The ambivalences of power inside the colonial home
Memsahibs, ayahs and wet-nurses
in Gendered transactions
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Colonial writings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries projected the colonial home as a microcosm of the empire. The memsahibs at the head of a large retinue of household servants reproduced the power relations characteristic of imperial administration. In particular, it was the complex location of two female servants inside this household, namely, the ayah and the wet-nurse, which frequently evoked colonial anxieties. Most memsahibs' preoccupations were quite cut off from any concern with issues such as gendered social reform. An important aspect of memsahibs' experience of colonial India was the setting up of an English-style home in India. For European infants, 'native' ayahs were considered the best option, and in many colonial households the ayah virtually played the role of a surrogate mother. The dynamics of the memsahib-ayah relationship was a complicated one. The greatest sense of colonial insecurity for the memsahib, however, came from 'native' wet-nurses.

Gendered transactions

The white woman in colonial India, c. 1820–1930

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