African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview
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Domestic Service

Since the 1930s work in service to the white settlers has become feminized. Regarding urban migration, we have seen how the colonizers sought men for all household work: cooking, washing, ironing, gardening, guarding property, child care, even infant care. For breastfeeding, wet nurses had long existed in the countries that colonization reached first, such as the Cape. Here, since at least the eighteenth century, and as in the American colonies, white ladies deemed breastfeeding too great a risk to their beauty and even unsuitable.

But there came a point, different in different places, where the work demanded of men opened up less well-paid and thus more despised jobs for women. Early on, working for whites in their homes was both a sign of prestige and a salaried job reserved for men. African men would do domestic work in this setting that would have been considered degrading in their own households. Little by little, called to more interesting or better-paid work (mining, office work, industrial labor), they left domestic work to women. This shift started between the World Wars in South Africa. In Lourenço Marques it happened around World War II because so many men were recruited for work in the mines of the Rand. It also happened early on in French Equatorial Africa with the assistance of loose social mores, women being thought of in terms of their use value--a close analogy to slavery. "Housekeepers" became especially common in Gabon with the arrival of unmarried colonial personnel. The later arrival of their wives tended to masculinize the profession, which was realigned along traditional West African lines, but the shift is far from complete.

Domestic Service in South Africa: A New Kind of Bondage?

South Africa is a case unto itself. In Johannesburg and the key industrial port cities especially, men were in demand for the mines and factories and left


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African Women: A Modern History


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