Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Gendered empire.

It so happens that the various appeals to feminism in support of empire are not new. For example, when postcolonial studies was taking off as a discipline during the 1980s, Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar wrote an essay entitled Challenging imperial feminism, charging that a white, Eurocentric discourse was being asserted as the only legitimate form of feminism. They and others critiqued the production of 'third world women' as a homogenous and inert group of victims, robbing them of agency and sustaining the myth of Western superiority. There have since been several wide-ranging studies of the 'colonial skeletons in the family cupboard' of Western feminists. The feminist author Clare Midgley, in her collection Gender and Imperialism, took on an aspect of this past that intersects with 'humanitarian' imperialism: the roots of imperial feminism in the British anti-slavery movement.

The British anti-slavery movement was in its day a powerful social movement with comparatively moderate and radical wings, and some elite supporters for whom slavery was permissible if it was wage slavery (obviously, I refer to William Wilberforce). It commanded enormous support: at one time an anti-slavery petition in Manchester was signed by every literate worker in the city. From within it developed over the long term a feminist movement which, contesting slavery, nevertheless did not go so far as lauding the example of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the overthrow of colonial domination: they accepted, as did many of their fellow campaigners, the necessity for British colonies in the Carribean and elsewhere. Indeed, the eradication of slavery itself became a means of legitimising continued British imperial expansion in the Victorian era. In the US, there was a direct link between women campaigning for their freedom and for that of the slaves, and while in Britain no such integration could be found, there were practical and ideological connections to be drawn. The British feminist campaigners described enslaved women as sisters, precisely as the campaigners against the promulgation of the Contagious Diseases Act in India professed a sodality with colonised women.

In representing their sisters as passive victims unable to represent themselves or defend themselves, they solemnly undertook the task of defending the "helpless, voiceless, hopeless" "dumb animal". Though regarding non-white men as especially endowed with innate propensities for violence against women, they were "wounded" to hear that these women were also being oppressed not merely by "some half-wild, benighted Race" but "by those who are connected with us by the closest ties". Their claim to fuller participation in public life was underwritten by their role as moral reformers of the empire. Midgley cites the writings of the early feminist Catherine Macaulay, who not only sees nothing positive about the condition of women in non-Western societies, but sees it as a static affair, unchangingly oppressive and oppressively unchanging. She cites Mary Wollstonecraft, who locates in 'savage' African and 'despotic' Oriental societies a past 'night of sensual ignorance' which European women can escape from by becoming (and being allowed to become) more like rational European men. And so on, throughout the canon, the same tropes are repeatedly discovered. And of course this had practical expression: the first recorded group of female petitions to parliament concerned the practise of sati, in which the bride of a deceased Hindu man would either immolate herself in a funeral pyre or be coerced into doing so. There must be some people reading this who are thinking that such intervention is exactly right, precisely the kind of concern for human well-being that is needed. But such a touching reaction would miss the point here, which is that this provided a form of ideological legitimacy for the empire itself, whose brutality was stupendous and incalculable. It demanded a Human Rights Watch policy from an exploitative, murderous system, whose right to exist was never questioned. One may as well ask Hitler to put an end to the barbaric practise of circumcision.

It is unsurprising that this overlapped with missionary interventionism prominent at the time, not only in India, but most noticeably in Africa. By 1899, it was estimated that more women than men were engaged in missionary work in the 'foreign field', and the rise of female missionaries itself reflects the growing involvement of middle class women into paid employment and education. Their work of converting the natives to the correct monotheism involved them in a curious dual conviction: at the same time as they affirmed 'traditional' female roles, they also regarded themselves as uniquely free. They too professed a mission of sisterhood with the colonised, whom they also saw as passive, pitiable and innocent victims - a representation that was informed by racial idioms, but which provided a literary device by which they could understand themselves as autonomous, empowered agents. Their imperial role was a means, not of emancipating the women they professed divine solidarity with, but of ameliorating and re-imagining their own conditions. The role of fantasy in social agency should not be underestimated.

'Feminism' is necessarily a polysemic term, and so its relationship with imperialism and nationhood can vary. For example, the right-wing League of German Women's Associations (BDF) in imperial Germany explicitly advocated nationalism and imperial expansion, excluding the socialists from their ranks, denying charges from right-wing anti-feminists of internationalist sympathies, and requesting better treatment so that they may take part in professional labour and have their children looked after. Helen Lange, a prominent activist in the Kaiserreich and supporter of the BDF, insisted that the only reason women were turning to internationalism was because German men had so alienated them that they had to look elsewhere for solidarity, a danger that had to be rectified with better rights for women. (But not the rights of citizenship!) By contrast, the SPD and socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg insisted that capitalist social relations, and particularly the emphasis on family units ('the building block of the nation') were responsible for the subordination of women, and were mainly avowed internationalists and foes of the empire. They demanded the fullest participatory democracy, a tradition known correctly as socialism. The correct inference appears to be that if you wish to be a feminist and support empire, you must drastically curtail your reforming ambition.

And this, of course, is what characterises our contemporary imperial feminists, so complacently assured of their own freedom (defined negatively against the unfreedom of the native), identifying with the imperial state as the legitimate bearer of emancipation for third world women. At most, they wish to reform the empire - so, if Bush is hopeless, put Al Gore in charge and he'll know what to do.