On Monday, May 6 2019, Ambika Natarajan—a doctoral candidate in Oregon State University’s History of Science Program—successfully defended her dissertation, titled, “Sex, Surveillance, and the Servant Question in Vienna: 1850-1914.” Dr. Natarajan’s work investigates how and why various historical actors crafted distinct narratives about chambermaids during the late nineteenth and pre-war twentieth centuries. Utilizing a broad range of historical materials, she investigated why so many voices were interested in chambermaids, who—specifically—they were talking or writing about, and the ultimate effects of these discussions on the chambermaids and Viennese society, broadly.
Dr. Natarajan defends the topical relevance of her work by explaining how Western Europe is presently experiencing a resurgence of domestic service. She asserts the “intimate labors”—including domestic service, sex work, and hybridized, often unregulated variants—are andhave been a key driver of female migration geographically, as well as crucial to understanding the Hapsburg imperial state and the sex industry that operated within it. The subjects of the narratives that Dr. Natarajan examined were largely domestic workers, hospitality labor like cashiers and waiters, and (often temporary) sex workers. She situates the emergent discourse within the context of an early nineteenth century anxiety over the potential collapse of the domestic service industry that permeated Viennese culture and politics into the twentieth century. She roots this anxiety in legislation like an 1810 code that sought to break the “bad influence” of domestic servants by establishing judicial protections and increased regulations for those in the industry.
Observing that distinct groups promoted different narratives about chambermaids and domestic servants, Dr. Natarajan documented how these different narratives achieved differing results. These included an increase in police-aided surveillance of women, increased medical interventions in the women’s private lives, a reduction of choice accompanied by the trivialization of female adulthood, and an uptick in voyeurism towards violence against women. She concluded underlying paternalistic assumptions about female morality were shared across distinct narratives about domestic service workers, and that the construction of the “immoral maid”—who posed a danger to herself and society—that recurred across these narratives accommodated negative elements of the profession in the crafted imagery.
Dr. Natarajan was diligent and thorough in her historical methodology. Conducting research in Vienna, she consulted police records on prostitution, violent crimes, and serial killers, as well as the archives of the City of Vienna and the Socialist Movement. She also referenced contemporary newspaper articles and images, as well as information garnered from the Vienna Historical Museum. Understanding the difficulty in utilizing and synthesizing such a broad array of sources and materials, Dr. Natarajan referenced taking influence from Scott Spector, an interdisciplinary historian and linguist from the University of Michigan who effectively models how to harness seemingly disparate sources.
In the future, Dr. Natarajan hopes to expand her dissertation into a book, which would be most promising and engaging to read. She identifies historical instances of infanticide, domestic servants functioning as mistresses, and interwar legislation that altered the perception of domestic service within Vienna as areas where she hopes to continue and expand her research.
As a PhD student on the way to candidacy, I very much appreciated Dr. Natarajan’s anecdote noting how she arrived at her research topic. Explaining how her initial research interests centered on food and sex in nineteenth century Vienna, she described her discovery of a painting that depicted a Viennese chocolate girl, which she determined was part of an advertisement campaign. Investigating further, Dr. Natarajan recognized a broader trend of chambermaids’ representations in media and other narratives, and determined to focus her work accordingly.
Dr. J. Nicole von Germeten, Director of the School of History, Philosophy and Religion, chaired Dr. Natarajan’s committee, which also included Drs. Kara Ritzheimer, Elizabeth Sheehan, Professor Emeritus Robert Nye, and Dr. Maureen Healy, of Lewis and Clark College. The defense was well attended by a diverse group of students and faculty, from whom Dr. Natarajan elicited excited engagement and insightful questions.
The students of Oregon State’s History of Science program congratulate Dr. Natarajan on her hard work and accomplishment, and wish her the best of luck in future endeavors!