The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

16

Gender in the British Empire

ROSALIND O'HANLON

Once the intellectual high ground of an older political and military history, the British Empire has recently become remarkably hospitable terrain for the study of women and gender. As women have been restored to historical visibility across the field of British Imperial history, so the importance of gender as a wider social relation conditioning the lives of men as well as women has emerged ever more clearly. These perspectives have brought us new insights alike into imperial systems of extraction and their transformative effects on local social relations, into ideologies of empire in metropolitan as well as local contexts, and into structures of nationalist politics and anti-colonial struggle. For British Imperial governments, colonial states, and their local opponents alike, women's productive and symbolic potential were prizes to be fought over, and gender itself a powerful lever for the reordering of society.

This is a large and diverse field of historical experience, and part of the purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of key parts of the field for historians accustomed to thinking that questions about women or gender are not pertinent to what they do, or of the view that such studies are still 'stuck in a specialized subbranch of historical explanation'. 1 A comparative framework drawing together the varieties of metropolitan and colonial experience from the late nineteenth century also suggests new insights. This means a search not only for the undoubted diversities of Imperial strategy and colonial context, but also for the unities of ideology and practice which characterized British Imperial approaches to women and gender, unities which had consequences for the experience of men and women in colonial societies themselves.

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1
Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester, 1990), p. 16. A number of historians have taken issue with Hyam's refusal to place his study of sexual behaviour in the British Empire within the wider context of gender seen as a relation of power: see Margaret Strobel, 'Sex and Work in the British Empire', Radical History Review, LIV (1992), pp. 177-86, and Richard A. Voeltz, 'The British Empire, Sexuality, Feminism and Ronald Hyam', European Review of History, III, 1 (1996), pp. 41‐ 44. Hyam's study was nevertheless a pioneering one in taking the connections between sexuality and Empire seriously.

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