“Powerless power”: The status of female domestic workers in Russia in the second half of the 19th - early 20th century

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The proposed article investigates the specifics of social status of urban female domestic servants in post-reform Russia. On the basis of a wide range of sources, including statistical materials, printed press, household manuals and ego-documents, the author distinguishes between two groups in this category of population that were fundamentally different in their status in the master’s family. In the post-reform period in Russia, the work of maidservants was not standardized, there were no guarantees from hirers regarding both working conditions and cases of dismissal and disability. Widespread sexual harassment and abuse seriously worsened the position of maidservants. A significant influx of peasant girls, who considered themselves fully prepared for the work of domestic servants, into the city, created a gigantic supply At the same time, the overwhelming majority of the job seekers did not have any idea about the activities that they were to carry out. Making endless blunders, the clumsy peasant girl acquired professional skills and learned to live in the master’s family, suffering insults and harassment and working hard only to avoid being kicked out. As a result, those girls who had been able to endure several years of torment, acquired not only professional skills, but were trained to live in the city, to use their position to earn money, to protect themselves from encroachment, or to use their attractiveness as a weapon. With the growth of education of female peasant youth, their increasing familiarity with judicial institutions, and the intensification of the activities of various organizations involved in helping those women with education and employment, female domestic servants felt more secure and ready to defend their rights. As a result, despite the seemingly gigantic supply, it was, in fact, extremely difficult to find a suitable maidservant for the household. The choice available to the owners was limited to two options - a docile slouch, or a maid knowing her worth and requiring consideration of her interests.

About the authors

Valentina A Veremenko

A.S. Pushkin Leningrad State University

Author for correspondence.
Email: v.a.veremenko@yandex.ru

Doctor of History, Professor, Head of the Department of Russian History of Leningrad State University, A.S. Pushkin. Editor-in-Chief of History of Everyday Life.

10, Peterburgskoye shosse, Pushkin, St. Petersburg, 196605, Russia


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