Hosting the Refugee

I’m currently working on an article on gender and hospitality as part of my larger project on how British writers helped refugee writers from Europe during World War Two.

In the course of this work, I am starting to explore the relationships between writers such as Rebecca West, H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley and Margaret Storm Jameson and writers and translators living in exile in the UK.

In doing so I discovered some discrepancies: What I discovered was that there was a significant gap between female writers and male writers in terms of who allowed refugees into their homes.

Male writers, such as Wells and Priestley extended more of a professional hospitality, such as paid work, introductions to publishers and the occasional social event, usually within what feminist scholars once termed the public sphere of restaurants, government buildings or hotel bars.

Perhaps because of the traditional association of women with the home and the tendency for women to be responsible for the bulk of domestic work, female writers such as West, Jameson and Vera Brittain often offered accommodation, meals and personal relationships whilst also maintaining support across more professional areas.

There is a wealth of literature surrounding women as refugees, of feminist scholarship about women as citizens and a wealth of literature on the politics of hospitality and hosting, what I’m trying to do now is to consider the gendered politics of hosting the displaced.

I want to pose and, indeed, slightly re-frame the question that Judith Still asks in her essay ‘Derrida: Guest and Host’, ‘the ‘solution to inhospitality, to inequality, often involved a fraternal, indeed homosocial bonding – we must not forget to ask questions about the place of the sister in this’ (Still 2008, 96).

In doing so I’m trying to think about how women’s relationship with the nation – women’s traditional place as outside the traditional definitions of citizenship – might mean a different approach to the duties and dangers of hosting, in one’s home as in one’s nation.

Did these ideas underpin these women’s willingness to allow these strangers over the threshold, into domestic and private spaces?

Or did women simply feel more comfortable offering hospitality inkeeping with the traditional associations and duties attributed to them?

Is this another facet of the public/private debate – one repeatedly undermined and challenged by feminist critics?

Inevitably, my historical research so far provides a small snapshot of what must one day be a much larger study, stretching across historical periods and geographical boundaries, but it does raise the timely question of what as women and feminists we can offer a world with increasing numbers of displaced people and how the politics of gender may make us ideally placed to offer hospitality or to re-consider approaches to nationality, borders and citizenship itself.

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