From household to empire: Gender and power in Victorian Britain and colonial India

Germain, Kimberly K.

     In my dissertation, I investigate Victorian feminism in its campaigns in Britain and colonial India, paying careful attention to the ways in which feminists employed a moralizing agenda in each context. I show how the objects of feminism differed from metropole to colony, in that the immediate goals for these moral reformers were distinct in each place. While Victorian feminists in the metropole were intent on raising their own status in society their counterparts in colonial India were focused instead on helping their "downtrodden sisters," Indian women who were seen as more culturally and socially oppressed than were British women. I argue that the main reason for the difference in object in colonial India is the particular cost entailed there from "breaking ranks," i.e. from criticizing Anglo-Indian society and its norms or from undermining the hierarchies of race, gender, and civilization which underlay British rule. Metropolitan feminists were impelled by a critique of the status of women within their own habitus, and yet they often directed their activism outwards (or downwards, in their eyes) in attempts to uplift those who were worse off than themselves. The colonial context, then, served to stiffen Victorian gender norms, making them more internally constraining even when they enabled cross-cultural feminist outreach and gave many Englishwomen professional opportunities that would have been much less attainable in the metropole.
     This dissertation provides one answer to questions about the relationship between discourse and practice, between the weight of norms and the self-fashioning of subjects. I theorize the practical workings of a subjectivity that both is self-reflexive and creative and is bounded by social context, norms, and domination. Building on Foucault, I explore the family model for governance as a technology of power. I argue that if feminism can move beyond the family model, and its baggage of imperialism, then there will be greater opportunity for transnational feminism which is not haunted by the ghosts of imperial hierarchies.

Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber