White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

By Louise Michele Newman | Go to book overview

4
A Feminist Explores Africa
May French-Sheldon's Subversion of Patriarchal Protection

[I]f anyone would start schools among them [African primitives] . . . [and] teach them a better way of living . . . lifting them up by degrees, they would in time become Christians.

Fannie C. Williams, "A 'White Queen' in Africa" ( 1893)

The whole future of this world rests upon the status of women, and those who have influence should see that [others] who have not had their advantages should be brought up to their standard.

Evening Sun, quoting May French-Sheldon ( 1915)

ON THE EVE OF HER DEPARTURE for Africa in 1891, M ay French-Sheldon was, by all accounts, a strikingly beautiful forty-four-year-old American woman, happily married to a prosperous London banker, who enjoyed entertaining prominent businessmen in her own drawing room. Nothing in the public record gives any indication that she was dissatisfied with this role. No personal illness, singular ennui, family crisis, or other necessity prompted her to leave her comfortable home to venture on a three-month safari into a remote region of East Africa. Unlike other Victorian British women who embarked on their own travels through what was known as the dark continent, the flamboyant French-Sheldon never tried to make her voyage palatable to Europeans or Americans by cloaking her actions in socially acceptable forms. She was leaving a husband behind for no compelling reason other than that she desired to prove to the world (and perhaps to herself as well) her ability to pull off such a dangerous trip without any white men to "protect" her. Resourceful, energetic, strong- willed, and outspoken, with definite tastes and opinions, May French-Sheldon was asserting her independence from and picking up the gauntlet laid down by the suffocating protectionism of Western patriarchy. 1

As remarkable as the action itself, however, was the way in which French-Sheldon was received as an "American heroine" by the U. S. press on her return. The Chautauquan praised her for her "perseverance and . . . pluck" and for demonstrating that a woman could perform such a masculine endeavor without any diminishing of her

-102-

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