer-employee romance in a historic setting isn’t just a matter of set dressing, but involves very different rules and expectations.

As some general guidelines, settings in the ancient world (for example, classical Greece and Rome) are going to involve the significant presence of an enslaved workforce, especially for domestic labor, but the social and legal dynamics will differ from those of later eras.

The availability of domestic versus non-domestic employment will vary significantly for women in different eras, and will often depend on location, with non-domestic employment generally being associated with urban locations. While there will generally be some types of non-domestic employment available to women in all times, in many eras the majority of female employment will be domestic. Restrictions of the types of work available to women will often be greater the higher one’s social status. Manufacturing and craft type jobs are different in scope and nature before the Industrial Revolution, and the possibilities for employer-employee relationships are drastically affected by that shift.

The types of occupations and positions available to women, as contrasted with men, have also changed across the centuries, though not always in the same direction. The options for women’s non-domestic employment narrowed significantly around the 17th century and only began to expand again in the later 19th century.

From another angle, when dealing with pre-20th century employment, the general expectation that a married woman’s primary employment is taking care of her own household, means that the default expectation for an employer-employee pairing is for the employee to be unmarried. Expectations on the employer side are more variable. A woman employing domestic help is statistically likely to be married, unless she has an independent household, either as a widow or due to being wealthy. A woman employing non-domestic labor—assuming she’s the primary employer—may be more likely to be single, depending on the exact historic circumstances. It’s complicated and variable, and it may be helpful to go back and review some of the previous trope episodes that touched on economic independence, such as the episodes on spinsters, widows, and billionaires.

It’s probably a good rule of thumb that social status and employment power differentials will align closely—employees are unlikely to come from a higher social class than their employers, unless we’re also dealing with concealed origins.

Gender Dynamics in Workplace Romances

And that brings us to one of the two most significant gendered differences in employment tropes, because for a male-female workplace romance, gender adds a third axis to traditional power differentials. So if your employer is male and your employee is female, then you have the triple whammy, of gendered power, economic power, and most likely innate social power being in alignment, placing the female partner at multiple disadvantages in negotiating the relationship. In a historic context, even moreso than a contemporary one, there can be a strong pressure for a female employee to consider fielding romantic or sexual advances from her boss as part of the landscape. This makes it challenging for her to recognize sincere interest. And as an author, it can be tricky to set up believable romantic situations in which genuine consent is possible.

Conversely, if your employer is female and your employee is male, then you’re dealing with a structural conflict between the expectations of gendered power and the expectations of economic and social power. Both of these alignments can bring strong flavors to how the romantic relationship progresses. Does the male partner feel “unmanned” by being the less privileged member of the couple? Does the female partner feel the need to cede other types of power to make up for it? And that’s without touching the common taboo against women partnering men of a lower status.

But if both characters are female, then there is no extra layer of power differentials based on gender. The expectations of who will have initiative and control are based entirely on the employment relationship. Though we’ll get back to this topic in some of the literary examples.

The second significant difference applies primarily to domestic employment situations. Employer/employee interactions in the domestic sphere are traditionally aligned with gender. A female employer will have more direct interactions with female employees, and even if the household is headed by a single woman, interactions with male employees are likely to be managed through a male subordinate. In a more direct context, a female employer will be expected have close physical and personal interactions with female staff, in ways that would be highly suspect for a male employer. She will be dressed by women, cared for by women, kept company by women, and perform everyday tasks in the company of women. This creates a context where emotional bonds can develop naturally, where professional loyalty can shade over into personal attachment unnoticed, and where types of physical and emotional caretaking that we often associate with romance may be an inherent part of the employee’s work. Depending on the specific time period, other tropes that may naturally align with domestic employment are forced proximity and even in some cases “only one bed.”

So while a male employer initiating highly personal interactions with a female employee (or vice versa) inherently violates social rules, resulting in heightened awareness of the romantic or sexual potential, a female employer or employee doing the same things is working within the system, not against it.

Employment-Based Tropes in History and Historic Literature

When we look for romantic or erotic potential within a female employment relationship in history and historic literature, we find two main themes—and this is where gender dynamics can sneak in by a back door. One manifestation is where the employee falls into the traditionally female role in the relationship: being supportive, submissive, perhaps silently yearning that her devotion will be recognized and rewarded, where her romantic role aligns with the power dynamics of her employment. The employer is not necessarily “masculinized” by this dynamic because the power imbalance can rest entirely on social and economic forces.

The other manifestation is where the employee takes a more active, assertive role in the relationship, perhaps where caretaking shades over to providing protection, or where the inherent problem-solving requirements of service shift into taking charge. The employer may be depicted as relatively helpless, perhaps leaning on motifs of female incapability where she is hyper-feminized in comparison to the employee. Or the employee may be overtly masculinized and depicted as adopting multiple signifiers of a male social role, in addition to taking the lead in the romance.

Neither of these is required, of course, when writing a historic romance—here I’m talking about historic examples where a romantic or erotic overlay can be identified. So let’s look at some of those specific examples. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive catalog of romantic same-sex employment motifs.

We can see the motif of the devoted lady’s maid being depicted using standard romance tropes from a very early date. In the early Christian Greek romance of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the story of the beautiful young Polyxena being devoted to her mistress, being abducted from her chamber, and going through many perils and adventures to eventually be reunited is directly parallel to the structure of male-female romances of the same era.

In the French medieval romance L’Escoufle or “The Kite,” the young noblewoman Aelis, when abandoned in the world, takes up with a young working-class woman Ysabel with their interactions described in romantic and erotic terms. But class and employment relationships are constantly shifting around the female pairings in this story. Despite Aelis’s social isolation, she takes on the role of employer with respect to Ysabel, with Ysabel promising loyalty and obedience and Aelis setting up an embroidery business that Ysabel works to support. Then Aelis’s roles are upturned when the noblewoman she supplies with embroidered goods takes Aelis into her household as a handmaiden and their interactions then turn erotic. In both of the pairings, the higher status woman (or the one in the position of employer) takes charge of initiating the intimacies, and those intimacies are treated as an inherent aspect of the employment.

In a medieval or Renaissance context, the relationship between a queen or noblewoman and her ladies in waiting often take on a romantic tinge. While this may not be the typical image of an “employee,” the role definitely included personal service and a power dynamic that was dependent on a fine balance between intimacy and hierarchy. This type of employment would generally involve women of quite similar social class, that would avoid some of the potential anxieties of cross-class romance. Such relationships might be of long duration, and often meant foregoing marriage. Loyalty was expected, though not always observed, given the complex politics of court life.

Within a context such as the household of Queen Elizabeth I, a never-married woman could achieve an influence and functional social status that ordinarily would come only through marriage. Emotional connections between the women of the court would not raise the same concerns regarding loyalty and influence that marriage sometimes did. In addition to services such as managing the employer’s wardrobe and household, the women serving female aristocrats were secretaries, companions, and confidantes. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions. Such close relationships could not avoid having an erotic component, and when society felt that the employee was pushing the accepted bounds of influence, one of the charges that might be brought was that of an inappropriate sexual relationship, as happened to some of Queen Anne’s circle.

Literature of the 18th century has some notable examples of relationships that begin as maid and mistress then develop romance-like elements as a key plot point. In Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, gender and class roles get blurred when the title character is abandoned by her husband and—when cast onto her own resources—makes common cause with her loyal maidservant to set up in business. The maid, Amy, is faithful beyond expectations due to the affection she feels for her mistress, even when the latter can no longer offer her any monetary compensation. The language of business and love are intertwined in their relationship, sometimes uncomfortably, as the business they engage in together is being courtesans.

The contrasting dynamic is seen in Jane Barker’s story “The Unaccountable Wife” in which a woman develops such an infatuation for her maidservant that she turns the social order upside down by allowing the serving woman a life of ease while she does the menial labor of the home. The two women eventually move out together, descending into poverty while the wife continues to try to provide a life of ease for the serving woman. It’s never entirely clear that the maidservant returns her employer’s affections, and the peculiarity of the social role-reversal is the lynchpin of the plot.

In addition to shifts in employment possibilities for women, the era in which stories are set affected shifting beliefs about sexuality and class. In the 19th century, both historic commentary and fiction could reflect the attitude that a female sex drive was more strongly associated with the lower classes. Thus employment-based romances might either support the motif of employee-driven eroticism, or the reverse motif might be used as a negative commentary on the upper class employer.

Kirsti Bohata’s article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” (which I’ll be covering on the blog shortly), provides a wealth of examples in which these themes intertwine, from which I’ll offer a few examples.

In Amy Dillwyn’s Victorian-era novel Jill, a well-born woman disguises herself as working class after running away from a bad home situation and takes a position as a lady’s maid. She falls in love with her employer and enjoys the sensual aspects of dressing her and caring for her, but Jill’s devotion is not returned, though she contemplates revealing her true origins so that she can declare her love openly. The apparent class barrier between them is temporarily removed when the two are abducted and imprisoned in a gothic scenario.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s story “Martha’s Lady” defers the realization of the yearning romance and near-chivalric devotion between Martha and her employer until late in life, after long separation, when they are at last reunited—though still as mistress and servant—and Martha is rewarded with a declaration of tenderness and a kiss.

The motif in which a female employee in love with her employer is portrayed as being masculine shows up clearly in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story “The Grey Woman,” where the servant Amante rescues her mistress from a murderous husband by cross-dressing and working as a tailor so the two can live together as husband and wife. Not only does Amante take up a male role for the public, but as the “husband” she now has social power over her former employer within the context of the masquerade.

The preceding examples of Victorian employment relationships flirt with eroticism, but in a sufficiently deniable way that the desire can be portrayed as positive. In the same era, stories in the sensationalist vein are more likely to use same-sex cross-class employment-related desire to signal the moral defects of one or the other character, especially of the employer, as in Thomas Hardy’s novel Desperate Remedies where a mistress approaches her maid sexually and oscillates between leveraging her social power to obtain compliance and acting as a suitor who may be rejected and denied.

Workplace Sexual Harrassment

Because historic records (as contrasted with literary examples) are more likely to focus on toxic employment circumstances than mutually consenting relationships, our examples of unambiguously sexual encounters cannot be considered romantic, although they demonstrate circumstances in which homoerotic relationships might have developed.

18th century legal records from the Netherlands include legal complaints about a woman boasting that she had sex with her maid every morning, and that her maid preferred her to a man. In a different complaint involving a woman and her maid accused of having a sexual relationship, the maid was also accused of groping another serving girl against her will.

And since historic examples always seem to come around to Ann Lister eventually, we can note one of her diary entries where Lister is interviewing a girl for possible employment at Shibden Hall and, after commenting that she found the girl attractive, notes, “if I could contrive to have the house clear, might manage matters…”


This exploration of employment-based sapphic romance tropes has been a bit anecdotal, but those examples offer a glimpse of how such relationships might evolve, what difficulties and challenges they might face, and how their dynamics would differ from similar romance plots for different-sex couples. Romance in the face of fundamental power imbalances can be tricky to write, but the interplay of power, desire, and negotiating consent can be very sexy indeed.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Historic differences in employment-romance dynamics
  • Gender differences in employment
  • Some historic and literary examples

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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