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Burdens of history: British feminists, Indian women, and imperial culture, 1865-1914.

BURDENS OF HISTORY: British Feminists, Indian Women, end Imperial Culture, 1865-1915

Antoinette Burton

Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1994; 301 pp.

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. 101).

The white male imperialists were not going to let go of their "magic wand" without protest. The burden of history makes its oppressive presence felt most glaringly in the central piece of the book, that is, Josephine Butler's Indian Campaign. Having won her domestic victory by getting the Contagious Diseases Act repealed, Butler extended the campaign to save the Indian prostitutes being "regulated" through medical examination, in order to protect the British army in the cantonments from venereal disease. Setting aside the interesting parallel this offers with the movement of the sex-workers currently going on in Calcutta, it is important to note that the movement was couched in religio-moral terminology. The anti-regulationists protested against the moral sanction the state gave to the crass oppression of womanhood in the shape of the helpless Indian prostitutes. Though it is to Burton's scholarly effort that we primarily owe our awareness of this movement, I feel it is a pity that she does not spell out the crucial difference that this campaign has with the others in the relative positioning of the colonial state and Indian women captured solely through their sexuality. For Burton it is more important that this particular movement brought the plight of the Indian women centre-stage. Though not in a position to visit India herself, Butler supported the visit of two American women, Elizabeth Andrew and Katharine Bushnell, to the Indian cantonments. As "lady commissioners" of the Ladies National Association and the British Committee, they undertook a detailed visit, with extensive interviews and published the important text, Queen's Daughters in India, that is beginning to draw the attention of Indian feminist scholars.

As imperialism had its own fissures, the Indian Campaign had a much more checkered fate than the domestic campaign of Josephine Butler. The Viceroy Lord Dufferin castigated the campaigners as "the raging sisterhood who are troubling our mental purity by their obscene correspondence" when it was in the name of moral purity that Josephine Butler had mounted her campaign. With friends among Indian Reformers such as Dadoghai Narroji and Benramji Malabari, Butler was not to be put down so easily. By September 5, 1888 the Repeal Act for India had received the Governor General's assent. Though this Repeal did not put an end to the practice, Butler had the satisfaction of hearing gentlemen remark, "What an extraordinarily purifying influence on this House of Commons your movement has had" (p. 135).

Women's Suffrage in Britain provided the telos toward which this morally righteous phase of the British feminists was moving. The white feminists' burden had become more pronounced in the arguments of the suffragists. Even within the rubric of British Nationalism, the imputed responsibility towards the hapless Indian sisters continued to give an added transnational legitimacy to the movement. Thus the American Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, even while she ticked off the British for being insular and nationalistic, welcomed their professed imperialist responsibilities as an asset to the International Suffrage movement. The built-in white supremacism in all this produced the usual myopia regarding the organized women's movement that was beginning to emerge in India at the turn of the century.

How far does this study, rich in empirical findings, justify the author's claim that it helps to prove Judith Butler's post-modernist warning, "how the category of `women', the subject of feminism is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought" (p. 21)? This position, increasingly invoked by Indian feminists in identifying the bogey of universalism in gender-based political agendas, is only a partial explanation of what the book appears to achieve for a reader like me.

"Historicising imperial feminism" (p. 19) is a project that is enormously worthy in itself. There is hardly a need to conflate this with historicizing "feminism" per se, whatever be its political context. What the study brings out is that despite taking its stand solidly on the foundation of imperialism, the British women's movement did call some of its assumptions into question. To study these campaigns and not to notice the disturbance of the "white male and middle class" boundaries of the Imperial fortress would be as self-defeating as the position that feminism could not have colluded with imperialism. This is where I would have liked a fuller analysis of Judith Butler's Indian Campaign that seems to problematize the field quite differently from the others. "Moral regulation" as commonly understood in the process of English state formation was partially stood on its head when, speaking as women, the Indian prostitutes' needs were prioritized over those of British soldiers. No victory is pure. In the complex struggles that women have had to wage, it is important to retain even little gain, however contaminated it may appear. Otherwise we may be accused of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:1472
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