REVENGE OF THE MAIDS
The wEAlTH GAp is soaring, traditions are waning, and RESENTMENT no longer stays silent.
last summer, in a luxury apartment complex outside New Delhi, all hell broke loose. It started when a woman accused one of her maids of stealing around $250. The maid then claimed that, as punishment, her employer wouldn’t let her go home. word spread and a riot broke out, complete with crowds of domestics shouting, “Today we will kill her! we will kill the madam!” The employers retaliated by locking their maids out. A boom in the local takeout food industry allegedly ensued.
Disputes between employers and their domestic staff rarely erupt into such chaos, but this affair did highlight the underlying fragility of the relationship, a ticking time bomb of class conflict when not delicately managed. The stories that make it into the news are often gruesome: the infamous papin sisters, live-in maids in France who were convicted of murdering the wife and daughter of the family that employed them, in 1933 (the events inspired several movies and Jean Genet’s 1947 play the Maids); linda Stein, the New York real estate agent whose personal assistant confessed to beating her to death. And then there are tales of treachery, such as when two of Nigella lawson and Charles Saatchi’s personal assistants were accused of charging $1 million worth of clothing and trips on the couple’s credit cards.
To be sure, some employers have done plenty to earn resentment. In the late ’90s the new york times covered the saga of a paraguayan maid, Mina Zayas, who claimed that her Upper East Side employers had underpaid her, made her work around the clock, and taken her passport. “I saw it with my own eyes,” one social veteran who wished to remain anonymous whispers. “I couldn’t believe that it went on. Separately, there was a very rich couple in l.A.— whom I always thought very sleazy—who also stole the passports of their maids and wouldn’t let them leave.”
But even less dramatic situations can be fraught with tension. “The wealth gap is so much more cavernous and tangible these days that there obviously has to be some fallout in the home,” says keen social observer Holly peterson. “It’s Marie-Antoinette time no matter where you turn. More tensions and issues and conflicts and resentments are going to be in Technicolor, given what’s going on politically and economically in this country.”
The potential for explosion certainly seems greater than it was in the times recalled by Edith wharton novels, when generally one either employed servants or was one. “There’s this idea of the golden