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Body Politics: Sexuality, Gender, and Domestic Service in Zambia* Karen Tranberg Hansen Many maids come in the house as innocent as a new born babe. But the attitudes of some women to treat their maids almost like slaves or rivals certainly changes their outlook and behavior towards house work. Do you blame the maids if they look at the husband as a prize catch?1 During the colonial period in Northern Rhodesia and today in independent Zambia, employers of domestic servants prefer to hire men. Rather than reducing domestic service in that country to an archaic remnant of a once widespread form of wage labor relationship in the west, I view it as a comparative and historical problem whose similarities to, and differences from, domestic service in other times and places must be explained. Such an approach yields insights into those aspects of servant /employer relationships that inhere in their structure and those that are mediated by historical and cultural factors. My special concern in this paper is with the historical and cultural factors in that I seek to explore a culturally constructed gender convention invested with ambiguous sexual meanings that have not been seriously examined in the Africanist research context. For this reason, I barely treat the comparative and structural questions that I have dealt with at length elsewhere.2 The paper, thus, is an attempt at approaching an analysis of some effects on gender relations across race and class of culturally constructed notions of gender and sexuality.3 Last but not least, because of the near total silence in the © 1990 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring)___________________ * This paper draws on extensive archival research begun in 1982, and field research in Zambia, 1983-85, including the collection of life history data from retired employers of colonial servants in Great Britain (5 interviews; 19 written communications ) and Zambia (a minority of the white employers of servants interviewed as part of the sample survey), elderly servants (16 men; 12 women), and a sample survey in 187 servant employing households in Lusaka involving separate interviews with the chief domestic servant and the employer. Parts of the research were funded in 1982 by the McMillan Fund and the Office of International Programs at the University of Minnesota, from 1983-85 by the U.S. National Science Foundation grant no. BNS 8303507, and by faculty grants from Northwestern University in 1985 and 1986. Versions of this paper have been presented on several occasions, among them the seminar series on Women, Colonialism and Commonwealth at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, June 25,1987. Among the many who have offered critical comments and suggestions, I am grateful to Carol B. Eastman for constructive advice and to Margaret Srrobel for continous prodding and for always being a stimulating critic. 1990 Karen Tranberg Hansen 121 conventional source materials about sexual interaction across race and class lines, the paper is also a demonstration of the challenge and difficulty of attempting to think through and write about engendered cultural constructions whose meanings today's readers may find troublesome. By bringing cultural and ideological factors to bear on my analysis of the gender question in domestic service in Zambia, I argue that structural and ideological factors operate in complex and at times contradictory interaction to shape social action and practice. I mobilize these culturally constructed notions in the context of a historical case study in which I seek to illustrate the effects of such ideas on actual social interaction across race, gender, and class. The case under scrutiny is the failed attempt by colonial officials in Northern Rhodesia during the post-World War II years to recruit African women into domestic service. The ensuing discussion, labelled the African womanpower debate in the colonial correspondence, provides dramatic evidence of the workings of colonial gender ideology and of the social impacts of its sexual assumptions. In the paper's first section, I present the empirical and theoretical backdrop for my subsequent analysis. I next identify the strands of the womanpower debate and then briefly delineate the historical background against which cultural notions of gender and sexuality emerged. I go on to explore how the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 120-142
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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