Júlia’s Maids

Servants in the Cultural Imaginary of the Tropical Belle Époque
  • Sônia Roncador


Around 1906, in a little-known village in the state of Rio de Janeiro called Areal, an equally little-known lady, Amanda Augusta Fernandes, decided to brutally end her life with a double-barreled crossbow. In a chronicle titled, “Por quê?” [“Why?”], writer Júlia Lopes de Almeida (1863–1934) reveals the motive of the suicide, reproducing ipsis litteris the suicide note of the “unfortunate woman”: “I want to die because I can’t stand [my] maids” (Donas e donzellas 63). To be sure, in a historic period overwhelmed by many social, economic, and cultural changes that directly impacted domestic and family life, news of a middle-class lady’s suicide caused by the “unbearable” presence of her domestic servants would have been shocking to several Brazilian elite families. In the first place, the end of slavery in 1888 shattered the “protection and obedience” cross-racial agreement that had hitherto shaped, and at times pacified, the master and the slave liaison in the colonial and nineteenth-century slave regimes. Additionally, although the masters (or, even better, the patrões, as they were properly called after the abolition of slavery) managed to establish other mechanisms to control their maids, such as requiring references from previous employers and health examinations, they remained skeptical toward these mechanisms’ power to entail obedient and loyal servitude.


Domestic Work Domestic Labor House Servant White Mother Domestic Servant 
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  1. 1.
    Except for a few chronicles included in Darlene Sadlier’s anthology, One Hundred Years after Tomorrow: Brazilian Women’s Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1992), Júlia Lopes de Almeida’s work was never translated into English. All translated quotations from her writings, as well as other passages quoted from Portuguese or Spanish-written texts throughout this chapter, are therefore mine.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    For a fine introduction to the “material feminist” movement at turn-of-the-century in the United States, see Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981). According to Hayden, the material feminists’ political agenda included salary payment for women’s unpaid domestic labor, as well as “a complete transformation of the spatial design and material culture of American homes, neighborhoods, and cities. While other feminists campaigned for political or social change with philosophical or moral arguments, the material feminists concentrated on economic and spatial issues as the basis of material life” (3).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    For more on the process of urbanization of Rio de Janeiro during the Belle Époque years, see Nicolau Sevcenko, “A inserção compulsória do Brasil na Belle Époque,” in Literatura como missão: Tensões sociais e criação cultural na Primeira República (2nd ed., São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003);Google Scholar
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  6. 8.
    For more on the ambivalent position and status of the maid within the bourgeois home, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “Below Stairs: The Maid and the Family Romance,” in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986);Google Scholar
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  8. Brian McCuskey, “Not at Home: Servants, Scholars, and the Uncanny,” PMLA 121 (2006): 424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Recent scholarship on servitude and childhood reveals the role of several Latin American orphanages in training future servants. For more on the subject, consult Nara Milanich’s “Women, Children, and the Social Organization of Domestic Labor in Chile,” Hispanic American Historical Review 91.1 (2011): 29–62; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Olívia Maria Gomes da Cunha’s “Criadas para servir: Domesticidade, intimidade e retribuição,” in Quase-cidadão: Histórias e antropologias da pós-emancipação, ed. Olívia Maria Gomes da Silva and Flávio dos Santos Gomes, 377–418 (Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2007).Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Leonardo Pinto Mendes, Retrato do Imperador: Negociação, sexualidade e romance naturalista no Brasil (Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2000).Google Scholar
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    For more on Almeida’s portrait of the laundress character in her Memórias de Marta, consult Rachel Soihet, “Comparando escritos: Júlia Lopes de Almeida e Carmen Dolores,” Caderno Espaço Feminino 9 (2003): 10–11.Google Scholar
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    For more information on the turn-of-the-century debate on women’s physical education as an important issue of the eugenic politics of the time, see Susan Besse, “Educating without Emancipating” (Restructuring Patriarchy) and Silvana Vilodre Goellner and Alex Branco Fraga, “O espetáculo do corpo: Mulheres e exercitação física no início do século XX,” in Produzindo gênero, ed. Marie J. S. Carvalho and Cristianne M. F. Rocha, 161–71 (Porto Alegre: Sulina, 2004).Google Scholar
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    For more on Almeida’s literary governesses, see Maria Angélica Guimarães Lopes, “Júlia Lopes de Almeida e o Trabalho Feminino na Burguesia,” in A coreografia do desejo: Cem anos de ficção brasileira (Cotia: Ateliê Editorial, 2001), 71–87.Google Scholar
  15. 31.
    For more on the impact of eugenics on Almeida’s racial thought, especially later in her career, see Peggy Sharpe, “Construindo o caminho da nação através da obra de Júlia Lopes de Almeida e Adalzira Bittencourt” Letras de Hoje [Porto Alegre] 33.3 (September 1998): 39–49.Google Scholar

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© Sônia Roncador 2014

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  • Sônia Roncador

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