Transatlantic Women at Work: Service in the Long 19th Century


  • Laura-Isabella Heitz
  • Khristeena Lute
  • Julia Nitz
  • Sandra Harbert Petrulionis
  • Esther Wetzel



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.

Author Biographies

Laura-Isabella Heitz

Laura-Isabella Heitz is a PhD candidate at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg where she received her B.A. degree in Intercultural European and American Studies (IKEAS) in 2016 and her M. Sc. degree in International Area Studies in 2019. From 2020-2023 she held a postgraduate scholarship (Graduiertenförderung des Landes Sachsen-Anhalt) to write her thesis on Form and Function of Native American Environmentalism in the 20th and 21st Century. Her research interests include Native American resistance and protest cultures, environmentalism, as well as women studies in the United States.

Khristeena Lute

Khristeena Lute completed her Ph.D. in 2016 from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Reading and Writing at SUNY Adirondack, in upstate New York. She has received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Scholarship and Creative Activity and the SUNY Adirondack President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her recent publications include her debut novel, Finding Grace and Grit (2021); “Choosing to be Artists: Women’s Networks in Evelyn Scott’s Escapade” (2021); and “Embracing Ambiguity: Navigating the Liminal Waters of Grace King’s ‘The Little Convert Girl’” (2019).

Julia Nitz

Julia Nitz is associate professor of Anglo-American Cultural Studies at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. She has served as Execu­tive Director at the Center for American Studies and is co-founder of the Interconti­nental Crosscurrents Network for the study of transatlantic women’s networks in the long nineteenth centu­ry ( Her research focuses on the American Civil War, women’s life writing, intertextual cultural studies, historiographic and museum narratology as well as An­glophone (Caribbean) film and adaptation studies. Her publica­tions include Towards a Historiographic Narratology (2011), Inter­continental Crosscurrents: Women’s Networks across Europe and the Americas (2016) and Women and US Politics (2020), and her most recent monograph Belles and Poets: Intertextuality in the Civil War Diaries of White Southern Women (LSUP, 2020).

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She is the author of To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau’s Concord, the editor of Thoreau in His Own Time and Journal 8: 1854 in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism and of Intercontinental Crosscurrents: Women's Networks across Europe and the Americas. Her current work includes a biography of 19th-century author, reformer, and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and, with Dr. Noelle A. Baker, The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: A Scholarly Digital Edition.

Esther Wetzel

Esther Wetzel is a research associate and lecturer at the department of English and American Studies at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. She holds a degree in English and American Studies, French Studies, and Education Studies and pursues a PhD in American Cultural Studies. Her research is funded by a government postgraduate grant and interrogates embodiment and identity negotiations in white women’s travel writing from US Pacific territories in the early 20th century.




How to Cite

Heitz, L.-I., K. Lute, J. Nitz, S. H. Petrulionis, and E. Wetzel. “Transatlantic Women at Work: Service in the Long 19th Century”. New American Studies Journal: A Forum, vol. 74, Sept. 2023,