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Spiritual Motherhood: ‘Social Work’ and ‘Social Service’ in the Early Twentieth Century Bombay Presidency


· Jana Tschurenev Humboldt University Berlin (Berlin, Germany)


07/27 | 09:40-10:00 UTC+2/CEST


The paper analyses the emergence of a new female-gendered professional field in early 20th century Western India: social work. The ideal social worker was an educated woman, who held a primary degree in teaching or medicine. Her professional profile was framed in the context of urban poverty and social welfare. The social workers' responsibility was to care for industrial workers and their children. They visited living quarters, compiled data, and supervised crèches for the safe-keeping of working mothers’ infants. It was often female activists, organized in the Seva Sadan Society (1910), the National Council of Women in India (1925), or the All India Women’s Conference (1927), who promoted the development of social work. Many of them were in conversation with women’s organizations abroad, and observed the contemporary developments in Europe, and the US. These female activists argued that women’s inherent nurturing qualities could be transferred to the public domain. Particularly young widows, who did not have children of their own, became primary candidates for ‘social service’ – they could invest their ‘spiritual motherhood’ for the benefit of the emerging Indian nation. Social work displays an interesting ambiguity: on the one hand, it required professional training, and scientific expertise. On the other hand, it was not primarily framed as paid labor – the social worker was a ‘sevika’, a volunteer, who dedicated her unpaid services to the good of India’s poor women and children. Shifting care work to the public domain, the paper argues, did not necessarily imply its transformation into salaried labor. It was still considered ‘labor of love.’