Women’s involvement in British imperialism has become a very popular topic for discussion and exploration by historians. Though the women did not have political rights and freedom at that point of time to influence the Empire’s imperialist policies, yet they were able to influence them in an indirect way. In fact, some women became leading propagandists of the Empire. A name that comes across as an example for this category is that of Flora Shaw (first colonial Editor, Times, 1890-1900), who believed in white superiority and held a masculinist view of the empire. Consequently. This school of thought was much against the political freedom and equality for women. However, another band of feminists advocated for political equality, though they firmly believed in the superiority of the white race. This school of thought believed that whites were on a civilizing mission in the world through their imperialistic conquests. Despite support to racism and imperialism, they struggled for their political liberty. The third category of influential women was the suffragettes who discarded the principles of imperialism and considered it as a hurdle in the attainment of complete liberty and equality, in terms of race and gender. Campaigners for the same cause had very different perspectives, notions and tactics. (Imperialism and Gender, http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/histcourse/womwn/hannam/hancore.htm#part 3) Suffrage and imperialism had a very ambivalent relationship – many feminists were arch-imperialists and racists, partly because they felt that the racial hierarchy might outweigh the sexual one, but some saw discrimination against women and the fundamental racism of colonial society as two sides of the same coin.
As Du Bois and Karl Marx emphasized, capitalism has been an international system from its very beginning. The methods of operation start from identifying cheap labour, exploiting natural resources and finding the right band of consumers to sell these products. This exploitation took the form of colonization way back, a sophisticated version of slavery and plunder. Imperialism is not a stage, not even the highest stage of capitalism, it is inherent in capitalism. Imperialism is the systematic appropriation of cheap labour, resources and markets of less developed regions and countries to satiate the profit-making tendencies of the ruling regions, mostly the developed countries. Historically speaking, imperialism has racial overtones. There are various instances of racial and cultural discrimination by imperial powers. As imperialism ramified and reached a stage further, it did something that can be called one of the biggest problems that humankind has been confronted with – the overwhelming polarization of the world that has made only a small portion of the entire world population as the real beneficiaries of the utilities and facilities.
Colonialism was not a phenomenon that emerged overnight as a conscious policy of Britain. As J.R. Seely, the famous historian remarked, “ It happened in a fit of absence of mind.” Sometimes the flag followed the trade and sometimes the trade followed the flag, but the flag ended up just about everywhere. What began as an economic quest, became a political ambition and finally an imperialist realization. The British regime was one of the most powerful imperial power till the mid 1900s. In fact, it ruled the seas!
There was a time when imperial history lacked a perspective on its various dimensions. With more research and academic insights into the subjects, several complicated and convoluted observations and analyses have been made. The former perspective was very congenial to the promoters of the empire. However, it came under radical attack by liberalists like Hobson and was seen as the cause and consequence of several events and phenomena. The British hegemony was not limited to political and economic expansions, but also had a cultural dimension to it. The spectrum of cultural diversity started fading and a focus on cultural imperialism found representation. Racism, ethnic preferences and class categorization marked this culture. In fact, the empire’s popular policy of ‘divide and rule’ is worth a note in this context. The notion of superiority that the empire assumed created a hierarchy where other races were designated lower rungs. Racist ideology helped legitimize subjugation, slavery and the dismantling of traditional societies. The political and cultural norms of the British Empire became the guiding norms of its colonies. Their own traditions were suppressed and certain distorted versions of the imperialist’s culture was adopted. In fact, if these colonies were the constructions of the British regime, there were regular shifts in their looks and expression as per the regime’s power shifts. The British in India, for example, did not invent cast but put their own interpretations on the doctrines and principles. The strength of the Empire (as per its own interpretation of self) came out in the form of its authority over its colonies. The Empire, for instance, also shaped ideals of British masculine and feminine roles.
Women’s movements are complex phenomena. There are no fixed rules of the game because experiences shape their psyche. Their experiences in different historical, social, political, economic and cultural contexts shape their understanding, responses and reactions. However mass movements are not the outcome of individual struggles but a collective desire to attain the goal of a just and equitable social status. Historically and experientially speaking, women movements are bound by a common factor and that is their retaliation to oppression, which may be social, economic or political. And what makes this bond stronger is the prevailing feeling that the beneficiaries of all that is denied to them are the men!
Looking back on the discussion over imperialism, a major observation that comes to light is denial of political quality to the populace in the colonies. The first reaction to this sudden attack and subjugation was an aim to somehow drive these foreigners out. When it failed, the next response was to accept their rule. The final reaction to this imperialist oppression was a wave of awareness and enlightenment that inspired the goal of political and social equality. It was understood that true independence could come only through political participation –both through election as well as representation in the decision-making structure of the state. Contrast this situation to that of the women who never had any political rights till the 18th century. It was only after a similar realization that political independence was the route to equality and justice, did the women movements gain momentum and vigour.
‘Allowing British women to take part in the government is a question of the last century and particularly of the year 1867, but the antiquarian traces the elements of the problem in the feudal law of the earlier middle ages, when tenure and service rather than persons furnished the basis of organization, and when instances occur of women taking part in local affairs and holding office and jurisdiction. For the most part, however, these instances are valuable now only as the slender basis of legal argument. In the seventeenth century some women attempted to influence the conduct of parliamentary affairs. In 1642 a throng of gentlewomen and tradesmen wives came to the house with a petition against the papists and prelates. “Christ hath purchased us at as dear a rate as he hath done men,” they said. “ You shall, God willing, receive from us all the satisfaction that we can possibly give,” replied Pym, who was sent to the door to address them. Next year a great crowd came and cried out against ‘that dog Pym’ and threw brickbats until the horsemen charged them with drawn swords.’ (Raymond Turner, Edward. The Women’s Suffrage Movement in England, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Nov., 1913), pp. 588-609). This instance can be seen as the initial effort towards the attainment of equality.
Imperialism had an inherent character of denying ‘full citizenship’ to the people of its colonies. It discouraged participation of the natives in the governance. Neither were they allowed to be elected, nor were they given the right to elect their representatives. This trend drew parallels with the women’s suffrage movement, which also aimed for voting rights as well as the right to get elected for the women.
The suffrage movement was the first step in demanding political equality by the women. Woman suffrage claimed for women the right to govern themselves and choose their own representatives. It asserted that women should enjoy individual rights of self-government, rather than relying on indirect civic participation as the mothers, sisters, or daughters of male voters. The critics of this movement however attributed women’s dependence on men as a mitigating factor when it came to governance and administration. They emphasized that women’s responsibilities towards home and family suffered on account of their political participation. In addition, opposition to women’s suffrage took varied shapes in different countries. Politicians feared that enfranchised women might vote them out of office. Priests and ministers held that women should confine their influence to home and children. Socialist and labor parties feared that women might vote for conservative candidates. Specific interests, such as textile companies and the liquor, brewing, and mining industries, did not want to enfranchise women, since women might vote for legislation damaging to their businesses.
The suffrage movement however was quite a radical one and consequential. The first British woman suffrage committee was formed in Manchester in 1865. In 1866 Elizabeth Garrett, a physician, collected more than 1,500 petition signatures demanding suffrage for women. John Stuart Mill, a philosopher and the husband of Harriet Taylor Mill, was elected to Parliament on a platform of woman’s suffrage in 1865. The next year he attached an amendment to enfranchise women to the Reform Bill, but his amendment was soundly defeated. (Women’s Suffrage, From Groiler’s Encyclopedia Americana)
A British newspaper used the term ‘suffragette’ for the first time in a related story in 1906. Only men (and those who had a specific property allocation) were allowed to vote. This trend had strong imperialistic similarities, where certain groups were excluded from the decision-making process and certain others were preferred for the same. Conard’s critique of imperialism in ‘Heart of darkness’ looks into the capital poor imperialism that resulted in hasty exploitation of surface resources. Conard’s story powerfully illustrated the inefficiency and cruelty of such exploitation. He further went on to imply a further judgment against all types of imperialism, even England’s, because of their complicity, belligerence and arrogant disruption of indigenous cultures. (Hawkins, Hunt. Conard’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness, PMLA, Vol. 94, No.2 (Mar., 1979), 286-299). A similar perspective was shared by some women suffragettes who considered imperialism as a philosophy that influenced their subjugation and role in the society. The imperialist culture not only promoted class and wealth differences in the colonies, but also a huge discrimination in the British society as well. The gap between the ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ kept getting wide. The notion of the wealthy, white male being intelligent and fit to govern placed him on a pedestal and exercise dominance over his so-called social inferiors. Women also belonged to this ‘inferior lot’.
The structural and ideological levels of colonialism also found way into the lives of the White women. A concrete comparison of this ideology can be traced in Virginia Woolf’s classic ‘A Room of one’s own’. The struggle for money, privacy and respect has been a constant one for women and Woolf’s contention holds true even today. Imperialism also meant a threat to privacy, respect and wealth of the colonies. Hence comparisons and commonalities between imperialism and suffrage movement are inevitable. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.” This astounding expression in her work is a reflection of the philosophy of imperialism – exploit the victims’ potential and resources to prosper yourself. It is not far-fetched to assume that suffragettes shared similar passions as the population of the imperialized colonies. Though Woolf’s work focused on literary struggles and achievements of women, its philosophy was quite concrete in its explanation of denial of equal opportunities and rights to women, which in turn was the driving principle of most imperialist powers in terms of population under subjugation.
There are many historians who have reviewed the relationship between imperialism and the suffragette movement. The relationship has been both overt and subtle. Diane Atkinson is prominent among them and presents a thorough analysis of the actions of the suffragettes and the reactions to their movement. She points out that even women cited reservations and protests against their female counterparts since they were getting violent. This trend draws striking similarities to those natives of colonies who grew close to the imperialist powers as they had a comfortable and rigid philosophy of existence and survival. Emily Pankhurst, a very strong propounder of the suffragette movement. Her unpleasant experiences with both the Labour Party and the Liberals had already made her politically disillusioned. This inspired her to begin an all-women organization to give voice to women’s demands for political rights. The movement was loaded with violence, strikes and strong protests. Pankhurst was against the shoddy philosophy of class discrimination. And this also made her a strong critic of imperialism. However, there was another band of suffragettes altogether who professed racism. This band either had a wrong belief that promotion of racism by imperialist powers would make them more focused towards the development of their own race, and that included the women brigade. However, another interpretation that might come to light is their misunderstanding of the subject of racism. That encouraging racism was encouraging conservatism in the society and discouraging political freedom and equality and freedom to women. Class and race are still at the heart of a divided Britain, and a divided world. On these injustices were huge fortunes made, lands appropriated, empires carved out, colonies settled and wholesale destructions of cultures and ways of life carried out.
Though the term ‘suffragette’ is not used in the contemporary times, its essence is still the same – fighting gender bias at every step, personal or professional. There have been many discussions on a new kind of imperialism camouflaging the world in the garb of globalization. Even this form of imperialism is looking for easily available resources, cheap labour and attractive markets. This form of imperialism is looking for scapegoats to vindicate its stand and actions. And this form of imperialism is and would continue to create disparities based on class, race and gender. The suffrage movement was not just about fighting against a prejudice, but fighting against a philosophy deep-rooted in imperialism. The formal fight may have ended, but there are battles being fought everyday to challenge the imperialists who may come across as individuals or corporations anywhere, anytime.
In the words of the author Maureen Murdock, “When women work on reclaiming the lost part of themselves, they’re also working on reclaiming the lost soul of the culture as well.”
Raymond Turner Edward, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in England, The American Political Science Journal, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Nov., 1913), pp. 588-609
Groiler Encyclopedia Americana
Hawkins, Hunt. Conard’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness, PMLA, Vol. 94, No.2 (Mar., 1979), 286-299
Casiciani, Dominic. The History of the suffragettes, BBC News Online 2 October, 2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/uk/3153388.stm>
6 April, 2007
Imperialism and Gender, http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/histcourse/womwn/hannam/hancore.htm#part 3