“The Servant Problem” and Justice 
in Households

Joan Tronto


In this paper I consider what may seem an “accidental” family relationship and stress its worrying attributes for contemporary family life. While we have made strides in being willing and able to “queer” kinship relationships, another frontier remains in thinking about the family. Not all forms of family relations are kinship or quasi-kinship relationships. I refer to a kind of family relationship that remains very largely invisible: that between the household’s kin and their domestic servants. Throughout most of the twentieth century writers about the family came to think of such relationships as unimportant because they were an historical curiosity, their resurgence re-raises unresolved and serious questions about the ethics and politics of the contemporary family. The important questions that I want to raise are these: if the family should serve as a school for justice, then what does the presence of servants teach? Historically and in contemporary terms, what does the nature of servitude have to do with autonomy and dependency? The paper involves a consideration of these questions in the eighteenth century as a way to provoke our current thinking.

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