Servicing the Empire: Race, Gender, and Domestic Service in the Empire

AHA Session 208
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Nicholas Abbott, Old Dominion University
The Audience

Session Abstract

The recent popularity of shows like "Downton Abbey," films like Gosford Park, and popular histories like Lucy Lethbridge's Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th Century Britain indicate a renewed interest in the lives of domestic servants in modern Europe. The scheming footman, the neurotic aristocrat, and the overworked ladies' maid have become stock figures in a public imaginary of the not-so-distant past. Yet, as a number of scholars from Edward Said on have shown, the metropolitan identities were always shaped in relation to the empire. The scholars in this panel take a global, comparative view of domestic service, asking how this form of intimate labor shaped racial, gendered, and classed identities for colonizer and colonized alike. Alexandra Lindgren-Gibson examines anxieties about lower-class Anglo-Indian women who took on domestic servants in the British Raj. Fae Dussart examines the relationship between Marianne Williams, the wife of missionary in mid-19th century New Zealand, and her Maori servants; while Williams sought to reform her servants by folding them her vision of Christian femininity, Dussart shows that Maori women asserted their own norms of indigenous womanhood. Graham H. Cornwell's paper takes us to French Morocco in the 1930s, where the employment of Muslim servants in Jewish homes sparked anxieties about cross-racial contact. Finally, Elizabeth W. Williams examines the use of the "Kisetla" dialect in colonial Kenyan homes. She uses a set of colonial cookery books to demonstrate how the use of this confusing dialect helped defuse the potential for cross-racial affection between white women and their male domestic servants by creating near constant frustration and miscommunication. Together, all four papers ask us to rethink how domestic service highlighted the problem of the troublingly intimate space of the colonial home, and provoked a range of defensive strategies used to reinstate racial, gendered, classed, and religious boundaries in both metropole and periphery.
See more of: AHA Sessions