Unhoming Domesticity, Writing Girlhood

A39, Sir Clive Granger Building, University Park
Wednesday 22nd May 2024 (13:00-14:00)

With Sneha Krishnan, University of Oxford.

Part of the Cultural and Historical Geography Seminar Series.

The history of modern domesticity is inextricably entangled with the disciplinary projects that shaped categories of gender and race in the 19th and 20th century British colonial world. In South Asia, the geographies of the bourgeois home - and more often than not, the upper-caste Bengali home - dominate the historical narrative of how home and nation came to figure in the encounter with empire in the region’s late colonial years.

My work dislocates this fixity upon the bourgeois home and upper-caste Bengal asking instead how ideals of domesticity came to be imagined and materialised within the world of Christian upward social mobility in Southern India. In doing so, I ask how we might write a history of the home that provincialises both the nuclear family and the nation, drawing attention instead to fantasies of futurity that lie in more expansive imaginaries that sometimes did and other times did not materialise.

The focus of my work is Women’s Christian College (WCC), an institution for young women’s higher education founded in erstwhile Madras (now Chennai) in 1915 as a self-consciously internationalist enterprise, by a group of British and American missionary societies. WCC emerged out of a social context in which an increasingly substantial community of Protestants and Syrian Christians came to access social mobility through their participation in missionary and Christian internationalist networks. A growing print public sphere also shaped this discourse, prominently, the work of Bible women like Annal Satthianadhan, whose book Nalla Tay (the good mother) persists to even the present, as a signal text that iterated what a distinctly Tamil Christian home might look like. Whilst WCC was founded very much as an institution meant to train young women into proper Christian domesticity, this talk will show that the community of the college - which consisted of many who started as students and ultimately spent decades living on campus as teachers - iterated its own potential for imagining kinship, community, and family beyond caste-endogamous and racially homogenous normativity.

Second, I also show that the category of ‘girlhood’ which came to circulate from the late 19th century on as a yardstick for civilisational progress within the Anglophone colonial world played a profoundly ambiguous role in this project of modern domesticity. Whilst on the one hand, ‘girlhood' iterated an racialised discourse about the emotions and the natures of young Indian Christians, the openness of ‘girlhood’ as a category not yet fixed in particular adulthoods also allowed for potentials of imagining life beyond a predictable path into marriage, motherhood, and national womanhood.

Sneha Krishnan is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford, and a Tutorial Fellow in Geography at Brasenose College, Oxford. Sneha is a feminist historical and cultural geographer, whose work asks how emotions underpin projects of racial and gendered difference in the British colonial world. She is currently writing a book on girlhood and domestic modernity in early 20th century India, and has ongoing collaborations on school magazines, creepiness in cultural theory, and queer girlhood. She is an Editor of Gender, Place, and Culture, and holds a British Academy Wolfson Fellowship for her ongoing research.

School of Geography

Sir Clive Granger Building
University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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