Maids, Servants, and Wet-Nurses in the Arabic Women's Press

By Susanna Ferguson
Submitted to Session P4763 (Gendered Transformations: "New Women" of the Mandate Period, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Between 1920-1939, a lively debate about women’s roles in politics, society, and the family captivated men and women writing in Arabic in Cairo and Beirut. Writers raised important questions about whether women should vote, unveil, and/or work outside the home. While some, who would later be recognized as "feminist" by historians, opposed the veil and advocated expanding legal, political, and labor rights for women while honoring their domestic roles, others embraced more exclusively maternalist political imaginaries, arguing that raising children in the home was women's most important socio-political work. Both of these positions--the feminist and the maternalist-- mainly reflected the lived experiences of elite and bourgeois women, for whom work "outside the home" was a political choice rather than an everyday necessity. For most women in Lebanon and Egypt, however, work "outside the home" was hardly a new phenomenon made possible by feminist advances. Women working as maids, shopkeepers, farm laborers, silk factory workers, piece-work producers, sex workers, and in many other professions could "chose" neither the ethical, political labor of full-time motherhood nor the bourgeois careers prescribed by their elite contemporaries.

Beth Baron, Margot Badran, and others have demonstrated how bourgeois writers overlooked working-class women and developed elitist political imaginaries. Others, like Malek Abisaab, have told the story of women's activism "from below," emphasizing how women engaged in formal waged labor shaped political change. This paper argues that the figure of the working-class woman was by no means absent from elite press debates; in fact, this figure played an important political role by helping to consolidate both bourgeois feminist and maternalist politics. I trace the debate about women's work in three women's journals from the interwar period, Julia Dimashqiyya's al-Mar'a al-Jadida (Beirut), Labiba Hashem's Fatat al-Sharq (Cairo), and Rosa Antun and Niqula Haddad's al-Sayyidat wa-l-Rijal (Cairo), to explore how domestic and other forms of labor were represented, moralized, and politicized. Which forms of women’s labor were to be commodified, and which were to be performed in the home without formal remuneration? The paper focuses on representations of maids, servants, and wet-nurses -- i.e., forms of working-class women's labor that elite women writers could not easily ignore -- to show how a shared aversion to the figure of the working-class woman came to unite bourgeois women across feminist and maternalist positions, while inadvertently underlining how important working women were to bourgeois forms of family life and feminist activism.