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My Political Hero: Jessie Stephen

“Too many assumed that the victory of women’s suffrage would bring other benefits automatically. When the women were glorying in this newfound so-called freedom, we were only just beginning.”

Jessie Stephen was the product of an era of immense change. The eldest daughter of a tailor, she had a thoroughly working class upbringing, and was exposed to radical working class politics from a young age. She attended socialist Sunday school, and excelled in school. Unfortunately, due to her father’s unemployment she had to leave the prestigious school at which she had won a scholarship and begin life as a domestic servant.

During this time, she saw first-hand the horrific working hours, conditions and attitudes that domestic servants had to endure on a daily basis. By 1907, the organised Labour movement had won some important battles. The Liberal reforms, for example, limited working hours, such as the 1908 act that limited miners’ to eight hour days. However, these acts did not apply to domestic service, where people would commonly work at least 12 hour days, seven days a week, though perhaps with a few hours off on a Sunday to attend church. 

Whilst she was both an ardent suffragette and trade unionist, in the Edwardian period she was not the archetypal version of either. The women’s suffrage movement was dominated by middle class women, many of whom would not have shared her relatively radical views on the rights of workers, indeed many of whom would have been reliant on domestic servants. For many members of the trade unions also, the rights of domestic servants were seen as a distraction from the main cause, and as it was not easy to unionise domestic staff, they were often overlooked.

Tags: domestic servants, labour movement, suffragette, trade union, trade unions, work, workers

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Emma Bean

Middle Eastern studies at the University, originally from North Yorkshire
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