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Transforming Domestic Labor, Constructing ‘Worthy’ Selves: A Study of Selected Women’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Bengal

Sangita Saha

This paper focuses on the significance of domestic labour for women in colonial Bengal in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. I attempt to highlight women’s domestic work as a question of labour by focusing on women’s articulation of their autonomous subjectivity in their own writings around labour practices. My source base comprises autobiographies written by women belonging to a wide spectrum of class and caste positions in Hindu and Brahmo households in this period. The central question that this paper tries to grapple with is this: what was the importance of domestic labour in the household for the construction of women’s sense of selfhood and their identity? Why, how and with what implications did women write themselves through domestic labour? How were questions of self-worth around women’s labour practices intimately tied to questions of self-identity in these narratives? Moving away from arguments on domestic labour made by socialist and materialist feminists in existing scholarship, I argue that women’s housework is not merely exploitative, it is also constitutive of their selfhood and selfmaking as women. I attempt to establish that women’s domestic work is not merely the source of their exploitation, but also a resource for women’s self-constitution as autonomous subjects.