Domesticity in World Comparative Perspective: Gender and Labor, Colonies and Nations

AHA Session 142
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Mrinalini Sinha, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Mrinalini Sinha, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

Although it is often overlooked in the histories of labor relations, colonialisms, or nation-state formation, the history of domestic labor reveals that the home was a contested domain with critical implications in colonial or nationalist race, class, and gender politics. The papers on this panel examine domestic labor from multiple perspectives and across world regions. Fae Dussart and Swapna Banerjee discuss domestic labor in the context of British India.  Dussart looks at the way in which a transnational idea of domesticity, imagined through the mistress/servant relation, was differently deployed in metropolitan and colonial manuals to stabilize the hierarchies of both nation and empire. Banerjee explores the little-understood roles and experiences of male caregivers and their stories allow us to understand the complex and multi-layered nature of late colonial masculinity in South Asia.  Victoria Haskins focuses on policies in both the United States and Australia that promoted employment of indigenous women as domestic servants.  A transnational approach reveals the simultaneous “domestication” and alienation of indigenous peoples within the modern settler nation state through the enforcement and control of domestic labor.  Finally, Erin O’Connor explores the differential impact of nation-state formation on domestic servants and debt peons on large estates in early twentieth-century Ecuador.  She finds that elite attempts to modernize society and labor relations often rested on maintaining various aspects of the domestic sphere, including limits set on domestic servants’ rights.

 These papers reveal important patterns across the globe, and they complicate our understandings of the position of marginalized peoples within empires and nations.  Dominant discourses typically identified domestic laborers as belonging more to the family than the colony or nation, and domestic discourses not only reinforced but in fact modernized elite justifications of class and race inequalities.  Middle and upper-class women—either as mistresses of the home or as social workers—were important agents who shaped colonial and nationalist discourses and policies, rather than just serving as recipients or conduits of them.  Similarly, domestic servants were not simply the subjects of colonial or nationalist-modernizing discourses, but they engaged with and influenced how policies and customs worked out in practice.  A comparative examination of global trends in domestic service deepens our understandings of the ties and tensions between family and labor, private and public, home and colony/nation.

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