Domestic Servitude, Gender Discourses, and the Nation: Examining the Widening Gap Between Domestic Servants and Debt Peons in Ecuador, 1850–1950

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta)
Erin E. O'Connor, Bridgewater State University
This paper explores the differential impact of nation-state formation on urban domestic servants versus debt peons on large estates in Ecuador from 1850-1950.  Though debt peonage was primarily identified with men who entered into unequal contracts with estate owners (for both themselves and their families) and domestic servants were mostly female, elite discourses identified both debt peons and domestic servants as child-like dependents.  Not only did this similar status reinforce longstanding race and class inequalities, but it led both types of workers to use similar strategies to advance their interests in court.  By the twentieth century, elite discourses and state policies began to treat the two groups differently: liberal statesmen and scholars identified (male) estate workers as emasculated indigenous workers whom they felt both the need to protect and to liberate.  These changes empowered both male and female indigenous debt peons to challenge estate managers and demand improved work conditions.  Domestic servants were of less concern to national officials and therefore had far less power to challenge their status, though they often skillfully manipulated dominant domestic discourses to their own advantage.  The limits to domestic workers’ strategies resulted not only from their isolated work conditions, but also from state policies that sought not to improve household hygiene rather than address problems within domestic labor.  Elite discourses and state policies aimed at modernizing society and labor relations rested, ultimately, on maintaining various “traditional” aspects of the domestic sphere.  These different histories had long-term consequences: whereas Ecuadorian indigenous peoples developed grassroots organization to challenge the government and influence politics in the 1990s and beyond, benefits to domestic workers have only been very recent and came mostly via top-down policies.
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