British Feminists and

Author: 
Burton, Antoinette Marie
Year: 
1990

     One of the most significant, and most neglected, characteristics of modern British feminism is that it matured during an age of empire. This study is intended as the first step in providing an historical analysis of how modern British feminism was influenced by the imperial era in which it grew and developed. . . . Consciousness of Britain's imperial status, and particularly of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, led British feminists to view Indian women as lower on a scale of human development and, most significantly, as in need of salvation by their British feminist sisters. Their insistence on a hierarchical relationship between themselves and Indian women translated imperial assumptions into feminist ideology, producing a variety of feminism which embedded the moral superiority of empire within it. What this study argues, then, is that the British women's movement did not simply come of age in an imperial culture. As is evident from their attitudes toward the women of India and the east, Victorian feminists championed imperial values and, ultimately, imperial authority over their Indian 'sisters' to ally their own cause with the aspirations of late nineteenth-century British imperial greatness.
     I am . . . primarily concerned with British feminists' conception of 'Woman,' with the imperial role they assigned to it, and with the Anglo-Saxon racial model they used, both explicitly and implicitly, to define it." The study describes how "[i]n addition to discussing the role of women in maintaining British national-imperial supremacy, Victorian feminist writers relied on images of eastern, and especially Indian women to bolster a variety of arguments about female emancipation. . . . Feminist writers who constructed arguments about the need for female emancipation built them around the specter of a passive and enslaved Indian womanhood. As a result, the female Other was one of the conceptual foundations of British feminist thinking." The next two chapters of the dissertation analyze the images of "the Indian woman" created by a "wide variety of Victorian women writing for feminist periodicals" such as the Englishwoman's Review, the Englishwoman's Journal, the Englishwoman, the Woman's Penny Paper, Common Cause, The Vote, Votes for Women, and Women's Franchise. "In addition to invoking Indian women for the purpose of feminist argument, some British feminists were also actively involved in reforming Indian women's lives." Another chapter therefore looks at "an example of imperial feminism in action": "Josephine Butler's crusade for the repeal" of the Contagious Disease Acts in India. The study demonstrates that "the contribution of the Indian repeal crusade to the formation of an imperial feminist identity was considerable" and the "significance of Butler's imperial reform lies not, finally, in the successes or failures of the Indian repeal movement, but rather in its impact on British feminist ideology and feminist identity in this period."
     The conclusion highlights the main points of the study and suggests that the "imperial tradition which was nurtured by Victorian feminist writers and reformers has continued to blind British feminists to Indian feminists' self-reliance from the 1930s down to the 1980s. In this sense, the historically imperial origins of modern western feminism continue to affect its nature and its very future as a liberatory politic for all women.

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