The Politics of Domestic Service in Asia and the Americas, 1870–2015

AHA Session 65
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Coordinating Council for Women in History 3
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Sonya Michel, University of Maryland, College Park
Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara

Session Abstract

This panel explores the political contestation and construction of women’s household work in the long 20th century around the globe and contributes to a burgeoning literature on gendered labor and the state in global perspective. By denaturalizing economic categories of work and the labor market, these papers highlight the political, gendered, and racialized processes involved in their creation. We define “politics” broadly to encompass local, state, national, and international policies, popular social movements, labor organizing campaigns, and intimate, interpersonal power dynamics. These papers tie local reforms of women’s domestic service to broader national, imperial, and international movements, including philanthropic and educational reforms, League of Nations anti-trafficking regulations, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and global feminist campaigns. The panel will be chaired by an expert in gender and social welfare, Sonya Michel. Our commentator, Eileen Boris, will tie these papers together with her own expertise on the political construction of women’s work in an international context.

Our papers capture the organization and experience of women’s household work in four different regions across the 20th century. Sandy Chang turns to the British Empire in Asia, tracing the ways in which the migration of Chinese domestic workers, wives, and sex workers to British Malaya between 1880 and 1940 were the subject of, and helped shape, new forms of modern migration control. Cristina Groeger explores the changing demographics but stubborn persistence of an exploitative domestic service labor market in Boston, Massachusetts in the early 20th century. Premilla Nadasen takes up domestic workers’ organizing in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, who drew on the traditions of civil rights, black power, and feminism to claim their own labor rights. Elizabeth Hutchison offers a sweeping examination of the state regulation of domestic workers in Latin America up through the 21st century, highlighting the interaction between state-level politics and international organizations, including the ILO and the Catholic Church.

These four papers also foreground the role of race, ethnicity, and nationalism in structuring the experience of women household workers, and together as a panel reframe these experiences within a global perspective. In the United States, Nadasen’s domestic workers, predominantly African American women, made claims on the nation-state as workers and citizens; Groeger details the shifting patterns of racial and ethnic stigma as former Irish domestic workers were replaced by African Americans; Hutchison takes a comparative approach to examining Chilean, Argentinian, Mexican, and Uruguayan domestic service regulations within a broader international political economy; Chang’s work explores the creation of national boundaries in and through the migration patterns of Chinese women migrants through the British empire.

Our session brings together burgeoning historiographical developments in the history of women, gender and sexuality, the history of capitalism, labor history, the long civil rights movement, and transnational and international history. Across our papers, we show how studying women’s domestic work – one of the largest employment sectors of women globally—offers fresh insights that might inform an intersectional feminist global labor politics.

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