Colonialism and Gender

[Click on image to enlarge] Because colonialism is fundamentally a power relationship between a patriarchal authority and a subordinate people conceived as essentially different from their rulers, discourse about colonialism becomes interwoven in complex ways with discourse about gender. Writers use images and vocabulary of racial difference to represent female appetite and aggression, and terrifying images of female savagery often convey fear of a racial other. By contrast, feminist writers can use the language of empire to represent the illegitimacy of male power. They find images of sexual oppression in foreign customs like the harem, or they find analogies to their own domination in the colonizer's rule of its colonies.

Charlotte Brontë's novel, Jane Eyre, uses several of these strategies. Bertha Mason, the wife that Rochester keeps imprisoned in his attic, is a Creole, whose bad blood leads to her savage madness. Brontë herself uses the vocabulary of racial difference to represent female appetite and aggression. However, when Jane Eyre resists Rochester's dominating courtship, she imagines him as a sultan and herself as a missionary, preaching liberty to the enslaved inmates of the harem. When St. John Rivers later tries to persuade her to become his missionary wife and accompany him to India, the figure of the missionary becomes one of oppression, not of liberation.

Rhetorical uses of imperial discourse to represent gender are complicated still further by the historical activities of British women in colonies. Women traveled in the colonies, lived in them, as wives and mothers, and worked in them, as missionaries and teachers. The relationships they portrayed between themselves as British women and the women of the colonies were complex and ambivalent. In Anna Leonowen's book, for example, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (the source for the musical, The King and I), she portrays the women of the harem both as oppressed victims of a cruel patriarchal authority and as idle, childlike creatures of appetite, who do not understand the English virtues of discipline or of work. Her own movements in and out of the palace, and its female and male spaces, reflect her shifting relationship to women she alternately embraces and distances.

By contrast, the social reformer Josephine Butler saw Great Britain's imperial rule as an extension of the patriarchal domination against which she fought at home. After successfully leading the campaign in Great Britain for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which required tests for venereal disease of any woman merely suspected of being a prostitute, she continued the campaign for its repeal in India and wrote passionate essays criticizing British oppression of Indian women and rule of India, such as "Our Indian Fellow Subjects."

At the same time that the debate about the evil of colonialism engaged writers like Butler, other writers justified colonialism with images of demonic caricature. W. Winwood Reade, for example, identifies an entire continent as the site of ghoulish ferocity with his title Savage Africa. Reade's most gruesome story concerns Tembandumba, a "voluptuous and bloodthirsty" cannibal queen who embarks upon an orgy of slaughter in the Congo, at the very heart of "savage Africa." Reade's fantasy gives a very different example of how the discourse of colonialism and gender can intersect.


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