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'Women, Work and Colonialism in the Netherlands and Java: 6 December 2018

This book is the first to bring together research on colonial connections, living standards and the development of labour relations. Its combined focus on women’s work, non-wage work in agriculture and the economic activities of indigenous colonised households – aspects that have so far been understudied in the historiography – reveals several mechanisms.

One mechanism is that both colonial and metropolitan households responded to the changes in living standards that wider colonial economic policies entailed. Another mechanism is that these shifts in labour allocations, which involved great changes in the use of women’s time and energy, were not only vital for reaching a particular level of subsistence, but also impacted consumption patterns, such as more expensive higher-quality textiles made in Java, or increased meat and sugar intake in the Netherlands.

Although the colonised and colonising economies had already differed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were also still many similarities, in respect to the great importance of agriculture in the labour market structure, the low living standards of the bulk of the population, as well as the Dutch elite’s condescending attitudes towards the poorer strata of society. After 1870, however, the differences became the most prominent, the Dutch and Javanese economies notably diverged in terms of economic structure and living standards.

As a result, the labour force participation of married women declined much faster in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe, whereas in Java, married women’s efforts only increased.  Nederveen argues that the foundation of this acceleration of differences lay in the highly extractive and efficient way in which Dutch colonialism managed to exploit labour and other resources from the East Indies, first primarily by the Cultivation System, and later by numerous other fiscal and economic policies. Simultaneously to these socioeconomic changes, social norms towards women's work in the metropole and colony on the one hand converged, in the sense that a male breadwinner ideology was desired for both. On the other hand, though, diverging developments in social and labour protection in practice were increasingly justified by stressing the inherent cultural and biological differences between Dutch and Javanese women and children.

Organising DecolGroup Members

  • Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Utrecht University

  • Frank Gerits, Utrecht University

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