Women's History Network Midlands Region annual conference 2019

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

Description of Activity

"Maid of all work and hostess combined": Housework, social status and agency in interwar suburbia

In this lecture I consider the notion of the professional housewife in the interwar years. I discuss how women negotiated social status and identities through the ways in which they inhabited the new homes of the interwar building boom. To what extent were the houses of the new estates and suburbia ‘homes fit for heroines’? How did women negotiate the ideals of interwar domesticity in their performance of housework and other domestic duties? To what extent was the servantless professional housewife, in the words of one woman, both ‘maid of all work and hostess combined’?

Set in the context of work by women housing reformers, domestic advice writers and the emergence of a commercial culture of homemaking, I’m going to interrogate the experiences of an individual woman. My example comes from Britain’s auto-ethnography Mass Observation project, founded in 1937 to record everyday life. Mass Observation diaries, reports and surveys serve as correctives to idealised discourses of efficiency, labour-saving and the kitchen found in magazines, exhibition catalogues, domestic advice manuals and advertisements. The archive contains fascinating first-hand accounts of the minutiae of daily life, including housework and cooking. Women participated as diarists and compilers of day reports, interviewees and respondents to questionnaires. Their accounts and answers reveal differences and anxieties about everyday practices such as the nomenclature of the kitchen, cooking, mealtimes and laundry.

An eyewitness account of the everyday practices of housework can be found in the day surveys of 38-year old Respondent 82 from Marlow, Buckinghamshire, written in 1937-8. I will discuss the ways in which Respondent 82’s reports reveal anxieties about her social status, her husband’s family and her neighbours’ respectability, played out through the minutiae of housework. Running her house without servants or casual help, her reports capture the drudgery and frustrations of her domestic work. However, they also reveal how she shaped her housework routines around her own needs and interests to give her time for activities that were a source of pleasure, satisfaction and self-improvement. Thus, the interrogation of a single respondent’s reports of everyday life reveals bigger themes about social status, gendered domestic practices and agency that encapsulate the interwar suburban experience of homeownership and class mobility for women. To what extent did her lived experience relate to the ideals of housing reform and labour-saving advice?

Period19 Mar 2019
Event typeConference
LocationBromsgrove, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational