Imperialism, Gender and

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Imperialism, Gender and

The recovery of women's lives and the analysis of the impact of women in history has been a fruitful exercise that, alongside other categories of postmodern analysis, has led historians and others to critically reexamine not only past lives but also the contemporary world. The result has been a deconstruction of what has too often been understood as "natural" in order to understand how all levels of human relations are both consciously and unconsciously constructed in ways that reinforce power structures, most often in order to protect those in power against resistance from those outside power frameworks.

Beginning in the 1960s, increasing numbers of imperial and colonial historians have used gender as a category of analysis, applying it alongside analysis of race and ethnicity, and class. The resulting scholarship has included a recovery of women's stories—stories of women who up to then had languished on the margins of history, and that exercise has value in itself. However, beyond that, the analysis of women's past contributions, a consideration of ways in which their actions were constrained and why, and an analysis of why women's lives have been underrepresented in imperial historiography has resulted in a fundamental shift in imperial historiography.

As in other areas of historical scholarship, some of the most exciting literature on modern empires is that which has employed a gendered lens. It has honed analysis of accepted historical narratives, and in doing so it has contributed to the reconfiguration of the European "us" and the colonial "other." It is impossible to properly analyze modern imperial relations without serious consideration of gender.


The earliest accounts of modern European empires were written by and about imperial personnel, both domestically and those posted abroad. Scholarly literature analyzed both types of accounts for an "in the field" understanding of empire, and it analyzed the domestic political and diplomatic machinations behind the creation and maintenance of imperial connections. As has been well documented regarding such episodes as the late nineteenth-century "scramble for Africa," imperial actions and the resultant effect on colonial territories could in fact have more to do with domestic politics and inter-European diplomatic relations than with European relations with the rest of the world, and this is as true in understanding the gender order as with other realities.

In each case—the colonial memoir and the imperial apologia—it tended to be men who dominated both the action and the writing of that action. Because of elaborate gendered religious, social, and legal ideologies and the resulting realities of early modern and modern European society, women's roles in empire tended to be as supportive rather than as active independent agents, and their choices were often prescribed. Furthermore, even though gendered realities were often much more complicated than a simple gendered division of roles, what was often recorded was the ideal rather than the reality.

Thus women tended to be excluded from writing about empires for two stereotypical reasons: either because of their exceptionality they did not "fit," or because of their conformity—as wives, sisters, and daughters of the male administrators; the nurse as opposed to the doctor; the teacher as opposed to the preacher—they were deemed less necessary to remember. This is true both of women from the sending societies, and of women from the cultures with which European nations interacted as part of their imperial ventures. Thus in understanding the role of women and gender in imperialism, it is imperative to understand gender relations in European society, as well as the gendered realities of the societies with which Europeans came into contact, and thus the way in which gendered expectations shaped the interactions between them.

Despite the fact that women were active agents in European imperial ventures from first contact, they did not "count" as equivalent to their male counterparts. Furthermore, when women were written about, accounts either romanticized or vilified the roles they assumed in empire. The writing of women travelers and missionaries tended to present a view of empire in which the "plucky" European woman successfully made her way in the world. These memoirs spent little time seriously dealing with indigenous reality or the writer's perspective of the imperial encounter; instead, they emphasized the danger and adventure of distant lands, surmountable through a mixture of gendered national characteristics and individual uplift through education. On the other hand, writing about female travelers had much more room for negative stereotypes, such as the "memsahib" wives of colonial administrators who sought to reproduce Britain, the missionary prude seeking to reform life and hearth alongside conversion to a modern Western variant of Christianity, and the teachers and workers for social reform who joined the imperial venture in ever-greater numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Women's increasing access to professional education resulted in more and more Western women with the will and ability to join the imperial venture, their aim being the "uplift" of women in cultures deemed inferior to their own, but in these roles they were simultaneously appreciated and pilloried. Nowhere in the literature does yet another "other" women appear—women of the barracks by whose labor as nurses, cooks, and seamstresses the imperial armies functioned, and with whom sometimes a succession of soldiers partnered as they traveled, fought, and died over long tours of duty in a succession of unhealthy climates. Neither these women, nor others, had the privilege to follow a middle-class ideal of womanhood, but the reality of ladies who worked to support themselves—in small street-front businesses selling goods and themselves on the streets—did not appear as subjects themselves in the analyses of modern empires until the 1970s.

Similarly celebrated and censured were the women in indigenous societies. Even when celebrated, women in indigenous societies across the globe had what was their complicated reality romanticized, and more often than not as a negative dressed up as a positive. Foreign women were exotically "other"—either desirable but studiously unavailable due to traditions of class and belief, or too readily available for official or unofficial consumption, but dangerously so.

A well-developed literature now analyzes how women from South Asia to southern Africa to the Americas acted as cultural go-betweens in empire. In these encounters, women were consumed as a valuable commodity: in encounters of a variety of sorts—military, economic, and sociocultural—they served as a medium of barter and exchange. Their worth lay in access to powerful men and in their knowledge of language, culture, and material reality. They also served as companions and provided offspring to European men destined to spend long periods of time, if not their entire lives, away from "home." Given the length of time it took to travel the globe, this was true in particular during the period of early modern empires; it remained the case well into the modern era of empires, given the length of both civil and military postings due to the expense of travel and the value of continuous service. Despite this, long-term interracial liaisons became less acceptable overall across the nineteenth century both because of the increasing ease of travel and because of the rise of scientific racism. This development is not wholly to be blamed on the increased presence of European women, as has been suggested.


There is a wealth of evidence about these encounters in locales as diverse as South and East Asia, the African continent, the Middle East, and the Americas. Some of the most interesting and telling research regarding gender in imperial relations focuses on the role of women in the North American fur trade. This literature offers examples of the recovery of women's lives and agency, and also extricates the role of gender constructs in culture as societies entered into modern economic and political world systems. It further challenges what has been an accepted narrative of the economic development of North American resources from early European contact. In the case of Canada, it demands a re-creation of what has been posited as a historically calm and unproblematic multicultural national identity.

That a Canadian national identity is firmly entrenched in an amorphous spiritual-historical tie to "the land" is well documented. This is a tendentious claim—in the first place because of the very variety of geography contained in the large landmass that makes up the modern nation-state, and second because the harsh climate necessitated that European newcomers learn a lifestyle of survival. From Charles II's (1630–1685) granting of a trade monopoly to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670 to collect and profit from the national resources found in the drainage system of Hudson Bay, "Canadians" came to see themselves as a conglomerate of immigrant peoples that carved a home out of an empty wilderness, husbanding resources of fish, fur, trees, minerals, and water in order to create the capital to build the modern infrastructure necessary to support a commercial economy.

The folk-identity of this historic Canada is strongly gendered, from the male voyageur or coureur de bois (employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company who paddled canoes through the river systems of the north to trade European manufactured goods in exchange for animal pelts that were processed for European consumption), to the cowboy culture of western Canadian oil companies in the twentieth century. This identity also has a strong ethnoracial element—it is largely northwestern European and is reflected in Canada's political and legal structure, in its economic development, and in its cultural identity.

That this identity as "Canada and Canadian" is problematic began to be argued systematically from the 1960s, both by Canadians concerned about the civil rights of newcomers and aboriginal peoples, and by historians examining these issues. For example, Sylvia Van Kirk (1980) inspired a generation of scholars with her deconstruction of the origins of a strongly male-dominated, resource-based Canadian economy and identity. She argued that the entire fur trade was in fact dependent in large part on the presence, knowledge, and support of female native and mixed-blood partners, and in particular the "country wives" of fur traders who, from the late eighteenth century and for roughly a century thereafter, supplied a knowledge of native society and customs, the know-how to survive in a harsh climate and cross foreign terrain, fit and active labor, and companionship to the European traders who came to work in the fur industry. Evidence from the 1820s suggests that it was these women who prepared the furs for export; made clothing, including footwear and winter gear (moccasins and snowshoes); gardened, fished, and prepared food for long-term storage (as pemmican); and served as language and cultural interpreters. However, they also—despite the myth of the strong and able male teams of coureurs de bois leaving civilization for trade between the spring melt and autumn frost, and despite Hudson's Bay Company injunctions against the practice—at times traveled in canoes with their partners and worked with them, work that seems to have included paddling.

Although evidence suggests that traders did not often record the work of these women in their journals, this is because this form of writing was not intended as a record of their doings and thoughts for private reflection, but was instead a corporate document produced for the very company that had forbidden the presence of women in the canoes. There are, however, journals that not only record the presence of women, but also praise native women as being "as useful as men."

Thus it is clear that the labor of these women was of both immediate and indirect use to individual traders, to the companies, and to the fur-supported colonial society as it developed what would become western Canada. These women also contributed to the industrial and commercial growth of western European nations that was necessary for the spread of modern empires. Despite this, the role of such women has been long undervalued, as is true of women in similar situations elsewhere in modern empires, and such women could actually be devalued because of their role "in between" existing and newcomer societies.

Partnerships between indigenous women and traders resulted in mixed-blood offspring (called métis in French fur-trade society) who by the first half of the nineteenth century made up a cadre of workers who were both born into and were educated to become the next generation of workers in the fur trade. Until roughly midcentury, fur trade society contained elements of both its constitutive parts, and indigenous women played an important part in their "in-between" role. However, as the century progressed, their position became increasing tenuous for a variety of reasons. Increasing numbers of educated middle-class "gentlemen" were hired by the Hudson's Bay Company to work for their operations across the Canadian west. These men arrived with increasingly strict middle-class Victorian attitudes regarding the importance of wife and family in establishing a professionally successful identity and lifestyle that left little room for liaisons with local women. Dating from roughly the 1870s, changes in business practices underscored these attitudes, and from the 1880s quicker and easier travel meant that increasing numbers of European women could functionally replace their indigenous predecessors. At times, this occurred in reality—some British women arrived to find they had literally replaced a previous indigenous "country" wife—but overall this turnaround happened gradually.

In either case, by the turn of the century a mixed-blood marriage would have been unacceptable in respectable society. The immediate result was that aboriginal and mixed-blood women were marginalized. The long-term result was that their important role in the early economic and social development of Canadian society has also been marginalized due to hardening gender and ethnoracial expectations in the modern imperial era. From 1867, the newly created nation of Canada had little room for diversity of cultural expression. Late twentieth-century Canadians struggled to recognize the historic roots of relative privilege and inequity that is the real legacy of Canada's colonial past.


One of the significant areas in which women could participate in modern empires as active and respectable agents was as Christian missionaries. Organizations created to promote mission activity were established in most western European nations from the late eighteenth century, and were a product of the evangelical awakening. Evangelicalism was of increasing importance in popularizing and democratizing the Christian message both domestically and abroad as Western Christian missions joined the commercial, military, and administrative arms of colonial and imperial ventures, and as the "civilizing message" that became linked to the evangelical imperative came to influence foreign policy across the nineteenth century.

The mission field serves as a clear example of the way gender functioned elsewhere in modern empire. Women supported missions both at home and abroad as the wives and female relatives of missionary men, and by raising much of the money channeled to foreign missions through the nineteenth century. Their early roles were constrained because the first missionaries were ordained ministers and no church organization would allow women access to either education or ordination. It was not until later in the century that mission societies began to hire lay workers, and it was during the period 1865 to 1910 that the number of women in the mission field grew exponentially, and lay workers, both male and female, came to outnumber the ordained clerics who had dominated missions throughout the nineteenth century.

However, the male workers, and often those who were ordained, continued to dominate mission administration throughout this period, as is demonstrated by their strong presence in mission records. Despite this, women in particular brought specific skills to missions. They expanded the notion of what constituted valid mission labor from primarily exhortation to include the provision of education and primary healthcare and the care of widows and orphans. In so doing, women changed the concept of mission professionalism. Women's very emotive participation in British evangelical revivals, coupled with their successes in communicating with mission supporters, gradually influenced their male colleagues to consider as less marginal and more central to mission work and church work in general the type of activities women had previously engaged in on a volunteer basis.

One unpublished study of women's professional motivation and opportunity in late nineteenth-century Britain underlines how important it is for historians to keep religious belief in mind when considering why women entered professions and chose an imperial career. Rather than simply providing a romantic portrayal of fulfilled professional freedom, the history of professions emphasizes that women's labor in empire, and in missions in particular, remained undervalued in terms of both remuneration and administrative advancement until well into the twentieth century.


The study of gender in missions and of the contribution of aboriginal women to the fur trade adds to the growing body of work that deals with the contribution women made to empire in general. Gendered analysis has focused attention on the personal and professional opportunities afforded to women as European influence spread across the globe. The rhetoric of women's work for women opened opportunities for Western females and highlighted the necessity for women's professional development, but women were also constrained by the very expectations contained in the slogan.

Advocates for women's increased role in missions and empire more broadly argued that it was only distinctly feminine characteristics that could "save the heathen," not only spiritually (evangelism) but also physically (social welfare). Reform campaigners gained public support for women's rights, specifically for widened access to further education and increased public roles, by promoting the idea that it was only Western women who could help their foreign counterparts. These secular campaigners underlined the specific needs of foreign women for their own interests. However, research has also indicated that neither the number of British women working in the empire nor the professional opportunities afforded to them by doing so should be overstated, and it is clear that this rhetoric also emphasized a false rhetoric of sisterhood that in fact hardened ethnoracial tensions that remain in the feminist movement today.

see also Sex and Sexuality.


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