Transatlantic Women at Work: Service in the Long 19th Century
Keywords:notions of service, True Womanhood, servitude, racial essentialism, 19th century
This special issue focuses on “Transatlantic Women at Work” in the 19th century, with attention paid specifically to the labor women performed that was deemed by family, community, government, and often the women themselves as “service.” Our introduction briefly describes the six articles and responses included in this issue, and their origins in an online forum in 2021 and 2022, three poems, and one fictional work. The overview of contributions is followed by an attempt at theorizing the understanding and conception of the idea of “service” from a diachronic perspective. This exploration of varying notions and the accompanying politics of “service” is organized in sections as follows: “The Evolving Concept of ‘Service’ in the Long 19th Century,” “Theorizing: What Is this Thing Called Service,” “The Tradition of ‘Service’ as a White, Middle-Class Notion,” “Women’s Service and Reform,” “Municipal Housekeeping as Service to the Community,” and “Women of Color and ‘Service to Their Race’.” Our examination of 19th-century conduct books and reform texts by and for women illuminates how evolving notions of service as benevolence was primarily connected to a well-to-do class of White women and conceptualized against a notion of servitude as hard (enumerated) labor associated with poor women and Women of Color. We show how since the beginning of the century Black activists fought against such racial essentialism. However, White service notions lastingly influenced both 19th-century (segregated) ideas of women’s social roles and 20th/21st century women’s historiography that continued to center White concepts of True Womanhood. We conclude by acknowledging that in our own 21st century, women (especially Women of Color) too often continue in the vicious cycle of being relegated to lower paid and lower status service work, professions which remain lower paid because they are held by women. As we point out, the recent Covid pandemic shed renewed light on this transatlantic reality.
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