This article investigates developments in labour policies and social norms on gender and work from a colonial perspective. It aims to analyse the extent to which state policies and societal norms influenced gendered labour relations in the Netherlands and its colony, the Netherlands Indies (present-day Indonesia). In order to investigate the influence of the state on gender and household labour relations in the Dutch empire, this paper compares as well as connects social interventions related to work and welfare in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies from the early nineteenth century up until World War II. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, work was seen as a means to morally discipline the poor, both in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies. Parallel initiatives were taken by Johannes van den Bosch, who, in 1815, established “peat colonies” in the Netherlands, aiming to transform the urban poor into industrious agrarian workers, and in 1830 introduced the Cultivation System in the Netherlands Indies, likewise to increase the industriousness of Javanese peasants. While norms were similar, the scope of changing labour relations was much vaster in the colony than in the metropole.
During the nineteenth century, ideals and practices of the male breadwinner started to pervade Dutch households, and children’s and women’s labour laws were enacted. Although in practice many Dutch working-class women and children continued to work, their official numbers dropped significantly. In contrast to the metropole, the official number of working (married) women in the colony was very high, and rising over the period. Protection for women and children was introduced very late in the Netherlands Indies and only under intense pressure from the international community. Not only did Dutch politicians consider it “natural” for Indonesian women and children to work, their assumptions regarding inherent differences between Indonesian and Dutch women served to justify the protection of the latter: a fine example of what Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper have called a “grammar of difference”.