Relinquishing and Reclaiming Independence: Irish Domestic Servants, American Middle-Class Mistresses, and Assimilation, 1850–1920
- Irish-American Cultural Institute
- Volume 36, Number 1&2, Earrach/Samhradh / Spring/Summer 2001
- pp. 185-201
- Additional Information
RELINQUISHING AND RECLAIMING INDEPENDENCE: IRISH DOMESTIC SERVANTS, AMERICAN MIDDLE-CLASS MISTRESSES, AND ASSIMILATION, 1850–1920 DIANE M. HOTTEN-SOMERS between the onset of the Great Famine and the restriction of immigration in the 1920s, some five million Irish people emigrated to North America. Roughly half of these emigrants were female, and most were young and single.1 In America’s rapidly developing industrial society Irish women, even more than Irish men, were highly employable.2 For women of the newly emerging American middle class, employing a servant became a badge of respectability and class legitimacy. No longer directly engaged in the production of wealth, these women were becoming increasingly involved in consuming it instead; and to be active as consumers and members of the public sphere they needed surrogates to run their households. The flood of Irish immigrant women readily met this demand. And because most Irish female immigrants arrived impoverished, unskilled, and single—and were apparently unaffected by the social stigma attached to domestic service—they eagerly accepted the opportunity to work in service . Thus by the turn of the century the Irish “Bridget” had become an integral part of the middle-class American home.3 SERVANTS, MISTRESSES, AND ASSIMILATION, 1850–1920 185 1 Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), especially Chapters 7 and 8; Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London and New York: Longman, 2000), especially Chapters 3, 4, and 5. 2 Hasia R. Diner, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 83–85. 3 During this same time that Irish women emigrated to America, so too did German, Scandinavian, Italian, and Eastern European women. However, this article concentrates on Irish domestic servants precisely because Irish women seemed to pay no mind to the fact that becoming a servant implied being of the lower class; they simply wanted to find work that paid high wages. The other immigrant groups, especially Italian and Jewish women, Many historians have interpreted the Irish woman’s emigration to America and her work in domestic service as a liberating experience. Both Hasia Diner and Janet Nolan, for example, emphasize the newfound autonomy of young Irish women in the US.4 While Nolan focuses her argument on the idea that through emigrating and working within America, Irish women hoped to “regain the freedom that women had had in pre-Famine Ireland,” Diner concentrates on showing that Irish women’s emigration to America was an exercise in “cultural persistence,” freeing young women to express themselves once they had escaped abroad.5 Thus, while domestic service certainly carried some disadvantages , the consensus is that it was certainly an improvement over Ireland, and that, from the secure setting of the middle-class household, the young women involved could carve out for themselves and for their children a better life in America. While this interpretation does discuss the nature of domestic work at some length, it does not adequately consider how Irish women’s “working ” relationships with their American middle-class mistresses shaped their immigrant experience. The Irish servant and the American mistress are SERVANTS, MISTRESSES, AND ASSIMILATION, 1850–1920 186 refused to enter domestic service, mainly because they emigrated either as married women or as part of a strong patriarchal family, and also (perhaps) because they shared with American -born women a sense of the stigma attached to domestic service. The only other groups of women heavily concentrated in domestic service were African-Americans and Swedish immigrants. For further discussion of this topic, see Diner, Erin’s Daughters, 82–83; David M. Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 271–73; and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (hereafter WEIU) investigations of the nationality of domestic servants at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass. 4 Diner, Erin’s Daughters, 80–94, and Janet A. Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland, 1885–1920 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989), 73–90. Other scholars, such as Maureen Murphy and Ruth-Ann Harris, argue in...