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Family Strategies, Work, and Welfare Policies toward Waged Domestic Labor in Twentieth-Century Greece

This article investigates paid domestic work in twentieth-century Greece by focusing on family relations and on domestic workers' experiences of and emotions toward their labor. From the late nineteenth century, when the female domestic worker emerged as the typical yet concealed migrant in the city, until the end of the first half of the twentieth century, domestic work was an integral part of the country's economic, social, and cultural systems. While focusing on welfare policies, the article investigates a paradox in the public discourse during the first half of the twentieth century: the absence of legislative provisions concerning juvenile and adult domestic labor and the use by reformers of the figure of the child servant as a vehicle for campaigning for the abolition of child labor. This historical inquiry into domestic work concludes that in periods of crisis, domestic workers are the first to experience the effects of an increase in social inequality.


This article focuses on the female domestic workers in order to explore how women experienced paid domestic labor and its gender and class dimensions, as well as the ways in which state authorities and the middle class addressed issues raised by this type of work. Our study examines one of the most concealed and invisible social groups, women domestic workers, and highlights the mechanisms that shaped and imposed the terms of their position as so-called silent subjects. Both the available demographic data and oral testimonies suggest that we are dealing with a rather sizeable labor force, consisting mainly of women and children.1 The origins of this group are essentially to be found in rural society and among the urban working class. From the end of the [End Page 17] nineteenth century and through to the 1970s, women workers were concentrated in domestic service and factory work, displaying a greater presence in one or the other depending on the period.2

The article provides a historical examination of paid domestic labor and, especially, of child labor, highlighting the class, gender, and age features that characterized it throughout the twentieth century. It draws on previous research conducted by the authors (Hantzaroula 2007, 2012; Bada and Argyrou 2013), which is enriched by placing it in a macroscopic perspective to highlight the persistence of specific features of domestic work, especially servants' working conditions. As deregulation characterizes contemporary forms of employment, it is important to illuminate the origins and historicity of this deregulation. Finally, this study introduces the concepts of "biopower" (Foucault 1980; Anderson 2012) and affect as pivotal to understanding new forms of citizenship for working-class children. We argue in particular that affect was employed in state discourses in order to incorporate working-class children into the nation.

The period studied, 1900 to 1970, was selected because it was an era that witnessed the integration of Greek society into the capitalist system as part of modernization, but also because of the practice throughout this period of children's employment in domestic work, especially when there was a shortage of female workers due to their transition to industrial work (Hantzaroula 2012, 165–168). This article connects the growth of female and child domestic labor with the strategies of rural families, as well as with state welfare policies and labor legislation. We argue that the enduring regular employment of women and children in domestic work was due to its exclusion from regulatory labor legislation; it was the most informal and unregulated labor sector until 1962. The article begins with the last decades of the nineteenth century because it was in this period that developments in bourgeois social relations produced a strict division of labor based on gender and class, creating a bourgeois, urban model of family and familial morality. This model, which later spread throughout Greece (Sant Cassia and Bada 2006), was built on the foundation of a clear distinction between private and public spheres and the restriction of women "to the duties of the household" (Bakalaki and Emeglitou 1987), but also on the structure of the nuclear family, the dowry system, and the tendency toward neolocal residency. The aforementioned features and their rapid dissemination suggest that Modern Greek society and culture were perhaps far more "urban" than previously thought (Sant Cassia and Bada 2006), resulting in the creation of a "rural bourgeois." The roots of this particularity are clearly found in both economic and powerful noneconomic factors (historical, cultural, and social) [End Page 18] that influenced the rural exodus (Panayotopoulos 1985, 521–531). Highlighting the gendered characteristics and modes of internal migration shows the female face of migration, which played a significant role in the integration of families and their members in the city and in the development of social relations (Bada 2006, 91–108).

The story that emerges from this analysis elucidates the actions and discourses of the state and the bourgeoisie with respect to female and child domestic labor, while revealing the burgeoning social inequalities of the times. Although by the 1870s, laws prohibiting child labor and regulating young people's work hours were in force in most European countries, child labor in Greece continued to be a key element in the country's economic development during the first half of the twentieth century. The suspension of the enforcement of labor legislation between 1912 and 1930 was requested by industrialists and the government on economic grounds; it was argued that twelve-year-old children could be used in industrial sectors where their labor was indeed critical to the economic viability of certain trades because of the low wages that they were paid.3 Furthermore, the concentration of children in large-scale industries, such as textiles, tobacco, paper, and clothing manufacturing, illustrates the importance of low-cost employment for industrial growth (Saliba 2002, 67, 93, 113, 129; Hantzaroula 2012, 208–214). In the beginning of the 1930s, labor inspectors removed all children from factories and workshops and prosecuted their employers (Ministry of Finance 1934). The international economic crisis hit Greece hard, and unemployment rose, peaking during the winter of 1932–1933, according to the report prepared by the labor inspectorate for the implementation of labor legislation in 1933 (Ministry of Finance 1935). The enforcement of the prohibition on labor for children under 14 in the late 1920s and particularly in the 1930s, which served the interests of adult male workers, created a pool of juveniles unable to enter factory work. Having remained outside the scope of labor legislation, domestic service thus became the only labor sector available to them. That attempts for the extension of labor legislation to domestic service failed was the product of great middle-class anxiety over the shortage of servants. The lifting of the requirement of 14 as the minimum age for entering domestic work allowed for the exploitation of this new labor supply. Meanwhile, the war in Asia Minor had produced a great number of orphans, who were directed by various institutions into domestic service. As oral testimonies suggest, refugees and rural migrants frequently entered domestic service before the age of ten (Hantzaroula 2012).

While domestic workers were persistently excluded from labor legislation, they were the central topic in debates regarding the abolition of child labor. [End Page 19] The literature places this phenomenon in the context of the emergence of a new form of power that aimed to divorce the child's body from work and invest it with childhood (Hantzaroula 2012, 214–237). Although in most European counties the proponents of protective labor legislation for children focused on young factory workers, in Greece, it was the figure of the suffering child servant that became the affective trope through which working-class children came to be seen as a valuable investment for the state.4

Until the nineteenth century, women and children in service ostensibly fell within the scope of the implementation of a moralistic and controlling social policy that included the philanthropic goals of their employers; until the 1960s, they were the object of a welfare-protectionist policy exercised with the intention of penalizing poverty and its social-familial context. From the 1960s and 1970s onwards, welfare protectionist policy and discourse on domestic labor was insufficient. Moreover, despite legal provisions for labor and social security issues (see Clause 2 of paragraph 4 of Law 1846/51, in combination with Article 1 of Law 4104/60, Government Gazette, issue no. 147), women domestic workers today appear to constitute the most representative category of flexible, underinsured, and vulnerable labor.

Family and labor: Two analytical categories

When referring to the economy, we do not approach it as the sole regulating factor in social relations, but rather as just one that helped shape social life along with others, like family, kinship networks, and community, for example. From this perspective, the ways in which the family interacts with the economy or the ways in which relations within the family are structured—always depending on the point of the economic cycle of growth or recession at which each generation enters paid employment—seem very complex (Haveren 1982). People saw the interaction between the economy and society either as an obstacle or as a survival mechanism and a means of adaptation in the face of the developing capitalist system (Mendras 1956–1960, 1967). It was thus expected that these survival mechanisms were bound to disappear with people's integration into a system in which the role of the economy unilaterally defined social relations. However, precapitalist social structures and relations have also been found in modern societies, not as mere remnants of an older structure, but rather as persistent and dynamic features that may suggest a different rationale toward adaptation and integration (Damianakos 1999, 2002).5 More specifically, in Greece, the agrarian family played the leading role in the organization of production and reproduction on the basis of family ownership [End Page 20] of small-holdings. In order to meet its social and economic needs, the family would first exhaust its labor power—based on the gender and age distribution of its members—relying on the basic resources of land and livestock. Nevertheless, this nearly total investment of the family workforce in its small plot of land did not ensure self-sufficiency.

Families adopted various and diverse survival strategies. They were bound both by agricultural exploitations and by the cultural values related to the preservation of the family fortune. One practice, for instance, was for women to receive their share of the family's wealth not in land or livestock, but rather as movable property. This share was usually given as a dowry, and when it took the form of cash, as it did from the last decades of the nineteenth century onward, then the family had to sell either goods or labor in order to secure that money. This was of course a social practice, rather than a strategy, whose intention was to preserve the family fortune to the greatest possible extent, while also maintaining the means of transferring wealth within the family, as well as the connection between wealth transference and the household mode of production.

The notion of work in this context was understood, generally speaking, not only as economic but also as referring to social relations in their gender, ethnic, and historical dimensions. It was informed by the quality of relations formed in the process of the allocation, production, and distribution of resources. From this perspective, the notion takes on a broadened, complex, and almost living content enriched with social action and cultural parameters. The emphasis on the gendered experience, meanwhile, along its social and cultural meaning, highlights the search and portrayal of women as social subjects. In particular, our study emphasizes the socially and culturally determined means and practices through which they responded—or often reacted—to the changes that the processes of transfer and integration and the increased social inequality (based on gender and the fragmentation of labor) have brought to their lives. There is also a focus in our study on the women themselves, who interpreted the experience of their work, who formed collective representations and images of self through memory, as well as their own cultural identity through social and symbolic practices.

Methodology and data of the study

This study is based on data drawn from a number of different sources. Legal documents, parliamentary debates, censuses, and correspondences provide source material that sheds light on certain facets of service work in the [End Page 21] nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when analyzed from a historical and anthropological perspective. However, these sources do not record the voices or convey the experiences of women domestics. Their silence in the sources is a reflection of women's place in society at large.

Oral testimonies, mostly recorded life stories of women in domestic service, form a significant part of the research data, giving us access to the insider's history of what it was like to be a servant. We analyzed and recorded 35 life stories from women who were refugees from Asia Minor and immigrants from the Aegean islands and the mountains of Epiros and Aitolia-Akarnania. Some had been in service since childhood. These narratives are accounts of their lived experiences and present a firsthand perspective of what it was like to be domestic servant. We note parenthetically that in these life stories we are dealing not only with individual memory or subjective recollections but also with collective forms of subjectivity; indeed, we are dealing with collective memory, which is the most basic dimension of remembering (Rappaport 1990; Halbwachs 1992; Passerini 1998).

Family, female migration, and service work

There were nine of us in my family home (four children, three girls, mother, and father).6 A few barren fields and a few animals that the older kids looked after, that was our only fortune. I was born in 1929, and in 1938 (at the age of nine) I was taken to Arta as a maid, to a landowner, who had olive and citrus trees. … My mother arranged for me to work there for 25 drachmas a month, but my father told them not to give me any money in hand but to save it. So in the four years that I stayed, I didn't get "a dime" in my hands, so to speak. … At the time, there were around twenty maids from my village in Arta.

The passage above portrays the rural household as a unique structural unit of production, consumption, and reproduction of labor power. In order to sustain themselves, in times of crisis in particular, families resorted to sending their daughters off to work in domestic service.

The practice of sending younger members of the family out to work was always a way to increase the household income, and the practice became more frequent in the final decades of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century. It was both a strategy for acquiring resources and a mechanism for dealing with the crisis caused by the collapse of the Greek rural economy during the 1890s.

The domestic servant is the quintessential female migrant. From the last decades of the nineteenth century and into the 1960s and 1970s, urbanization [End Page 22] in Greece included women and children destined for domestic work. Information on the scale of this labor sector is available from as early as the 1861 national census. Of the two types of employment registered as "female only" in this census, one is the maid and the other is the midwife. The census records 7,724 servants. Until the interwar period, women migrated to the city mostly on an individual basis, though their sojourns were planned by their families. Furthermore, it is likely that maids also contributed to external migration. Although there is not always sufficient data on this particular phenomenon, it would seem that a significant number of women sought work in cities outside of Greece, especially in the Ottoman Empire and in Egypt (Saliba 2004, 36). Within Greece, the increasing number of servants in the nineteenth century was tied both to the expansion of Athens's middle and lower bourgeoisie and, in particular, to the creation of an urban model of society and of family life (Korasidou 1995, 195–200; Saliba 2004, 34–38; Sant Cassia and Bada 2006, 145–164; Hantzaroula 2012). Hiring as many maids as possible was a social and symbolic practice that served to demonstrate the wealth and social standing of the bourgeois family. Moreover, it served as a means for the head of the family to display his ability to seclude his wife, daughters, and sisters in the safety of their own home.

In this context, women were almost always the first choice as servants. The demand for waged servant labor was met by girls and young women coming from the Cycladic islands (Andros, Tinos, Naxos, and Kea, in particular) and the neighboring rural areas of Attica (Mansolas 1881, 856). By the end of the 1910s, 27% of the total female workforce worked in households and 36% in industry (Hantzaroula 2012, 165). The cheap and readily available workforce in factories was sustained by female refugees, internal migrants, and children, an occasional workforce found in both factories and domestic service (Riginos 1995, 27). In the context of the application of a welfare-protective policy for the regulation of child labor in factories, the employment of children was possible because this form of work was cast as an apprenticeship rather than paid work.

Young boys provided labor in various small retail outlets, businesses, and workshops, and girls usually became domestic workers. From the first decade of the twentieth century onward, the face of the female domestic worker from the village reflected not only the contradictions based on gender and class but also the changes in the economic and cultural balances between the city and the countryside. In order to survive, an increasing number of rural households had to reduce the number of mouths to be fed, and this often meant sending daughters away to work in domestic service. As mentioned earlier, the individual migration of girls and their occupation in the domestic service market [End Page 23] had been the unavoidable solution for rural households to survive and defuse the crisis that the broader agricultural world was experiencing during the early twentieth century. The decision for girls and women to leave their family homes and villages and take up service rested with the male members of their families and their fathers, in particular, who received the economic returns of their daughters' labor.

Within two years of my mother's death, my father was getting married again. We were three orphans … and very poor. I was only ten years old when an aunt on my mother's side took me to her house in Athens. I stayed with her for a little, and then my father told my aunt to find a family and to become a servant for them. It would be better for all of us, he said. My aunt found a family. They agreed on my payment: my food, my clothes, and after a year, a very small amount of money. My master ought to send the total amount to my father at the end of each year. In this way, I became a servant girl, and I remained a servant until my marriage. All these years nobody asked me how my life was. I don't like to remember all this. … I feel pain.7

Our analysis of the discourse of these women suggests that the delay they experienced in obtaining the right to make decisions and manage their own economic affairs only served to strengthen their feelings of exploitation, rejection, and shame (Hantzaroula 2015, 239–271). They failed to understand their family's decision to send them off to service work and this experience had a traumatic impact on their identity. It seems that the attitudes and prejudices of the people in whose houses they served also contributed to their alienation, shame, and feelings of subjugation.

I was afraid and ashamed. What was I? A village girl, unschooled, someone who didn't know to be polite, to behave well. … I was very ashamed. And the lady of the house insulted me all the time.8

Our position is that to a certain extent the presence of household workers functioned as a means of shaping the identity of bourgeois women and their families. The demand for domestic servants may, in fact, have been greater than the supply (Hantzaroula 2012, 166–167). However, this does not mean that the size of the bourgeoisie had significantly increased, or that it had shed its petit bourgeois features. A study of the class structure of Athens would indicate the contrary: the city would appear to have been dominated by a petit bourgeois population that found itself unable to afford household servants (Skaltsa 1983; Pizanias 1993). The increase in the demand and the supply of servants would instead have to be attributed to the fact that the aforementioned upper and middle classes of the city employed numerous [End Page 24] servants—maids, servants, cooks, and so on—in their households. This would strengthen the argument that in the person of the female servant the identity of the lady of the house appeared and confirmed her bourgeois status, and that a form of female—yet class-based—power that connected these bourgeois women to the public sphere was manifested through charity, control, or protective discourses and tasks. With this reality in mind, it becomes clear why the intense criticism of service labor never led, as Maria Korasidou notes, to an outright call for the abolition of servants (1995, 212). Rather, criticism tended to focus on the rational organization of the servants' labor, with the aim of making it more efficient.

Lived experience and memory of servant labor: Family decisions, feelings of rejection, and daily life

The life stories of the women who labored as household workers in many ways reflect the exploitation that they experienced at the hands of the women for whom they worked. For instance, they frequently describe the cruel terms of their employment, such as insufficient food, poor sleeping conditions, inadequate clothing, low pay, and uninsured work, but also the invisible but very real scorn they felt either as women or as members of a social class that was perceived as culturally backward, uncouth, and dangerous. They also, however, describe positions, attitudes, and practices that transformed them into active social subjects. If they could claim any achievement, it was for them to manage the terms of their own subjugation. Through their self-narration, they were at least portrayed as subjects of a real or symbolic reaction, as subjects capable of structuring an identity in the present, of soothing what was a largely traumatic experience.

They'd eat in a small living room, let's say, outside the kitchen, like a veranda that was covered, sealed off. But there they had no permanent table and they were forced to bring out the one they kept inside, in the kitchen. They ate and then they'd put it back in its place. It was a big, old table, with thick legs, very heavy. They gradually assigned the task of moving it to me. I'd have to bring it there and back. But I had to make sure not to drag it on the floor. I'd go under the old table and lift it with my body, straight, so that it wouldn't drag, so that its legs wouldn't shake, and bit by bit I'd move it. I'd move a little, I'd let it rest and take a breath, then all over again, three or four times until I got it there, where it should be. As if I wore a saddle on my body. When the others were done and left, it was the same drill, take it back again. Every once in a while, I'd give it "the finger," I'd … you know, swear at it, I'd tell it to go to hell, and so on … As if [End Page 25] this poor thing was to blame? It was the others who gave the orders, curse them. Curse her, and may her money and goods go to hell. But this is what I did when everyone was out. I'd take the chair and stand on the table and dance and kick around with a fury, and I'd scream … like a crazy woman. It seemed to me that I was punishing it that way, I was taking revenge on it, I was taking out my grudge on it.

Their interpretation of life as servants focuses more on their family's decision to send them off to work than on the oppression and exploitation they experienced on the part of their employers. However much they may have understood the economic reasons that led to their family's decision to send them away, and however much they may have acknowledged that it was for the sake of the family, given that they were girls—the family's supposedly weak link or burden—they nonetheless felt rejection and alienation. When a live-in domestic servant was hired at a young age—a process akin to adopting a child, but one charged with professional obligations—the sense of victimization, rejection, and alienation was more intense. Their premature weaning and loss of childhood created not only feelings of intense rejection from their natal family, but also guilt among the rest of its members.

I don't want to remember. … My family was very poor, as many other families in Lefkada were. We were four sisters in my family. Three of us went as servants to Athens, one after the other. I was the oldest, and one night my parents told me that I had to go to Athens, where my aunt had arranged to put me in a family as servant. I didn't want to go, but I had to. I was fourteen years old, and I had never been away from my village before. I cried, and my mother just looked at me, without saying anything. I didn't sleep at all that night. I felt pain because nobody had asked me. And the worst for me was that for a very long time I didn't get any money because my master sent it to my father. … I can't understand it, even now. This was the reward of my pain. Always I felt pain about this and about their not coming to see me.9

Gradually, all of the women we interviewed admitted to feeling a sense of shame. In their own memories, the feeling of shame appears as a determining factor in the formation of their identity as victims, as women who had been deprived of love, opportunities, and prospects (Bada and Argyrou 2013, 103). [End Page 26]

Welfare policies on child labor, biopolitical anxieties, and affective investment in domestic workers

In the second decade of the twentieth century, when the Greek state set out to formulate a labor policy, child labor came to the forefront of the discussion. The family became the topos that provided the state with an opportunity to intrude into and regulate working as well as middle-class families. Legislating the conditions of domestic service became a means for the state to begin policing the family. Meanwhile, notions relating to social control made servants a privileged category for legislative action and control.10 Although one can trace a genealogy regarding the exemption of domestic workers from labor legislation, they were nevertheless central to the debates on child labor and welfare. If domestic service held a prominent place in such debates, it was to codify the most violent form of child exploitation. In the 1930s in particular, the figure of the juvenile servant became a symbol in the campaign for the abolition of child labor and the enforcement of labor legislation. The female child servant was foregrounded in the campaign, even though a large part of the child industrial workforce consisted of female laborers (Avdela 1995, 306). Why did the figure of the servant appear so prominently in debates over workplace exploitation and child welfare?

In Greece, legislation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries defined domestic service as a distinct category of employment that fell outside of the orbit of labor legislation. Domestic service was addressed through policing provisions that treated servants as a threat to middle-class property and morality. Between 1870 and 1951, the police introduced seven provisions aimed at controlling the servant population (Hantzaroula 2006, 225–246). Efforts to bring domestic work within the scope of labor legislation by, for example, setting a minimum age for entering service faced stubborn resistance from middle-class groups and government officials. Middle-class groups tried to set up obstacles to the abolition of child labor and to passing of regulations on wages, working hours, social insurance, and pensions. Although as early as 1921, the Director of the Labor Inspectorate had acknowledged the need for legislative action in order to stop the exploitation of children in domestic service, it remained beyond the reach of labor legislation until the 1960s (Ministry of Finance 1923, 16). The 199/1936 Emergency Act On the Amendment of Certain Labor Laws, which set the minimum age for entering service at 14, was annulled by the Supreme Court of Appeal. It was not until 1989 that Law no. 1837 set the minimum age for entering domestic service at 15 years old.". Historian Carolyn Steedman argues that an examination of legal evolution of [End Page 27] labor legislation provides an important source of information both on the making of the modern labor force and the policing of society (2009, 172). From the nineteenth century onward, however, the state was dealing not only with legal subjects but with living beings, as well, which led to an increase in the state's biopower—a form of power that makes life the target for specific technologies of power (Anderson 2012, 30).

In his later work, Michel Foucault explored the disciplinary practices through which the "governmentalization of the state" gained currency as a new form of governing and a new regime of truth in the nineteenth century (Foucault 2008). The state moved deeply into the lives of individual subjects by disciplining and applying complex strategies of socialization (Clough 2007, 19). The centrality of domestic workers in welfare discourses is an illustration of this new form of power, biopower, which made life and living beings its object of reference and inquiry.12

Antonio Negri (1999) and Michael Hardt and Negri (2000) further elaborated on the category of biopower by connecting it with new modes of labor, specifically affective labor, that not only encompass the sphere of production but also extend to life as a whole. As Ben Anderson quite aptly puts it, "it is in the tension between these two versions of power and life that a politics of affect resides" (2012, 28). We aim here to explore how affect was employed by various discourses in order to produce biopolitical strategies for enlisting the bodies of children in the service of the nation. Thus, in using the figure of the δουλάκι (little skivvy) as an affective device, social reformers aspired to distance young people from the adult realm of labor and to foreground their adolescence. Extending the protection of the state to working-class children would secure the creation of a healthy and moral workforce, as children would not exhaust their vital forces in childhood or suffer from the terrible distortion of their bodies. This process accounts for why labor legislation, which focused on children and women, was introduced with the claim of a civilizing mission, as Antonis Liakos notes (1993, 451).

Transformations in the organization of society relating to welfare policies were bound up with the organization of affective life. The "affective condition" was the way welfare policies were encountered, disclosed, and related to (Anderson 2012, 37)13 The suffering child became the affective trope through which working-class children became wards of the state. Paradoxically, however, although the stereotype of the little skivvy served discursively to embody the suffering of working children, those children were not recognized as workers in labor legislation. As Foucault argues, disciplining engages a politics of representation. The little skivvy came to represent the hapless child worker [End Page 28] whom the state had to protect; it became a figurative device for launching political demands.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of childhood began to extend to all children and required that they should lose their economic value. As the number of children in industry started to decrease, those who worked in domestic service attracted the attention of various groups of social reformers (socialists, feminists, doctors, lawyers, and so on), who became involved in the campaign for the protection of the child and promoted the abolition of child labor. Maria Svolou, a labor inspector of the Ministry of Finance and general secretary of the League for the Rights of Women, was one of the few voices to unequivocally call for the extension of labor legislation to domestic service, with a focus on setting an age limit for children entering it.

And last in order but first in suffering comes the skivvy. Who will extol in that macabre tune the misery of this child, this slave on whom the housewife's nerves break, whose human essence is dissolved under the curses of her mistress and on whom the instincts of sons and masters break out under the silent sanctum of family morals! … And horror expands in thousands of infections, physical and mental, poisoning society as a whole. …

The sick child who infects others with consumption, the criminal, the erratic, these are the fruits of indifference that will have to be paid not just morally but in cash for their treatment. … If surpassing these obstacles has been impossible, this must be attributed to the fact that all legislative measures are simply repressive and are incarnated in inadequate, isolated prohibitions. Because they try to eliminate the effects of social evil, rather than its causes. And the causes of child labor are purely economic. The primary demand that arises out of this cruel reality is this: The abolition of child labor. Positive measures should operate under one principle: the elevation of the social and economic level ofthe working classes. These measures are: a. The introduction of a minimum wage . … b. The application of social security to all types of employment. c. The introduction of the eight-hour day to all types of employment. d. The organization of a system of welfare provisions and institutions. f. The extension of labor legislation to all wage-earning jobs and to domestic servants. The regulation of the age of entering employment, hours of labor, health insurance, security against accidents, etc.

(Svolou 1930, 2–3; emphasis mine)

This passage strikes a melodramatic note, while relying on the themes of suffering and sexual exploitation, including prostitution. Its tone reflects the two facets of the discourse: the dangerous side of the working class as a threat to social stability and the desire to rescue children from the cruelty of adults.14 The speaker alludes to both the theme of sexual exploitation as a form of class exploitation and sexuality as the site of the threat posed by the working class [End Page 29] (Steedman 1995, 168). Biopower is based on forms of intervention that aim to optimize some form of valued life that is productive, against a form of life that is devalued and thereby threatening (Anderson 2012, 30). What is implicit in the narrative is also the anxiety of the middle class about the moral, material, and physical threat that servants posed to the middle-class family. It was this fear that led to the creation of a campaign for the professionalization of domestic service through the intervention of the police and private institutions.

Although in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and in the first decade of the twentieth century feminists and philanthropists undertook the task of regulating the mistress-servant relationship, in the interwar period, domestic service as well began to be perceived as an arena for state intervention. Not everyone, however, agreed with this position. The economic crisis, pressure from the International Labor Office calling for the enforcement of labor legislation, and the introduction of social security legislation provided new impetus for the debate on the abolition of child labor. Since the withdrawal of children from industry was perceived as a means of mitigating unemployment, child labor was no longer considered by welfare institutions as a safety valve against vagrancy and prostitution, but rather as the very cause of immorality itself—and thus as a threat to the health and morals of children.

The discussion on domestic service as a form of child labor was a point of intersection for different discourses, shedding light on the clash of interests between the middle class and state policy, as well as on the ambivalence toward the prohibition on children under 14 entering into domestic service. The novelist Lilika Nakou opened a debate on child labor in Ergasia, a journal that supported the Liberal Party, which held office between 1930 and 1932. The publication acted as a laboratory for producing and debating economic and labor policy. In the article, Nakou describes the appalling conditions facing child servants, such as poor housing, meager remuneration, insufficient food, and mistreatment at the hands of their mistresses. She opened the article with a rhetorical question: "It is some days now that I have been asking whether a law exists to protect nine and ten-year-old children from the 'kindness' of the Greek female bourgeois" (1930, 18). She continues:

Yes, for these children who are accepted in families "for gratitude" in order to "be saved, and to be made into human beings" while they pester them. It is about the skivvies, mostly female, but also male. In every small bourgeois household I see a skinny little child bent from the weariness of the day's toil and hands swollen from work, and the eyes—oh, those eyes—deep-set, with black circles and that painful gaze. The rich closed up in their palaces, surrounded by lackeys, may be [End Page 30] more easily forgiven than we can; their soul does not suffer because they don't see them. But we have "become accustomed" to this tragic spectacle and we are unforgivable.

Like Maria Svolou, the author employs melodrama to frame her demand for the extension of labor legislation to children. In the above passage, it is the bourgeois family—and bourgeois woman, in particular—who is held respon-sible for the exploitation of children. The gendered and class prejudice against lower-middle-class women—as opposed to upper-class women who employed professional adult domestic servants—was a locus communis in debates on the exploitation of children. In fact, the number of servants that a household employed became a means by which to identify the status of a middle-class family. Oral sources suggest that it was mainly middle-class and lower-middle-class families that employed children as maids-of-all-work, families without the means to hire more than one servant (Hantzaroula 2012). The castigation of the mistress allowed critics to address the middle-class family with the aim of educating middle-class females. The discourse on family and children was always a gendered discourse.

The old argument suggesting that child labor was a remedy for idleness and parental neglect, which would otherwise lead boys to destitution and girls to prostitution—both of which threatened to shake the foundations of society—was still valid for the middle class. In the debate on the mistreatment of servants by their mistresses, Ioanna Karastamati responded to Lilika Nakou's accusations by arguing that the physical and psychological injuries sustained by children in service should not be considered as important as welfare and order in society at large.

I admit that the things Miss Nakou has written are true and that children "suffer" in the way she claims. But shouldn't we examine another aspect of this issue? That these children, entering into the service of families and suffering at the hand of mistresses, originate from families that, because they are unable to feed them, are forced to give them away to families to provide for food, clothes and even a small remuneration. … As for girls, the plight and fate of those girls who have been left to the mercy of God, or rather that of the street, is well known. For this reason, I believe that it would be a thousand times more beneficial for both society and girls if girls remained in [the employers'] families even if they are scolded, cursed or beaten by their mistresses. … I believe that since these children cannot be supported by their own families it is better that they enter into the service of families where their morality is undoubtedly less at risk.

(Karastamati 1930, 27, 29; emphasis mine) [End Page 31]

This view was representative of those who saw voluntary activities and institutions as the remedy to the problem of juvenile delinquency and as a means to prevent social unrest. In his response to the article, Alekos Raptarchis acknowledged the suffering of children in service and proposed the following remedy: middle-class women or those who aspired to belong to this class should be educated in order to perform their role as civilizers and moralizers of the lower classes.

If the State is unable to protect these little creatures, it is society's duty to take up this task by illuminating the less educated and more naïve of its members about their duties. … The state of these children will improve day by day, only if more people devote themselves to eradicating this evil to enlighten "mistresses" about the meaning of the words philanthropy, solidarity, gentleness, and delicacy. Should she overlook the meaning of these words, the Greek woman will not deserve to be considered an educated and civilized woman.

This debate on servant labor thus provided an entry point for addressing the middle-class family. Middle-class housewives were the target of a civilizing process that demanded the protection of the child and the regulation of relationships in the private sphere of the household. Pavlos Nirvanas, a prominent writer who had a daily column in the Estia gazette, devoted several articles to domestic servants and conveyed his anxiety at the mistreatment and physical deformation of juvenile servants. He cited a letter by a doctor:

"I believe that you too must have very often encountered in the streets six- to ten- year-old girls whom some so-called philanthropists have taken into their houses as skivvies or foster children in order to provide for them. … A lady came to my office to examine an eight- or nine-year-old girl. This child, a pale and weak thing, had a very grave left thoracic scoliosis, a pain in the lumbar area of spine, and nocturnal urination among other things. After I examined the child I asked what kind of chores—which are above her age and strength—she performs, and I was told that aside from caring for the baby from morning until evening, she brought water to the house from a fountain because there was no water in the house. And when I told the lady that this child is not fit for such heavy tasks, the soft-hearted lady replied: 'And why would I have her? To eat my food for free and sit in the chair? I took her as a foster child and I can provide for her so long as she is working for me. Otherwise, she had better leave.' I was astonished by the charming theories of this lady, I gave her the advice I ought to and I decided to write to ask, through you, the intervention of the police or that of philanthropic institutions for the protection of children."

We are not talking here about a mere isolated case. As Mr. Chrysafis very correctly claims, there is an entire category of crimes of the sort. Every day we [End Page 32] all gaze upon these tragic creatures of nine, eight and even seven years of age, condemned to degenerate into the state of this little sick girl. … It is white slave traffic conducted freely in the midst of Athens. It is a horrific social crime that should not be continued for a minute longer following the revealing publication of Mr. Chrysafis's letter. … Not only should this barbarity be eradicated in a matter of hours but a permanent office should be established to control the conditions of work, the food and the salary of these juvenile slaves, authorized to enforce the measures and bound to control their implementation. If this country claims to be a country of civilized men this action ought to start tomorrow.

Three voices are heard in this narrative: the doctor's, the mistress's, and the journalist's. The doctor's account was a scientific narrative that used medical terms to describe the deformation of the child's body through work; his scientific language attached a greater clout and legitimacy to the story. Although the conditions of servant labor were described in a sensational manner by Nirvanas, the measures he proposed are disproportionate to the level of mistreatment. He may have argued for the regulation of servant labor, yet he made no reference to the introduction of the minimum age for entering employment for children which would thus have led to the abolition of juvenile domestic labor. At the center of the narrative was the middle-class female who was incapable of being reeducated or reformed. According to Nirvanas, it was the state and private institutions that should intervene in order to eliminate the criminal activities of housewives against children. Here the protection of the child and the regulation of child labor were once again seen as part of a civilizing process of the nation. In an article by Nirvanas a few weeks later, he cited another instance of the mistreatment of a female juvenile servant, in which she was beaten by her mistress and sealed up in a well as punishment—which says much about the ambivalence in bringing domestic service under child labor legislation.

Nirvanas did not argue for the abolition of child labor, but rather for the intervention into the family by private institutions. The middle-class household was indeed considered impervious to state regulation. Domestic service was widely accepted as a means of rehabilitating orphans and poor children. As evidence from oral testimonies suggests, the Near East Relief Foundation, an American philanthropic organization founded in 1915 in response to the humanitarian crisis precipitated by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, did not succeed in preventing the mistreatment of juveniles at the hands of their mistresses.15 The checks conducted in houses with juveniles were superficial, and when children complained of beatings or poor nutrition, the president [End Page 33] simply gave mistresses moral advice on how to behave toward children. This paternalistic attitude toward working-class children and the immunity of juvenile domestic labor from state regulation is illustrated in the following account of the Club for Working Girls founded by the Near East Relief Foundation.

The hospitable Club is a spiritual and psychic resort for 350 lower-class girls, which endows young female workers in industries and houses with civilization and education, and endows with laughter those prematurely shriveled-up faces, allowing them to forget their melancholic social position, their bitter poverty, and the arduous slavery of their work. In the spacious rooms of the Club, every night after seven o'clock, the children of poverty—all between ten and twenty years old—read instructive books, stories, play dominos and new, very amusing American games like ping-pong and badminton. … Next to a nice little eight-year-old servant, who after a lot oftrouble, managed to get leave from her "mistress" every evening in order not to remain illiterate, a twenty-year-old young woman learns the alphabet. Two really moving endeavors.

However, in her reply to this account, Maria Svolou considered philanthropic activity to be an inadequate response to the new demands of society and even damaging to the welfare of children. She saw voluntary institutions as a hindrance to the implementation of legislation on child labor and as a factor contributing to the exploitation of children:

It's all very well to have initiatives to improve the lives of working children and to provide the education of which they are deprived in today's society. But there is a point at which, instead of being useful, they are harmful and become the cause of the cruelest exploitation of the child. Parnassos and the Club for Working Girls and all the other institutions of the kind educate children under fourteen, that is, children who work in order to survive, and for this reason cannot attend daily school, something strictly forbidden by law. In order to comply with the international treaties that it has ratified so as to appear civilized, the state has implemented legislation for compulsory education and for the prohibition of labor for children under 14 years of age. The best these institutions could do is to denounce those parents who exploit their children under the age limit stipulated by the law instead of sending them to school, and to call for the severe punishment of employers and various "ladies" who employ little children, like the "lady" in our article today with the eight-year-old skivvy. We could then argue that these institutions serve the interests of the working class. What they do today is to provide employers with cheap or unpaid labor.

These conflicting approaches to juvenile domestic labor suggest a shift in state social policy toward children in the early 1930s. Childhood and work started to be seen as incompatible. Furthermore, it was understood that the removal [End Page 34] of children from work would only be made possible with mass schooling. The conflict between state social policy and philanthropic institutions was a clash between opposing orientations toward the protection of the child, but it was also a clash of interests. Those who participated in the formulation of state-led social policy perceived children as the state's property and understood the welfare of the child as a right. The view of domestic work as a paternalistic relationship between household and child, immune from state regulation, was supplanted in their discourse by an understanding of domestic work as a modernized labor relationship. Philanthropic institutions continued to treat domestic service as a means of rehabilitating children and responded to the middle-class demand for cheap servants in a period in which the so-called servant problem, that is, the shortage of domestic servants, was more acute than ever.


The ways in which Greek rural families, or urban working-class families for that matter, distribute their labor force and respond to crises proves that labor cannot be understood simply from an economic perspective but must be seen as a process of social reproduction, or more broadly as a social activity.

Our research shows that the family in its function as a productive and reproductive unit was not passive to external pressures. Rather, families developed survival strategies and ways to adapt to changing circumstances, in particular to those arising from the transition to capitalism. We observe the development of labor and other practices with a gendered but also class dimension. In this specific case, internal migration and wage labor for girls and women served as the ultimate mechanism for confronting the economic crisis that poor rural families and the broader agricultural world were ushered into. In this context, the demand for a ready-to-hand, silent, invisible, and able workforce was more than met by the supply of labor from rural families. This labor supply was seen the family's weakest link.

Child labor was an important factor in capitalist development during the first half of the twentieth century. The international economic crisis that affected Greece in the early 1930s resulted in the removal of children from factories as a way to decrease adult male unemployment. The figure of the servant as an affective device proved pivotal in campaigns for the abolition of child labor, a contradiction in light of the exclusion of domestic workers from any form of labor legislation and welfare protection during this period. Public discourses on children's welfare in the first half of the twentieth century used [End Page 35] the affective language to promote new ways of living and new forms of citizenship for working-class children. The persistence of the construction of domestic work as a different kind of work since the 1930s through the present—as one lying outside the realm of social security and labor legislation—was reinforced by migration policies that led to the marginalization of migrant domestic workers (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2007).

In this study, we have treated the female worker as an object of social policy. Scholarship on social policy and welfare has up until now mainly centered on the gendering of social welfare, tending to approach women solely as wives and mothers. Recently, however, scholars have shifted focus both to the status of female migrant workers in social policy (Psimmenos and Skamnakis 2007) and to the access to social services as an indicator of integration of migrant populations in host societies (Bellas 2012). We do not view integration as a static process, but rather as one affected by the place that domestic workers occupy in social policy and the labor market, as well as by the expectations and frustrations that shape and reshape migrant subjectivity. We have tried here to shed light on similar processes of marginalization and exclusion in the past.

Konstantina Bada
University of Ioannina
Pothiti Hantzaroula
University of the Aegean
Konstantina Bada

Konstantina Bada is Professor of Social Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Ioannina. Her academic and research interests focus on the study of popular culture, on material culture, oral history and memory studies, gender studies, labor anthropology, and the ethnography of the decade 1940–1950 in Greece. She has published books and articles in Greek and International Journals. She also is editor of the online Journal Ο Κόσμος της Εργασίας (The world of work; http://kosmos-ergasias.unit.uoi.gr/).

Pothiti Hantzaroula

Pothiti Hantzaroula is Assistant Professor of Historical Anthropology at the University of the Aegean. Her research interests focus on oral history, labor history, and, recently, on the history and memory of the Holocaust in Greece. Her book Σμιλεύοντας την υποταγή: Οι έμμισθες οικιακές εργάτριες στην Ελλάδα στο πρώτο μισό του εικοστού αιώνα (Crafting subordination: Domestic workers in Greece in the first half of the twentieth century) was published in 2012 by Papazisis.


1. The number of women employed in domestic work in Greece doubled between 1907 and 1928. In 1920, domestic servants in Athens comprised 27% of the total female working population, while those in industry comprised 36%. In 1928, the corresponding numbers were 21% for domestic work and 36% for industry; in 1951, 19.6% for domestic work and 38% for industry; in 1961, 16.2% and 30%, respectively; in 1971, 3.1% and 32.5%; in 1981, 3.6% and 25%; and in 1991, 2% and 14.5% (Hantzaroula 2007, 64; Hantzaroula 2012, 165–166;).

2. In 1870, the ratio of women in Greece who worked in domestic service to those who worked in industry was 1.88:1; in 1879, 3.3:1; in 1907, 0.99:1; in 1920, 0.54:1; and in 1928, 0.37:1 (Hantzaroula 2012, 155–156).

3. A.M. Andreadis in Leontaritis 1980, 59.

4. See Cunningham 1991 for a similar process in nineteenth-century Britain.

5. Scholars have highlighted the capacity of the small, family-based form of agricultural exploitation and its underlying family relations to secure relative autonomy and economic self-reliance of the agricultural community (Damianakos et al. 1997, 31–36; Kasimis and Louloudis 1999, 11–13; Damianakos 2002, 11–44, Zakopoulou 2008).

6. In Greek villages, the word "child" is used to refer to a male child. [End Page 36]

7. Interview of K.M. conducted by K. Bada in 2008.

8. Interview of D.E. conducted by K. Bada in 2009.

9. Interview of P.E. conducted by K. Bada in 2009.

10. Carolyn Steedman points out that the concepts of policing that emerged in the eighteenth century and the centrality of the domestic servant in this conceptualization shaped nineteenth-century decisions on policing (Steedman 2009, 198).

11. The full title of the legislation is: "Law 1837/1989, 'For the protection of minors at work and other provisions.'"

12. Foucault distinguished between two modes of biopower: discipline and biopolitics. Biopower developed in the nineteenth century in two directions: as a biopolitical management of life that centered on the disciplining of the individual (the "anatomo-politics" of the human body) and as a set of regulatory controls over the life of the species (the biopolitics of the population) (Foucault 1980, 139).

13. Ben Anderson describes "state-phobia" as an "affective condition" through which the organization of life around the market form emerges as a normative apparatus in neoliberal governmentality (2012, 37).

14. The connection between poverty and crime in the nineteenth century has been analyzed by Maria Korasidou (1995). For discourses on philanthropy and measures against vagrancy and begging in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Greece see Theodorou 1992, 2000).

15. "There was the Club of the Working Girl where young women went to eat because it was cheap. I don't know where they worked, those who were in a house. So, I left twice. She [the employer] came and found me there, she said, 'our children are on the streets.' I told her 'you go, I don't have any children.' Then Lykourezou came, there were other ladies as well. She told her, 'Madam, don't use such pressure on children, you break their nerves, don't you see they are just children? You make great demands on children.' … And I told Lykourezou, 'Do you see my mouth? She beats me.' She [the employer] said, 'Let's go.' And they [the ladies] said, 'Stay here until she calms down.'" This interview with Evdoksia (born in 1916 in Pontus) was conducted by P. Hantzaroula in 1997 in Athens (History Laboratory, Department of Social Anthropology and History, University of the Aegean, Mytilene).


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