[Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women & Imperial Culture, 1865-1915]

By Burton, Antoinette; Bagchi, Jasodhara | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

[Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women & Imperial Culture, 1865-1915]


Burton, Antoinette, Bagchi, Jasodhara, Resources for Feminist Research


One wonders if it is by accident or by design that the "of" in the title is almost invisible on the cover of the book. A considerable addition to a significant field that is getting occupied fast, this book does contribute to our understanding of a "burden's history." This is a "burden" that concerns many of us, it is the "white woman's burden" regarding Indian women. Couched in the language of "sisterhood," the book argues through an impressive list of primary sources that Indian women were given a particular construction by British feminists during the 50 years that led to the First World War that marked the high noon of the British Empire. The particular construction was intended to draw public attention to the centrality of British feminists in the nation-building process that inevitably accompanied empire building. This, in its turn, was meant to be a plea for being given their rightful share in the public life of a citizen: the "vote" epitomized this share and the empire provided the scenario. How could an Imperial culture ignore the public role of its women when they shouldered the heaviest burden of the civilizing mission of Britain in India with respect to that of the Indian women?

Put very simply, this is the argument running through this 300-page book that has made available to us many of the primary sources, most notably many of the periodical presses, that gave currency to the stereotyped representations that made the Empire and the imperialist burden of the white feminists accessible to the British public.

Feminist the argument clearly was, despite its naturalization of domination over a vast tract of land. With relentless progression of her argument, Burton unfolds the fascinating process of British women building up their own case about not just being equal, but indispensable, partners in the civilizing mission of the West in the East. As other scholars have also shown, the moral superiority of womanhood was assumed by the British feminists in establishing their efficacy as instruments of Imperial Reform.

As Burton makes amply clear, this was not a simple, nor an obvious, argument to gain a ready hearing in Britain. Donning the Imperial mantle was not their natural right, for they were latter-day "hyenas-in-petticoat," unsexed, unwomanly "feminists." Ironically, the invocation of the "benighted" Indian "sisters" was meant to mitigate this demonization. As Burton clarifies the strategy,

"The "white woman's burden" and the woman-to-woman caretaking functions that British feminists exercised on behalf of Indian women rendered them traditionally feminine and helped to neutralize powerful arguments about the monstrous, antisocial nature of the women's movement that opponents of women's suffrage were apt to mobilize in order to devastate the legitimacy of the Cause" (p. 18).

Yet, as Burton brings out, the "humanizing" of British feminism by bringing in Indian women could not be achieved on the grid of liberalism and empathy. It had to deploy the current assumptions about the "other" that had been made accessible to the Victorian through scientific models like Darwinism, eugenics and so on. Since they actively cultivated the Imperialist image of the "master," the social "slavery" of the Indian women became quite central to their argument. Politically and socially excluded though the women were from many of the opportunities for which the British feminists waged battles, when it came to the dark "other" -- i.e., the benighted Indian sisters -- they used all the arguments for strengthening the normative aspect of British civilization. Through the readily available outlet of women's periodical literature, they convinced the British public by making Indian women into exemplary texts through which the crying need of the emancipation of the British women could be articulated. To quote Burton,

"What feminist writers told their audience through their representation of Indian women was that colonial womanhood existed in an enslaved state for the purposes of British feminist imperial reform activity" (p. …

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