African Encounters with Domesticity

By Karen Tranberg Hansen | Go to book overview

8 Race, Sex, and Domestic Labor: The Question of African Female Servants in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1939

Elizabeth Schmidt

From the onset of European occupation of Southern Rhodesia in the 1890s and up until the 1930s, settlers, missionaries, and government officials debated the pros and cons of African female domestic service. 1 This highly emotional debate involved the defense of economic and political interests, as well as ideological constructions of race and gender. Within the European community, men and women were frequently at odds over the issue, while the various interest groups--missionaries, settlers, and industrialists--also found it difficult to agree. The colonial state favored one faction or another, depending upon the circumstances, but always putting long-term political objectives above immediate economic concerns. Within the African population, there was general opposition to the employment of African women and girls in domestic service. Although men and women, young and old, voiced their disapproval, their reasons were varied and often contradictory. This chapter examines the forces working both for and against the employment of African women and girls in European households and explores the complex struggles that ensued during the period 1900 to 1939.

Before the colonization of Southern Rhodesia, the distinction between the domestic and the social in African society was more political than economic. While African men were generally responsible for public governance and lineage and community matters, women had primary responsibility for food preparation and child rearing. However, both women and men were actively engaged in productive activities outside the household that were crucial to its survival. The European ideology of "domesticity," which implied that men were breadwinners and women reproducers of the labor force, had no

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