The Maid’s Project

The Maid’s Project began as an art exhibition that focused on the history and connection that linked female domestic servants in the United States and Great Britain and was comprised of an installation of paintings, objects, and a dance (choreographed by professional choreographers Alison Cutri and Karen Schaffman and performed by their students).  On display and performed in April 2003 at California State University at San Marcos, the project was funded through a Puffin Foundation grant in 2003 and a stipend from the university. The project was also exhibited at The Clemente in New York City. Through the research on maids, I eventually discovered and began an exploration of the history of the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland and eventually created several site-specific installations on the subject.

The Maid’s Project was inspired by my personal experience as a maid while studying in Portland, Oregon, and the strange and imaginative silence as an art student who was also a domestic servant. As a maid, I spent long hours in the sanctuary and creative inner life of “daydreaming” which becomes commonplace when performing the highly structured and repetitive tasks of a maid (and in a situation that demands invisibility). Ironically, daydreaming is also an activity that is highly cultivated when making art and I weave a thread between these two seemingly disparate roles. They actually hold much in common.


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The household is a school of power. There, within the door, learn the tragic-comedy of human life…in that routine are the sacred relations.” It is not well known that twenty of the 104 Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower were indentured servants. Historian John Van der Zee writes that “this state of destitution and the liberty & freedom from tyranny paid for by their labor in order to come to this country enflamed the colonial imagination…this is the forgotten undercurrent of the American Revolution…we are, in fact, as Americans, the descendents of bound people, tied now by that binding in ways we have forgotten.” The history of women in domestic service is a story of invisible women, mute and forgotten. From the colonial period well into the early 1900s, the most common profession for women in the United States was as a domestic servant. The well-scrubbed surfaces, the shine, the order in the world, were, and are still, viewed in a disembodied way, as if this world magically appeared. The maid is the ultimate wallflower.

“More than half the colonists who came to America in the colonial period came as servants. They were mostly English in the seventeenth century, Irish and German in the eighteenth century…after signing the indenture, in which the immigrants agree to pay their cost of passage by working for the master for five or seven years…they could not marry without permission, and were separated from their families, and whipped for various offenses.” – Howard Zinn, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Eventually this first group of servants became landowners and political activists. Class lines began to harden by the 1700s as colonists in the New World brought the Old World with them. Most servants were African American slaves, orphans, unwed mothers, and the immigrant poor hired as adolescent girls or young women, often never to have families of their own and condemned “to serve” until they were too old to work. An orphaned young woman forced to be a servant would go through her entire life without any relationships other than those she had with the other servants she worked with. Religion and the Bible were used as propaganda to justify the rigid hierarchy that perpetuated the idea of inferior beings created to serve those “above them” as part of a divine plan from God. The suffering, poverty and powerlessness of the lower classes forced to clean up after those above them was validated in the proverb, “Cleanliness is close to Godliness.” The notion of dirt and moral inferiority was symbolically linked. Servants were taught special prayers to help them to remember why they were destined to serve others. By the 1800s, the American dream of a classless society was contradicted by the upper middle-class and wealthy home where servant life looked like the British counterpart.

Because the maid was seen as an inferior, her presence in the household would often go unnoticed. In the imposed silence, she heard everything. She was often privy to a microscopic view of the people she served. Ignored as if she did not exist, people would say things in front of her as if there was no one there to hear and do things in front of her as if she could not see. She came to know people’s secrets because she picked up after them. Maids were dependent for work, but because many upper class people were utterly incapable of the simplest of tasks, maids had a kind of strange power and an intimate knowledge of upper class life and privilege.

Many maids were as young as thirteen years of age, lonely and vulnerable to any kindness and attention paid to them. It was commonplace for a maid to be sexually abused by the master. Many a pregnant maid was turned-out, banished from the household in the pretext that she had, instead, “vanished” – to fare for herself and the child the family pretended did not exist. Without a reference, a maid often had to resort to prostitution to survive and fend for her child.

“Oh, Lord, keep us in our places.” – THE SERVANTS’ MORNING PRAYER

Despite advances in women’s rights, in nineteenth century political cartoons, literature, painting, and popular mythology, maids were represented as objects of both desire (as the ultimate available woman) and ridicule (as the inferior being). The physicality of the work only accentuated her sexuality. Cleanliness was associated with moral purity and the maid, an unattached fallen woman, could find a kind of repentance “in service.” After the Great Famine in Ireland, the Irish immigrants who came to the United States made up a large percentage of the urban poor. Many Irish immigrant women who came to the U.S. for a better life became servants and ironically their lives came to resemble those of the women forced to repent in the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland as they faced a particular prejudice. Maids, in general, were portrayed as lazy, lustful, stupid, dishonest, and cunning. Out of fear of mass worker rebellion, all domestic workers were typed as morally inferior people who could not be trusted with the same rights as the middle and upper classes. The perception was that control of domestic servants was essential. As early as the mid-1700s, the gap between rich and poor had widened to the extent that, Abbot Smith declared there to be “a lively fear that servants would join with Negroes or Indians to overcome the small number of masters.”

Life for maids was constant work, with a few hours off on Sunday, extremely low wages, a room below ground or in the attic, and no legislative protection of her as a worker. A rigid hierarchy existed within domestic service itself and a strict set of rules dictated every aspect of a servant’s life. Forced to attend church with the master and mistress, a maid had to sit in back out of sight. Many maids were ordered to do their work and at the same time, remain completely out of sight, making it difficult to get the work done. Some households demanded that the scullery maid, the lowest form of domestic servant, turn her face to the wall when family members were present, so that they did not have to look at her. The maid may have worked for the family her entire life and still would easily go unrecognized should they pass her on the street on her rare afternoon off.

– Cheryl Parry

Cheryl Parry All Rights Reserved. © 2018