‘What’s in the box?’ he asked, pointing at it.
‘Funny you should ask,’ said Hermione, with a nasty look at Ron. She took off the lid, and showed them the contents.
Inside were about fifty badges, all of different colours, but all bearing the same letters: S.P.E.W.
‘“Spew”?’ said Harry, picking up a badge and looking at it. ‘What’s this about?’
‘Not spew,’ said Hermione impatiently. ‘It’s S – P – E – W. Stands for the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare.’
‘Never heard of it,’ said Ron.
‘Well, of course you haven’t,’ said Hermione briskly, ‘I’ve only just started it.’
This little quote is from Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire. From the book of the series where beasts and beings and their treatment, or rather mistreatment, get a little attention. One of the reasons why Hermione Granger is my favourite character is that she takes time to think of others. She was the one who helped Neville look for Trevor the moment she met him, she was the one who adopted the unloved and unwanted cat Crookshanks and the only reason Harry survived to finish off Voldemort was, again, her. So, it is no wonder it was Hermione who took the time to find more about the conditions of house elves. For those who don’t know, there are at least a hundred house elves working in Hogwarts, preparing the feast and cleaning the school-you didn’t think it was Filch who did the all cleaning, did you? They were brought by Helga Hufflepuff and although there is no information, it is suggested that they all sleep in the kitchen or somewhere nearby-close to the Hufflepuff common room. It feels weird to have Helga Hufflepuff, who is the nicest of the founders to allow such a huge amount of slaves in school. The problem with it is that people who grow up in the wizarding world tend to think that house elves like what they are doing and they are, in a way, meant to do chores. I am not talking about Malfoys or Blacks here who do not consider house elves as individuals and constantly abuse them, but regular good guys like Helga Hufflepuff and Ron Weasley. Ron does not question the situation the house elves are in and claims that they like working; until the Battle of Hogwarts, after they are put in almost the same conditions as house elves while they were on the run-plus Hermione’s consistent trials at educating him, Ron realises the problematic position elves are in. This kind of thinking is reinforced in their household, unfortunately. Mrs. Weasley is a traditional old-school house wife and she would like to have a house elf if they could afford to it, they are extremely expensive much like exotic pets and only the upper class can afford to have any. They accept magical beings as they have always been, the common social discourse is what they go with. This acceptance can only be challenged by an outsider, who encounters both the beings and traditions for the first time and that is where Hermione Granger comes in. Being a muggleborn, Hermione faces discrimination early in the series and develops a coping system. This “unwantedness” of Hermione is reflected in the house elves and thus she is more observant and interested. She has a basic understanding of muggle history and that is why she can see elves as enslaved creatures rather than masochistic work-loving “animals.”
The reason why Ron never heard of S.P.E.W was not because Hermione just founded it, but because it is actually a muggle reference. “The Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women” which also can be abbreviated as S.P.E.W. was a a movement founded in 1859. Back in the Victorian era, women had one major duty: to be a housewife. Some women even fought against the right to vote for women in “An Appeal Against Female Suffrage” in 1889 and stated that a woman is too delicate to be involved in politics and real world matters. They were seen as pretty objects, in upper class, to possess and to show off. The poor were not that lucky. The more fortunate worked as governesses, the more unfortunate as prostitutes and later on worked in newly rising factories and mines. The working conditions were so harsh and the money they got were so low that a few families had to rent the same room to be able to afford a place to sleep. They worked up to 18 hours and pregnant women had to work until they gave birth and come back when they physically could. Although some acts passed to regulate the working hours and “humanise” the working conditions but they were not nearly enough. So this society was founded to address the urgent need to open up new areas of employment for women and the lack of education available. Another main focus of the society was to make women economically more independent, hence the society offered loans to help cover the costs of their education. You can see the parallelism now, right? The women in Victorian times were oppressed, forced into the house and into two categories; either angel of the house or the loose, sexual women. They were treated badly, didn’t have fundamental rights and suffered under a more dominant power: the men. In Harry Potter, the house elves not only symbolise slavery but also the situation women were in in the past. It is a woman that tries to something for the creatures, the men tagging along unwillingly. And it is a woman, J.K. Rowling who, with a simple abbreviation, reminds the reader of the effort women made to gain, maybe not equal but some footing. It is a nice detail having Hermione, an outsider, a woman, a muggleborn to start a movement to educate the purebloods and help house elves even though they have no conception of fundamental rights and any kind of freedom themselves. This maybe one of the easily missed details hidden in the series, but makes the reader think whether he/she knows the historical context or not.
-For those who are interested, you can check out this website to know more about the Victorian era.