Servitude and stolen years
Associate Professor Victoria Haskins' study of Indigenous domestic service policies across two countries is filling a gap in the historical narrative.
Discovering a childhood photograph of her grandmother with an Aboriginal nursemaid led to Associate Professor Victoria Haskins unearthing a surprising family link to the Stolen Generations. It also ignited what has become a continuing research interest in the use of enforced domestic service as an Indigenous regulation strategy.
Haskins, then a history postgraduate, learned that the Aboriginal woman in the picture was one of several assigned by the state to work for her great-grandmother, Joan Kingsley-Strack. The middle-class housewife built a relationship with the women, which led to her becoming an unlikely advocate for Aboriginal rights and a rare white voice in the 1930s speaking against the removal of children from Indigenous families.
Fortuitously, the late Kingsley-Strack left a comprehensive archive of personal papers, which helped Haskins when writing her doctoral thesis on NSW Aborigines Protection Board domestic service policies viewed through the personal narratives of her great-grandmother and the Indigenous women who worked for her. Haskins' PhD was published in 2005 under the title One Bright Spot. In researching the thesis, she learned that the forcible removal of Aboriginal girls as young as 11 and 12 for placement as domestic servants in white households was a key policy of various state governments until World War II.
"This is a lesser known but very significant part of the Stolen Generations history," Haskins asserts. "It was a very widespread and gender-specific form of social engineering seen by state governments as an expedient way of dealing with what they regarded as the problem of young Aboriginal girls on reserves."
A search by Haskins for comparable government assimilation policies in other countries largely drew a blank until she spent time at Harvard University on a visiting fellowship in 2005. While in the US, she found archival evidence of a largely forgotten American scheme called the 'outing', which involved the placement of Native American girls with white families to work as maids. That discovery laid the foundation of her successful bid for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship, awarded in 2009, to conduct a transnational study of state intervention and domestic service policies in Australia and the United States.
"I am looking at a theory that these policies can be understood within the concept of constructing modern nations and establishing a societal hierarchy – that they are about managing relationships between the races in a way that strengthens and legitimises the settler/colonial process," Haskins outlines. "On a superficial level the idea was one of assimilation but in reality they were strategies of containment and control, not of inclusion."
Haskins this year convened an international symposium in Newcastle titled Domestic Service and Colonisation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. In October, she released a book on the outing scheme titled Matrons and Maids: Regulating Indian Domestic Service in Tucson, 1914-1934, the first scholarly book to comprehensively explore this facet of American race relations.
"I am intrigued by domestic service practices and policies and their impact on race relations," she comments, adding that her research is part of an important shared history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that warrants greater discussion and wider acknowledgement. "Part of my role as an historian is to be a memory custodian, and I feel it is important that these histories are remembered and understood."