Imperialism and Gender

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Author: Nupur Chaudhuri
Editor: Peter N. Stearns
Date: 2001
From: Encyclopedia of European Social History(Vol. 1: Methods & Theory/Periods/Regions, Nations, Peoples/Europe & the World. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,866 words
Lexile Measure: 1380L

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Nupur Chaudhuri

In European imperial discourses, scholars usually discuss colonizers' foreign or economic policies. Some scholars have shown that the lasting images of the latter half of the nineteenth century are those associated with the achievements of empire and colonizing societies. While such studies shed light on the public roles of the colonizers and consequently on the most obvious aspects of colonial domination, this public sphere constitutes only part of the Western colonial experience.

Among all the European imperialist nations, Great Britain controlled the largest colonial empire until the end of World War II. Imperialism, as many scholars argue, became the foundation of British national identity after the mid-nineteenth century, and India became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. With its long history, India was the empire's most important possession and the major component of Britain's political and economic prominence in the world. The contours of colonial construction in India provide a model shape of the inner and outer dynamics of British colonialism and of colonial rule more generally. Thus this essay focuses on the specific example of British imperialism in India to raise general questions about gender and imperialism.

Scholars of British imperialism followed the general trend of neglecting the social history of imperialism. With few exceptions, systematic studies of the social history of British imperialism were not produced before the mid-1960s. Only a handful of historians after that time focused solely on women's history. Much work has yet to be done on the private sphere and on the intersection of public and private spheres in a colonial setting. As gender is key to the construction of imperial hierarchies, the experiences of women offer especially important insights. Gender is essential to an understanding of the social impacts of colonialism on the rulers as much as on the ruled and thus to the social history of empire.

The British imperial system in India functioned by means of direct and indirect rule. Direct rule was created to maximize imperial interests by abolishing indigenous administrative institutions and establishing others that were maintained by a small number of salaried British at higher echelons along with selected indigenous men hired at the lower echelons. Indirect rule let some traditional political or administrative units and social practices remain intact, subject to treaties or agreements with the traditional rulers and resident agents whose aim was to accomplish colonial objectives through the façade of indigenous leadership. The British government gradually expanded direct rule, as it proved impractical to work first through existing traditional agents and institutions and then increasingly through chartered British East India company agents. It is important to keep in mind that neither the colonizers nor the colonized were homogeneous groups, as both were bound by inherent hierarchies of class, gender, and status.


Since the dawn of European imperialism, the "masculine" element, emphasizing the cardinal features of authority and rule and entailing structures of unequal power, remained ever present in all social and political organs of colonialism. One of the prevailing ideologies of imperialism was that colonies were "no place for a white woman." But women had an undeniable role in the empire. British women were the guardians of spiritual and moral values for the families in the colony, where they embroidered ideas of motherhood, homemaking, and spirituality on the tapestry of imperialistic ideology. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the swelling impetus of the imperial mission began to draw women in great numbers—for instance, over one thousand arrived in 1875, and over sixteen hundred in 1895. Their colonial experiences increasingly became sources of fascination for people at home, and indeed those experiences helped redefine the contours of British women's public and private lives. The views of British women in India made their way into contemporary domestic discoursesPage 516  |  Top of Article within Britain, helping to fashion a gendered legitimation of British rule in India. British women in colonial India, by enabling the widespread dissemination of an imperial identity of superior race, had a visible impact on British political, social, and cultural life.

The nineteenth-century British empire in India provided unique opportunities for British women to compare their social positions to those of the indigenous population of the subcontinent. Victorian feminists viewed Indian women both as passive subjects and as examples against which to gauge their own progress. Although Indian women of the period were pursuing their own paths of social reform and feminist causes many British feminists insisted on devising alternate causes. They portrayed Indian women as passive colonial subjects partly so as to imagine and to realize their own feminist objectives within the context of the imperial nation into which they sought admission. The empire, far from being outside the sphere of women, was central to it. In insisting upon their right to citizenship, suffragettes not only claimed their right to be part of the political nation but also demanded to take their part in the political empire.

India provided British men not only with career opportunities; in metropolitan society men gained influence and prestige because the British government viewed them as contributing to Britain's international eminence and power. Imperialism, as has become clear, was also beneficial to British women. In India they were able to go out freely, to assert greater independence, to shape and control their life situation, to increase their personal power, and to become socially more mobile than they were in Britain. However, it was only in the 1990s that feminist scholars acknowledged the contradictory positions of British women—subordinate at home yet wielding the power of their imperial position to subordinate the colonial "other." White women as homemakers and mothers maintained and promoted the domestic sphere of the empire in India. By writing about both domestic and public lives in India, British women also adopted an identity of specialists on Indian life and in the process participated in the British imperial ethos. They assumed the role of the authors of Indians and the Indian world, thus contributing to the ideological reproduction of the empire.

British women frequently shared the ethnocentrism of their male counterparts and acted in condescending and maternalistic ways. Many British women felt that Indian women were not like English ladies. In England ladies had some degree of rank, wealth, and education; as British women saw it, that rank implied either personal achievement or inherited refinement and a place in civilized society. During a short stay in India to visit missionary friends, one British woman, who signed her book Overland, Inland, and Upland: A Lady's Notes of Personal Observation and Adventure (London, 1873) with the initials A.U., recorded that, despite having many opportunities to adorn themselves with jewelry and fragrance, Indian women seemed powerless to elevate their minds or to bridge the enormous gulf that separated the mere female from the lady. In India, as A.U. noted, only very poor women moved around freely while the movements of women from higher classes were restricted, a situation contrary to the one at home. A.U. observed that wealth provided opportunities for British women to gain education, to travel in foreign countries, and to cultivate tastes for everything beautiful and refined in nature and art. To British women the faceless, nameless Indian women blended into the landscape, thus further distinguishing British women's own identity in the imperial scene.

British women's contacts with Indian domestics further shaped their construction of images of indigenous people. For British women the negative connotations of dark-skinned people were embedded in their social consciousness. They therefore found the new experience of employing dark-skinned domestics unsettling. The religious and social customs of both the Hindus and Muslims confused them, and they felt that India was a conglomerate of different cultures without a stable center. To avoid dealings with Indian servants, some memsahibs (the wives of British officials) chose Indian Christian domestics with at least partial European heritage. But Christian servants also posed problems. For one thing, being descendants of the Portuguese settlers and Indians, a substantial number of the Christian servants were Roman Catholics rather than members of the Anglican, Scottish, or Evangelical sects, to which most British colonists belonged. But above all many British women felt that the common ground of Christianity might set the masters and servants on similar footings, blurring the class and social distinctions between them.

Motherhood and the family. A new dimension of British familial relations arose in the colonial setting. British parents in India felt a unique psychological stress when faced with an inescapable choice: the health and educational needs of children compelled many British families to send their children to Britain by the time they were about seven. The departure and long separation of children from their parents in the colony caused a major disruption in familial happiness. British mothers in India had to make a painfully difficult choice between their duties as wives and asPage 517  |  Top of Article mothers by either staying with their husbands in India or returning to Britain with their children. Although separation of British children from their parents was not uncommon, as many upper-class or upper-middle-class Victorian parents sent their children away to boarding school, what was unusual for the British wives in India was that they were unable to see their children for periods extending over many years. It was a very long and expensive journey from India to Britain, and in some instances parents saw their children only after an interval of nine or ten years. (And some very unfortunate mothers and fathers who sent children home died without ever seeing them again.) Separation of parents and children created psychological tension for the families. The family disunions that were so common among British families in India clashed with the Victorian emphasis on a stable home and family. A British woman went to colonial India as a wife, her aim and duty to establish a British home for her husband and children in the subcontinent. But when in fact she became a mother, her roles as wife and mother came into conflict.


It was women more than men who pushed for reforms in the situation of Indian women out of a commitment to improving the lot of women generally. Given that male foreign missionaries had little access to indigenous women, female British missionaries played a special role in Indian societies, offering education to Indian women in the homes of prominent upper-caste families and providing public school lessons for lower-caste women. Christian teachings and handicrafts dominated the content of early women's education.

Despite their central role in the missions, British women operated under certain constraints within the patriarchal structure of the churches and missionary societies that oversaw their work. For example, the Ladies Association for the Promotion of Female Education Among the Heathen, established in 1866, had to convince its male colleagues that Zenana Education—education of small groups of girls at home (in the women's quarters or zenana) by missionary women—was important and that women themselves could organize it, teach it, and pay for it.

Other prominent British Victorian women in India also took active interests in improving the social conditions of Indian women. Lady Harriot Dufferin, wife of the Indian viceroy, established the Fund for Female Medical Aid in August 1885. The Dufferin Fund was closely associated with the National Indian Association, originally founded by Mary Carpenter to promote Indian female education in the 1870s. The Dufferin Fund was created specifically to provide female medical aid to Indian women because social custom prevented them from being treated by male doctors.

In the 1890s British female missionary doctors began to arrive in India. Having been sent to India as part of the Zenana Mission Movement, they added medical education to the curriculum. Dr. Edith Brown, who stayed for more than thirty years, founded the North Indian School of Medicine for Christian Women to train Christian women as nurses and assistants. Dr. Ellen Farer established a hospital near Delhi. But this charitable work had other consequences. In nineteenth-century India European women, especially British women, displaced educated indigenous women and men in employment. While colonialism induced some Indians to seek Western medical treatment, purdah, the seclusion of women by Muslims and some Hindus, created a demand for female physicians. Some Westernized middle-class Indians responded by educating their daughters to become doctors. But priority was given to female British doctors, who often came to India to avoid discrimination at home. Thus the arrival of British female doctors to India caused a loss of medical employment for indigenous female doctors.

British women tended to have more social interaction with Indian men than with Indian women. Nineteenth-century British feminists frequently formed working relationships with Indian male reformers. Yet they varied considerably in the extent to which they responded to Indian values and life. Unusual among British feminists, Margaret Noble, also known as Sister Nivedita, adopted Indian culture, in part to teach Hindu women more effectively. Noble, who established a school for Hindu girls in 1898, joined the neotraditional monastic community of Swami Vivekananda. Active in a wide range of religious and welfare work, she also participated in Indian nationalist politics in India and Britain, to which she returned in 1907 to escape arrest in India. At times the feminism of these British reformers collided with indigenous culture. Annette Ackroyd Beveridge came to India in 1872, drawn by the personality and teaching of Keshub Chandra Sen, the leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a progressive Hindu reform movement. Breaking with Sen because of his rather conventionally Victorian notions of education for women, she founded a girls' school in Calcutta in 1873. The curriculum of the school slanted heavily toward British culture. Although Beveridge knew the language, she had little knowledge of Bengali culture, and because of that insensitivity her attempts to educate Bengali girls were unsuccessful.

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British society, in its prismatic view of the positions of women, always saw Indian women as oppressed and as having an inferior position compared to that of Western women. This view seemed to many to be a justifiable moral ground for British imperial policies and rules. In an effort to lift the oppression of Indian women, educated Indian male social reformers, many of whom were Western-educated, joined in with the reform efforts of Christian missionaries and British officials. Education for girls, later marriages, prohibitions on sati, or widow burning, and on female infanticide, and relaxation of purdah restrictions, allowing intra- and intersocial mobilities for women became the major goals of the reform movement driven by this emerging collective force. Educated Bengali middle-class men, led by many with Western education, conceived of an Indian domestic ideology of modesty, humility, and self-sacrifice, influenced by British Victorian ideas about the roles of women. The reformers emphasized secular education for girls, designed to prepare them to be good wives (especially to Western-educated men) and mothers and to have some voice in public life. Reform of marriage practices, reflecting Victorian beliefs about marriage, was also an important component in implementing this new ideology. The Civil Procedure Code of 1859 asserted that, contrary to the Hindu tradition permitting a woman to leave her husband—at great cost to her reputation—and to return to her natal family, a husband could sue his wife for restitution of conjugal rights. Widow remarriage, another tenet of the domestic ideology promoted by Indian reformers, was intended to give widowed women the opportunity to continue their lives as wives and to avoid becoming financial burdens to their families or those of their deceased husbands.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, British and Indian women began to be noticeably visible in the social reform movement on behalf of Indian women. A contemporary notion was that British women played a key altruistic role in shaping the women's movement in India. But later scholarship has been more ambivalent about that altruism, implying that British women were maternal imperialists who, so as to enhance their own social and professional positions, presented a picture of the pitiable plight of Indian women in need of liberation from social, political, and economic oppression.

The imperial power in India attempted to create a legislative framework for the social improvement of Indian women, but forces opposed to such reform prevented full implementation of the laws. In 1856 the Widow Remarriage Act, which allowed Hindu widows to remarry by forfeiting their rights to their deceased husbands' estates, was enacted, but its impact was at best limited and in some cases negative. Lower-caste widows who by customary law had previously been able to remarry without loss of property would now, according to the terms of the Act, lose their rights to their deceased husbands' property upon remarriage. The British selectively upheld customary law, such as that practiced by the Hindi-speaking population in Haryana in Punjab. This practice permitted a widow to marry a close relative (often a younger brother) of her deceased husband to prevent the division or loss of landed property. In these instances, the British sought to regulate and formalize customary law in order to reinforce their political control. Indian women themselves, including those in the reform movement, had little to do with the implementation of the Widow Remarriage Act and other reform legislation, in part because Indian reformers failed to mobilize them. And since the British failed to actively enforce their legislation, the reform had minimal effect on the lives of Indian women.

The Age of Consent Act of 1891, which raised the age of consent to sexual relations for married and unmarried girls from ten to twelve and thereby provided a statutory foundation for later marriage, was also ineffectual. British officials and Indian nationalists, both reformers and traditionalists, joined forces to limit the terms of the Act and its implementation. Although a marital rape clause had been included in the Act, it was never enforced. Male control over female sexuality prevailed, as Indian men opposed to changes in women's status were successful in drawing British officials to their side; as a result, reforms enacted by the British had little impact. The imperial power failed to substantially affect Indian gender relations, its reform impulses—never wholehearted or unequivocal—losing their force in the face of indigenous anti-reform pressures. Attempts to improve their lot through legislation under the British empire left Indian women themselves in the position of objects rather than initiators and active participants.


It is not only the impact of British women abroad that made gender relevant to empire. Gender distinctions operated on a more metaphorical level to define the relationship between ruler and ruled. Casting the ruled into a feminine image and identifying the ruler with masculine power became a path of imperial ethos. Nourishing a masculine ethos, British men and women had long held a view of Indian men as weak or effeminate.Page 519  |  Top of Article The masculinity-femininity contrasts were often painted in sociocultural contexts. Aesthetic judgments of Indian and colonial clothing styles, for instance, often served as the basis for judging Indian society. The clothing of Indian women, for instance, was seen as slovenly and revealing to a degree inappropriate for ladies, and was thus, in British eyes, indicative of Indians' lack of the refinements of civilized society. The British author A.U. remarked after visiting a middle-class Indian home: "The ladies [A.U.'s italics], naked to the waist, or with only a loose piece of muslin thrown over their shoulders, stood or sat on the floor. . . . I could rather have fancied myself in some spot beyond the limits of civilization than among members of the respectable middle class of a great capital." British women saw Indian men as effeminate, and this view began to have a widespread effect through remarks about India made in articles in popular women's periodicals of the mid-nineteenth century. For example, the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1854–1855 created an effeminate image of Hyder Ali by describing his vest being fashioned much like the gown of a European lady. Hyder Ali was a ruler of Mysore State in southern India in the second half of the eighteenth century and a formidable opponent of the British, and as such would have been a familiar figure to many of the readers of this article. The article further enhanced the image of effeminacy by noting that in India men and women devoted much time to embroidery and that it was not unusual to see several men engaged in such work, seated cross-legged on a mat—a position and an activity that in Europe would be considered quite below the dignity of any man.

The profile of the people of India as effeminate dates back to the early days of British colonialism. One Richard Orme wrote in the 1760s that all natives displayed effeminacy, a quality especially evident among the Bengalis, who lacked firmness in character and physical strength. Time and again over a hundred years, British rulers and elites projected this notion of the absence of integrity in the traits of the Indian people. In the 1820s Reginald Heber, bishop of Calcutta, found the Bengalis to be cowards. The Scottish philosopher James Mill echoed that view with his characterization of Bengali Hindus as passive and effeminate. The English writer Thomas Babington Macaulay, member of the Supreme Council of India in the 1830s, called Bengalis feeble.

The British used the same terminology to discredit anticolonial activists, who emerged in the late nineteenth century. Among the Indian intellectuals who surfaced to dispute the legitimacy of the grounds of colonialism, many were Western-educated and a large majority were Bengalis. The British now began to derogate the babus, the term for Indians with education in English, as "effeminate babu," a term later used against all middle-class Indians.


While the British interaction with India has been particularly well studied from the social history standpoint, other cases have been examined as well. In Africa, for example, as in India, Europeans tended to portray indigenous men as effeminate. Images of African women differed somewhat from those of Indian women, with more emphasis on potentially dangerous sexuality. But here, too, colonial experiences interacted with gender standards back home.

Many points remain open to further analysis. The social and cultural backgrounds of colonial administrators and missionaries suggest that there was some degree of divergence from social norms back home. Many aristocrats and Christian leaders were uncomfortable with social trends in Europe and therefore sought status and adventure elsewhere—even though they asserted European superiority wherever they went.

The impact of imperial experiences on Europe itself is another complex topic. In the years of the empire, particularly around 1900, individual women gained a sense of independence. But what effects did this have on the larger development of feminism? The hypermasculinity displayed in the colonies reverberated in European sports culture and in the enthusiastic embrace of military causes by an ever-widening segment of the male population in Europe. But the importance of empire for ordinary Europeans, its role in daily life in the home country, has yet to be established. For some, surely, the latest news of imperial victory would bring a brief surge, quickly forgotten in the routine of industrial life.

What is clear, however, is that the story of European empire is not just an account of military actions and diplomatic decisions. The imperial experience related closely, if in complex ways, to developments at home and may have affected these developments in turn.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3460500057