Female domestic servants and the law: an analysis of gender, class and the contract of service in early nineteenth-century Scotland
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date08/06/2023
Krzanich, Alice Claire
This thesis explores an aspect of women’s legal history: contractual master-servant law as it applied to female domestic servants in Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century (c 1800 to c 1850). During this period, when Scotland was becoming an industrial nation, many working-class women served in the households of other people. They washed clothes, scrubbed floors, cooked food, bought groceries, and looked after children. They were hired to do this work under a contract of service in which the servant exchanged her labour in return for remuneration from the master of the household. Despite the fact that such contracts for domestic service were commonplace across Scotland, there has been no academic scrutiny of the law that regulated this industry. This thesis aims to address this gap in the literature in two ways. First, it seeks to explain how the contract of service operated in relation to female domestic servants in the early nineteenth century in Scotland. It therefore sets out the legal principles relating to the formation of a contract for domestic service between a servant and her employer; the obligations of either party under this contract; and the termination of a contract of service. Closely connected to this doctrinal study of the law is the second aim of this thesis: to assess the influence of gender and class upon these legal principles. “Influence” in this context means any way in which gender or class shaped the substantive content of the law, both directly and indirectly. This aspect of the thesis has shown that gender and class played a prevalent and meaningful role in the development of contractual master-servant law as it applied to female domestic servants in the early nineteenth century, although the extent of this influence varied from case to case. For example, there were legal principles that only applied to, or were developed specifically for, female servants. In relation to other legal principles, which on their surface could apply to servants of either sex, gender and class played a less obvious but no less material role in their development. For example, gender dynamics could have caused the conflict between a master and a servant that led to a legal dispute and therefore new law forming. Parties to a service contract also relied upon notions of gender or class when presenting their legal arguments in court, which could also affect the way the law developed. Undertaking such a broad analysis of the influence of gender and class has shown that contractual master-servant promoted a patriarchal understanding of the relationship between a female servant and her employer, in which domestic servants were expected to show due deference to their employer and be subordinate. However, the law also recognised that domestic servants were hired workers whose labour had economic value, which should not be exploited at their expense. In this way contractual master-servant law performed a balancing role in negotiating the interests of servants and their employers in early nineteenth-century Scotland.