During the early years of colonization, British women played a very small role in the founding of colonies. In fact, women were rarely seen in many of
When women finally did make their way to the colonies, their arrival was often met with hesitation and concern. Though the arrival of women helped to establish and secure British the family culture, it also ushered in an era in which men longed for the “good old days” of concubinage with native women. No longer were the British men free to mingle with indigenous women, as they had been accustomed. This change, however, ushered in a new day for British colonizers. British women brought to the colonies the established customs of European family values. In turn, women worked to spread such values by networking with one another in their respective colonies. As one women stated, “An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian empire.” In short, women strongly embraced the idea that to secure a British-style home within the colonies was the surest way to secure the empire as a hole.
Life was not easy for the majority of British colonial women. Leaving one’s home, though exciting, was tremendously stressful as well. To make matters more difficult, women that entered the colonial world found themselves in more mundane activities than those of men. As one historian points out, “The colonial world was definitely a man’s world, and women were not allowed to play a meaningful role in it except as petty traders and farmers.” To help secure the British family structure within the colonies, women worked tirelessly and received little recognition for their efforts. Within the walls of their homes, women labored as homemakers, wives and mothers. They were responsible for almost all of the behind the scenes activities that helped to maintain a typical British family. Whether in the Caribbean,
India or Africa,
European women faced the every day struggles that were expected on a “proper”
As difficult as life may have been as a colonist, it was not without some benefits. Upon their arrival, many British women were quickly taken as wives. Since the population of men in a colony was usually twice that of women, many women who came to work in the colonies were quickly married to a willing male. Their marriage actually proved beneficial, since fewer jobs were available in the colonies than back home. In fact, fewer women worked outside the home in the colonies than in
. Though not typically working outside the
home, colonial women found themselves with more than enough to keep them
busy. The daily tasks of maintaining the
home and rearing children were extremely time-consuming. Fortunately, many colonial women also enjoyed
a more luxurious life than their counterparts back home. A typical middle class family could afford
three to six servants in the colonies, whereas back in Britain they
could only afford one if they were lucky. Britain
As pleasant as life might have been for some colonial women, it would be a gross overstatement to say that all women shared in the joy. The reality of colonial life for many women was far from blissful. For some, the hope for a family of their own was shattered by the horrors of reality. While trying to escape the struggles of life back home, many women were forced to make their living in the various colonies as prostitutes. The sex slave trade that grew in the British colonies reached staggering levels. Some women were even forced to average four customers a night, which provided tremendous revenue for the various brothels. One can only imagine the struggles of such a life. The difficulties that accompanied this type of a lifestyle must have been appalling. In the male-dominated society that was the
British Empire, women were often seen (and trafficked) as
expendable commodities. Clearly life as
a colonial woman was not as easy as hoped.
Whether working behind the scenes as a housewife or forced to endure the
vile conditions as a sex slave, the efforts of colonial women were often
forgotten, since women clearly took a back seat in such a society.
Family life was only one of the many ways in which British colonial women were able to make an impact. Along with the struggles that attend womanhood, was the pressure to maintain and cultivate British culture. The idea of what it meant to be British was deeply rooted into the lifestyles of many of its citizens. Not only did it carry the aura of superiority to others, but it also carried masculine overtones. As Linda Colley put it, “Quite simply, we usually decide who we are by reference to who and what we are not.” For British women, this meant protecting the British family system from the “corruption” and influence of native populations. It also meant that women were taught to comply with the idea that a masculine
Empire was the supreme goal.
One example of the emphasis placed on spreading British culture was the establishment of Empire Day. Celebrated on May 24 (the birthday of Queen
), Empire Day was a spectacle that
was commemorated in nearly 6,000 schools across the empire. Children across the empire were taught to
glory in being British. Young girls in
particular could often be seen singing patriotic songs that celebrated
soldiers, while young boys engaged in athletic and warrior patriotism games. Such activities molded the minds of young
boys and girls to embrace the idea of a masculine/warrior society, where women
worshipped their fighting men from the sidelines. Victoria
The British superiority complex was more than evident in
, where the ruling class was
exclusively British. Zareer Masani
points out that during the mid 18th century, the British reserved
all high offices of administration while, “The subordinate ranks of
administration remained entirely Indian.” By maintaining exclusive control of high
offices, the India British Empire created yet
another means by which British identity was shaped amongst the masses. The belief in British superiority began to
take a very strong hold in the hearts of its citizens.
For women, this idea of British superiority was defended vigorously. As the empire continued to branch out, women were quickly integrated into the expansion of British ideology. As teachers, British women were able to help as educators in
where they worked hard to help “civilize” the local people. In India Africa,
British women were also used to help educate and establish British culture in
the area. For the most part, women took these
responsibilities very serious, and were often sympathetic to the needs of the
native peoples. British women proved
vital in relocating British culture to the colonies. As Margaret Strobel states, “in the colonies,
as in Britain, women were particularly responsible for carrying out these
rituals…women’s work was to maintain the status of the family and preserve
social boundaries between Europeans and indigenous people”
In essence, women were the gatekeepers of British cultural norms.
For all the good done by women in the colonies, there was still a level of xenophobia that permeated British colonials. British women were quick to put their guard up in defense of their families. Women even regularly feared the use of native wet nurses for their children, believing that, “the milk of a native woman should contaminate an English child’s character.” Women were also quick to point out the “savagery” of indigenous men, who were seen essentially as, “would-be rapists or seducers.” As one African native put it, “The overall European policy in
Africa may be summed up in
these two words: white supremacy.” British men were quick to point out the
iniquity that lurked if a “savage” was able to seduce a white woman. In such cases, British leaders (who were men)
failed to recognize any wrongdoing in relationships between European men and
native women. Clearly a double standard
had been created.
Along with the concern for the well being of their women, British men were quick to point out how their culture treated its women with much more respect. According to the British intellectual James Mill, a society could be judged based on its treatment of women. As Strobel points out, “In Mill’s view, the status of women progresses from low to high, associated with the evolution of ‘civilization.’” Based on Mill’s estimation, the British felt vindicated in their assessment that they were more “civilized.” The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe provides a perfect example of this belief. The story’s main character, Okonkwo, regularly beats his wives for mundane issues. In one particular part, he even beats his wife Ojiugo for failing to have dinner ready. For the British, this would be ample evidence of their superiority, even though it would be reasonable to assume that even Britons were guilty of committing the same acts on their wives.
Another important aspect of British culture was its religious convictions. For the British, this was one of the major distinguishing factors that uniquely made them British. As Linda Colley points out, Britons were able to unite more on the issue of their Protestant faith than on any other issue. For British women, this belief was passionately embraced, since women were traditionally the religious pulse of the family. In their quest to follow God’s will, British women became zealous missionaries in the colonies. Their yearning to convert and aid the various native populations made them powerful tools to the empire. British women were active in establishing villages for runaway slaves, in protesting the ritual burning of native widows, and in seeking an end to the practice of clitoridectomy. Female missionaries were also successful in areas like
where they were able to offer education to indigenous women and were able to
effectively establish British customs. India
The efforts made by female missionaries convinced many of them that they were capable of branching out and helping even more people. Women like Dr. Annie Besant, who led the Madras Theosophical Society, helped to inspire much of the nationalist movement in
. She was able to inspire her followers to
unite and, “seek common ground between Indian and European religious and
cultural traditions.” Other women sought to break the patriarchal
chains with which they were restrained.
To expand their ability to help, female missionaries in India banded
together to create the Ladies Association for the Promotion of Female Education
Among the Heathen. Their goal was to create an organization that
would convince the male colonial leaders that a women’s society could organize,
convert, and sustain itself. The measure
met with limited success. India
The desire that European women had to branch out and help indigenous people of the various colonies was often met with ridicule, accusation and scorn. In
Africa for example, female missionaries regularly bumped
heads with their male superiors in the church.
The male-dominated British social structure had little time or patience
to deal with women’s issues effectively.
In one particular instance, the experience of Mary Pigot is very telling
of how conflicting male leaders could be with their female subordinates. While running an orphanage in , Miss Pigot was
criticized by her male superior, Rev. William Hastie, for how she chose to run
the institution. When Miss Pigot refused
to submit to his authority, Rev. Hastie simply accused her of sexual immorality
with an Indian man. Miss Pigot was
dragged through six years of legal proceedings, but finally found not
guilty. Despite making false
accusations, Rev. Hastie was never reprimanded in any way. As difficult as things may have been for
female missionaries, there is no doubt that their efforts helped numerous
people in the various colonies of the Empire.
Their influence helped further the education of countless people within
the Empire. Calcutta
British Empire was a
vast and diverse world. For British
women, it was a world that offered little recognition for their efforts, and
even less praise for their contributions.
In the male-dominated culture that was , women took an
unfortunate back seat, and their labors received virtually no praise as a
result. Despite the regrettable lack of
appreciation for their efforts, British women have left a long-lasting imprint
on the legacy of the Great Britain British Empire. Through their efforts, British women were
able to successfully protect and nurture their families, maintain and cultivate
the British culture, and spread the message of Christianity. Their assistance to the various indigenous
populations within the British colonies deserves as much praise as the male
missionaries enjoy. For British women,
it was their ability to overcome the chauvinistic atmosphere of male domination
that permeated the British Empire. In the end, this is their greatest
 Lawrence James, The Rise And Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 39-40.
 Ibid, 38.
 Margaret Strobel, European Women and the Second
(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3.
 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 17.
 A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 107.
 Margaret Strobel, 19.
 Ibid, 19.
 Ibid, 28-29.
 Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies (October, 1992): 309-329.
James, 328. Lawrence
 Ibid, 329-330.
 Zareer Masani, Indian Tales of the Raj (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 8.
 Ibid, 71-72.
 A. Adu Boahen, 104-106.
 Margaret Strobel, 13.
 Ibid, 18.
 Zareer Masani, 55.
 Ndabanangi Sithole, Imperialism’s Benefits by an Anti-Imperialist African, taken from the online packet. Chapter 9, page 253.
 Margaret Strobel, 49.
 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Random House Inc., 1959), 29-31.
 Linda Colley, 317.
 Margaret Strobel, 50-51.
 Ibid, 53.
 Zareer Masani, 78.
 Margaret Strobel, 53-54.
 Ibid, 54.