Imperial Feminism and the British Empire: Examining Women's Roles

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Feminism was not a term used in England before 1895, but long before its official usage there was discourse in the early to mid-nineteenth century about the rights of women. Modern-day feminist historians and theorists such as Lola Olufemi and Deborah Cherry, labelled the work of middle-class White women in the early Victorian period as imperial feminism. Victorian proto-feminism was imperial because it supported British imperialism, and thus the British Empire. Edward Said defined imperialism as ‘controlling land that you do not possess, that is lived on and owned by others’. In this essay, I will show that imperial feminism did not undermine the British Empire, but supported it, as middle-class White women worked to prove they deserved roles within it. When speaking about ‘imperial feminists’ in this essay, I will specifically be referring to the actions of middle-class White women. It would be naive to suggest that the white women's movement was a monolithic organisation without diverse viewpoints. But at the time, mainstream proto-feminist thought was dictated by middle-class White women, so this essay will focus on their work. It will be argued that the infantilisation of Black women during the anti-slavery movement and the coddling of Indian women by imperial feminist supported the British Empire. Middle-class women used harmful racist stereotypes about black passivity. This was in order to prove their maternal, feminine nature is what was needed within the British Empire in order to transform slave women into ‘normal women’.

Furthermore, imperial feminists represented Indian women as unfortunate children who too, were in desperate need of middle-class feminine guidance. It will also be seen that when imperial feminist could not use Indian women like social reformer Pandita Ramabai, to further their imperial aspirations throughout the British Empire, they immediately resorted to othering them. Finally, the exclusion of working-class women from the anti-slavery movement will highlight that imperial feminism aimed to support the British Empire. The Empire was integral to the emancipation of middle-class women as their idea of freedom was rooted in the dominant middle-class ideology that promoted proper gender, race and class relations. This idea of freedom was very similar to what made the British Empire strong; hierarchical separation. Consequently, middle-class women ensured that working-class women were excluded from their social efforts and ostracised those who attempted to work with them, so they could achieve their emancipation under the British Empire. A system they firmly believed in and supported.

The Role of Anti-Slavery Movement for Imperial Feminism

The misrepresentation of Black women as passive silent victims during the anti-slavery movement by imperial feminists, displays that imperial feminism supported the British Empire. During the anti-slavery movement in Britain, it is clear that middle-class women used the plight of Black women so they too - like middle-class white men - could possess control over their non-white subjects. As the debate over abolishing slavery in parts of the British Empire intensified, crude stereotypes of slave women were in widespread circulation. An extremely famous illustration by cartoonist George Cruikshank, known for his racist caricatures of Black people, highlights this. ‘The New Union Club’ drawn in 1819, portrays a dinner held at the African Institution with black and white abolitionists together, becoming increasingly more intoxicated as the evening progresses. The illustration is exceptionally chaotic, as its intent is to show that White people's association with Black people has corrupted them. The illustration outlines the well established racial prejudice towards Black people, especially Black women, in the nineteenth century. Within the illustration there are three Black women at the front, two of them are engaged in what looks like sexual activities, with a White and a Black man. The third Black woman is holding and controlling a White man while drinking wine in an animalistic manner. Historian Barbara Bush highlighted that plantocratic accounts berated slave women as ‘neglectful mothers, careless midwives and scheming Jezebels’ who manipulated white men, to get what they wanted, and it’s clear that Bush’s argument is represented in Cruikshank’s illustration. Imperial feminists, along with anti-slavery activists, took it upon themselves to delegitimise these stereotypes. They did this by promoting a different harmful stereotype, one of black passivity. Imperial feminists did this to showcase that Black women were not ‘scheming Jezebels’, but instead childlike creatures who needed their specific guidance. This was constructed in an attempt to show that imperial feminists deserved senior roles within the British Empire.

The British anti-slavery movement enabled middle-class women, whose social status allowed them to exist within the separate spheres ideology, to venture outside the confines of their home. Though by 1833, female anti-slavery campaigners succeeded in establishing that their public and political activities were merely an extension of their domestic and religious duties. While women were the weaker sex, according to Victorian sexual ideology, they also had unquestionable moral superiority. This thinking was rooted in what they believed to be the biological feminine virtues that women possessed: ‘nurturing, childcare, and purity.’ Rather than fighting against this ideology, early feminist theorists used it to justify female involvement in the public sphere by claiming that their moral attributes were crucial to social improvement and would strengthen the British Empire. Anti-slavery work became seen as a woman’s motherly duty, with middle-class White women essentially working as ‘maternalist activists’, for Black women, and other colonised people. This Christian ideal was rooted in the white supremacist belief that Black people were ‘sambos’. This term which has origins from the start of the American Civil War suggests that people of African descent are childlike, docile and irresponsible human beings. The racial stereotype of the ‘sambo’ was very useful for middle-class women, who felt a sense of power over Black women. This is evident in the writings of the anti-slavery organisations founded by women. The Birmingham Ladies Society For the Relief of Negro Slaves was founded in 1825 and was seen as one of the most important abolitionist groups in the early nineteenth century. Their official purpose was to raise funds, particularly for female slaves. In their abolitionist propaganda from 1832, they wrote that black women were ‘the weakest of the human race’ and ‘worthy of White women’s special maternalistic attention.’

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The treatment of Caribbean slave woman Mary Prince by imperial feminists demonstrates that they used Black women to exemplify that they were worthy of equal racial responsibilities within the British Empire. In 1831, The History of Mary Prince was published, an autobiography by a free slave woman who saved enough money to buy her freedom. Prince wrote about her complex relationship to her master and mistress, providing useful insights into the treatment of slave women and slave conditions. She was one of the rare Black women to make it to relative freedom in England and this presented imperial feminists with a unique opportunity to consult with a Black woman and listen to her experiences, but this opportunity was not taken. Imperial feminists were not truly interested in listening to the needs or wants of Black women, instead, they developed a vision of freedom they believed was best for Black women. Prince’s book was circulated around abolitionist groups, but she was never fully accepted within those circles or as an anti-slavery campaigner by imperial feminists. Instead, Prince’s memoirs were used to show how slave women needed help from middle-class women to be a ‘normal woman’. In narrating her life to white abolitionists women who she depended on, Prince’s memoirs arguably became framed by white perceptions of black womanhood. Imperial feminism maintained a rhetoric of sisterhood, however, it was not intended by white women as a declaration of equality with black women, apparent through their racist stereotyping of Africans as childlike. Moreso, it was a rhetoric merely used by White women, to not necessarily challenge the British Empire, but to show that they deserved power within it. As a result of this, they needed to keep the British Empire, and it’s violent consequences intact. Thus, it can be seen that imperial feminism supported the British Empire.

Imperial feminists did not just use Black women to attain power within the British Empire, they also used Indian women. The imperial mindset of Victorian feminists led them to believe that Indian women were unfortunate children in need of saving. Imperial feminists felt they had a special responsibility towards Indian women, especially after the Indian National Uprising of 1857. Historian Antonette M. Burton argued that this paramount, but ultimately unsuccessful battle against the rule of the British East India Company, ‘heightened the conviction in Britain that only the British presence in India will bring progress’. This thinking is reflected in an illustration produced by Punch, a British weekly magazine of humour and satire in response to the uprising. John Tenniel produced a drawing of Lady Justice. Tenniel produced two thousand one hundred sixty-five cartoons for Punch that were repeatedly contentious and socially sensitive. His cartoons reflected the Victorian public’s desire for liberal social change. Lady Justice is without her blindfold, carrying a sword and shield and standing on the chest of an Indian man. Behind her to one side, the British army is ready to attack, and on the other side Indian women are looking to her for protection and cowering behind her. Lady Justice’s blindfold ensures her impartiality, delivering justice without bias, but without it, she becomes ‘Revenge and Retribution’, punishing those who have defied her. The illustration shows Lady Justice conquering and controlling the people of India, and while Lady Justice is an allegory for Queen Victoria and the strength of Britain under female leadership; the illustration can also be used to demonstrate the way imperial feminists saw themselves at the time. The illustration presents White women as the protectors of Indian women, and the conquers of Indian men demonstrating their value, and the way in which they could strengthen the British Empire.

Furthermore, when Indian women were defiant and unable to be ‘saved’ in the way imperial feminists wanted, they made it clear that their aim was not to liberate colonised women but to support the British Empire. This can specifically be seen in the relationship between Pandita Ramabai, a Marathi educator and social reformer, and Sister Geraldine of Wantage. Before coming to Britain to start medical training in 1883, Ramabi was well known for her social activism. She focused on promoting the cause of women's education and fighting in opposition of child marriage in India. When she arrived in Britain in 1833, she converted to Christianity and stayed at Cheltenham Ladies’ College under the guidance of Sister Geraldine. Sister Geraldine and Ramabai frequently communicated for several years, and their letters provide direct evidence of how the purpose of imperial feminism was to strengthen the British Empire. Ramabai struggled with Christianity and the holy doctrine, which caused her to break with the women’s religious and educational community in Britain. In Ramabi’s letters, she wrote about her determination to speak in ‘a voice of my own,’ and question the holy doctrine, which made Sister Geraldine believe her reputation was on the line. Ramabi's true purpose in the eyes of imperial feminists was to return to India and convert natives to Christianity. Her religious questionings endangered her evangelical purpose in the mission field. Sister Geraldine wanted Ramabai to be a soldier in the missionary army that intended to spread Christianity throughout the British Empire. However, because Sister Geraldine could not use Ramabai as she wished, she othered her, attributing Ramabai’s defiance to the fact she was Indian.

Sister Geraldine harboured conventional Victorian notions of what Indian women were capable of, and believed that Ramabai failed to fully embrace Christ because her ‘Indianness’ made her childish and vain. She dismissed Ramabai’s doctrinal quarrels in her letters as ‘fictions residing in the manifold recesses of her fertile brain.’ This racist attitude eventually alienated Ramabai from her British ‘sisters’. Sister Geraldine, saw Ramabi’s defiance as a threat to the entire imperial order, and insisted that Ramabai’s time in England was one of the most ‘painful episodes’ in the conversion of India. For Ramabai, questioning religious teachings was not a sign of personal disobedience, she wrote to Sister Geraldine that 'we may more than a thousand times differ in our opinions and must be separated by unavoidable temporal difficulties, but it does not in any way follow that we must be enemies of or indifferent to each other'. In the end, Ramabai's departure from England indicated that imperial feminists worked to strengthen the British Empire, as Sister Geraldine’s aim was to use Ramabi to spread the work of Christ throughout India, and strengthen British control within the Empire. When Imperial feminists could not control their colonised ‘sisters’, they had no use for them and instead resorted to racialised verbal attacks.

The Relation Between Imperial Feminism and the British Empire

Finally, it can be seen that imperial feminism supported the British Empire, rather than undermined it, through the mistreatment of working class-women. The British women’s vision of freedom was rooted in the dominant middle-class ideology that was mostly concerned with promoting proper gender, race and class relations. The British women’s vision of freedom is very similar to what strengthened the British Empire; hierarchies that differentiated the rich from the poor, the coloured from the non-coloured and women from men. These hierarchies ensured that middle class women stayed at the top. As a result of this, working class women did not fit into what imperial feminist were trying to achieve. When looking at the transatlantic anti - slavery sisterhood, Historian Clare Midgley presents a rather inappropriate comparison, that “working class women were excluded from the transatlantic anti-slavery sisterhood, even more completely than Black women”. As aforementioned, when Black women were occasionally included within the transatlantic anti-slavery sisterhood, they were not listened to. They were spoken over and coddled; the example of Mary Prince makes this clear. Imperial feminists using Black women for their own gain, should not be misunderstood as being truly included within the transatlantic anti-slavery sisterhood. Nonetheless, working class women were excluded from the sisterhood, and were not recruited as members of British ladies’ anti-slavery societies. Middle class women who formed alliances with working class women were seen as ‘politically radical,’ and risked social exclusion. Elizabeth Pease Nichol an abolitionist, anti-segregationist, chartist and woman suffragist explained in a letter to Anne Warren Weston, one of the leaders of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1841, that expressing support for Chartism (the working class movement) considered to be an ‘almost outrageous stance for a lady’. When Nichol states “for a lady”, she means for middle class women. These anti-slavery societies functioned in part as social clubs, binding together women from middle to upper-class background as members of an upper-class sisterhood, and contributed to the definition of a class specific feminine identity.

Breaking this definition was particularly seen as deplorable by the ‘respectable’. Katherine Fry, daughter of Elizabeth Fry a Quaker minister and prison reform activist, who is championed as being ‘the model Christian woman’, put this opinion across in a letter to her friend, Lousia Pelly. Fry attended an anti-slavery meeting in Norwich in 1840 which was disrupted by Chartists who were calling for the rights of English working people. In horror, she wrote details of the events: ‘I also saw some women who excited the men, and whose shrill voices out screamed the roar of the men. I heard they were three well known Socialist sisters, the vilest of the vile.’ Both letters make clear that middle-class women wanted to uphold the classist hierarchy that existed in Victorian society. Working class women were not to be included in the work middle-class women were doing, unless their efforts benefited what middle class women were trying to achieve. For example, thousands of working-class women joined the boycotts of slave-grown sugar. They also signed parliamentary petitions against slavery, but their full participation in anti-slavery societies was still not welcome. When imperial feminist could no longer use working class women to achieve their aim of being seen as ‘Mothers of the Empire’, they excluded them. It is abundantly clear that imperial feminism supported the British Empire, as the emancipated world for imperial feminists meant one within the imperial nation state. So they needed the pre-requisted rules of class, gender and racial hierachy to remain intact. From their point of view the Empire was an integral part of their emancipation, and this is the reason working-class women were excluded.

To conclude, it can be seen that imperial feminism supported the British Empire, rather than undermined it. Middle-class White women used negative racial stereotypes of Black and Indian women - labelling them as childish, passive and docile - in order to prove that their maternal efforts were needed within the British Empire. They viewed themselves as moral reformers that the Empire needed, and demonstrated this by attempting to use Indian women like Pandita Ramabai to spread evangelical Christian messages throughout the colonies. When they could not rely on their transatlantic ‘sisters’ to promote their messages, they racially belittled them. Thus highlighting that imperial feminism was not about sisterhood, but about securing what middle-class women believed to be their ‘rightful’ place within the British Empire. Lastly, the exclusion of working-class women emphasised that imperial feminism supported the British Empire. Middle-class women believed in an ideology of liberation within the system of the British Empire, this meant following the hierarchical system of class separation that already defined the British Empire. Imperial feminist excluding and ignoring the exploitation of working-class women ensured that the oppressive capitalist nature of the British Empire stayed intact, and meant, according to their own ideology, that middle-class women were a step closer to their own emancipation. In consequence, it is conspicuously clear that imperial feminism supported the British Empire.  

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