Lisa Chilton. Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. ix + 240 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-9274-8.
Reviewed by Dolly Wilson (Department of History, Texas Tech University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2008)
Women in Transit
In Agents of Empire Lisa Chilton has attempted to bring a transnational focus (comparing Canada and Australia) to the study of women's imperial emigration experiences. It is a solid addition to migration literature, although a comparative methodology does not always seem to be essential to the text. Unlike much recent scholarship on female migration, Chilton's work revolves not around the single women emigrants, but rather the women who facilitated the process, who she terms "emigrators." Such women portrayed themselves and their migration agencies as better equipped to run migration schemes than men, who could not understand the special needs of women. Emigrators arranged railroad and ship transit, employment, chaperones, aid with luggage, hostel accommodation, and provided a important social network for women travelers. Agencies such as the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society, the British Women's Emigration Association (BWEA), the emigration arms of the Girls' Friendly Society (GFS), and the Travellers' Aid Society aided with the emigration of at least 23,000 women from 1884 to 1916, many of whom would not have migrated otherwise. Ironically, emigrators' very success eventually undermined them as their work grew in importance. Once their tasks were absorbed by various government agencies after the First World War, women lost the status and power that they had gained by "taking on themselves men's traditional roles as protectors of women and as experts on imperial matters" (p. 181).
The book's six chapters focus on issues such as the backgrounds and motivations of the emigrators, their difficulties in dealing with both local colonial governments and the powers-that-be in Britain, the reactions of women assisted, and a 1926-27 scheme to recruit domestic servants for the new Australian capital, Canberra. Chilton concentrates on the middle-class women who did the day-to-day work of the migration agencies, who were well aware that such work, like similar careers in social work within Britain itself, was a route for women to claim power in the public sphere. Their hard-earned expertise and social and managerial skills put them into "positions of authority and power in the imperial context" (p. 11). Emigrators saw their work not as charity, but as a valuable and irreplaceable service to protect the good name of traveling women and girls and the empire itself.
Chilton places emigrators such as Mrs. Ellen Joyce, who built a forty-year career for herself with the BWEA and the GFS, firmly in the sphere of Victorian imperialists, as they saw themselves and the women they sent overseas as providing a crucial imperial service by civilizing the rough edges of the empire, and cementing white Britons' control of colonial territory. Stressing women's roles on hardworking, respectable farms on the Canadian prairies, for example, "involved the purposeful erasure of non-white inhabitants from the scene" (p. 119). Emigrators believed such efforts necessitated an improvement in the "type" of women who emigrated and removing the stigma of emigration as shoveling out the paupers. Generally the daughters or wives of Anglican clergymen, middle-class emigrators assumed genteel women were the best suited to setting examples that would uplift whole communities. However, they often found it difficult to convince gentlewomen that migration was a respectable and desirable course of action.
Chilton demonstrates that emigrators viewed migration very differently than both migrants themselves and receiving governments, which were most interested in labor issues, not women's civilizing influence. While almost all the 90,000 single women who migrated to Australia under government-assisted passage schemes in the latter half of the nineteenth century were domestic servants, the agencies' services were aimed at the single gentlewomen who were increasingly "surplus" in Britain and who would be ineligible for assisted passages. However, colonial governments often insisted they need hardier, more skilled working-class women, not fragile ladies--a view emigrators protested as short-sighted since educated women were more versatile than unschooled working-class women fit largely for servitude.
In order to make a claim about the importance of their services to the country, the female emigration societies had to direct as much migration to the empire (and elsewhere) as possible. They were not above raising the specter of "white slavery" to frighten women into using their services, reminding them that only professionals could identify all the threats that menaced unsuspecting travelers. Their other major selling point was that emigrating with the help of a society was quicker, cheaper, and more convenient. Societies walked a fine line, portraying emigrant women as incompetent to travel alone while depicting the services of the women running the emigration societies as entirely competent and professional. Recruiting publications and the BWEA vehicle Imperial Colonist were full of narratives that showed how aid from professionals had averted disaster for migrants.
BWEA and the GFS leaders saw emigration as a chance for women to achieve economic independence while helping the empire, and heavily publicized the efforts of women who started their own businesses and farms. They argued that the colonies had fewer of the gender and class structures that prevented women from flourishing in Britain. That the chances of marriage might be higher in an imperial setting was rarely mentioned outright, especially since the societies were initially criticized for merely being marriage bureaus, a characterization resented by emigrators. While many in this era believed women's greatest service to the empire was marriage and motherhood, Chilton finds no evidence for the claim that women emigrants' key aim was marriage.
Most emigrators also believed they had failed in their mission if they did not protect female emigrants' reputations, along with helping them gain independence. Chilton believes it was this aspect of their efforts, along with their maternalist rhetoric, that has resulted in the historiography portraying their efforts as inherently conservative. But while female emigrators did not envision overturning gender relations, they did challenge them. They believed emigration was emancipatory for women, and their competent administration of large and complex organizations without the aid of men was an inherent affront to contemporary gender ideals. One way of softening this challenge was to assume a maternal role toward emigrants, again a role that men were unable to fill.
These organizations were explicitly run by women for women, and emigrators resisted the interference of men in what became their area of expertise. In the 1860s and 1870s, they often harshly criticized local and national migration officials and the inadequate services they provided. As the standing of the emigration societies improved and began to tap more into existing power structures, such public criticism became muted. Men in power generally put up with or even welcomed women's emigration efforts because they found them useful with no cost to the government, although governments eventually took over most voluntary functions. It is in the reactions of men involved that the only major difference between Canada and Australian is found. In Australia not only were many male officials intolerant of women's interference in male responsibilities, but were often actively obstructive. In Canada, more officials appreciated and supported women's efforts.
Chilton's work and notes are well situated and grounded in the literature on female imperial emigration during this period, although she is less successful at claiming a place in the wider literature of migration generally, which is not as prominent in the text, notes, or approach. While the book has fifty pages of endnotes, it lacks a bibliography. The latter is frustrating both for the amount of time wasted searching for a first, full reference and the absence of a full list of sources and archives consulted. The notes do make clear that Chilton largely relied on the archives of the female emigration societies, which left her with the problem shared by other historians of this topic in that few of the materials left there reveal much unguarded or spontaneous thought. Emigrators were expert at self-promotion, and few sources are untainted by this. However, the heavy editing of testimonials or newsletters does not make them useless to the historian, Chilton argues, since testimonials were genuine and appear in enough quantity to reveal glimpses of the real experiences of many emigrants.
Chilton's evidence shows few major differences between Canada and Australia, drawing into question her argument that a comparative approach was necessary to provide insights not possible in the study of a single country. However, it may be as she concludes, that the very similarity of emigration in Canadian and Australian society tells us as much as would have substantial difference. Hers is also a British study, comparing aspects of Scots, English, and Irish migrant experiences, as well as noting rural and urban differences. All in all Chilton has produced a highly readable, solidly researched tale of a group of female reformers who fit neither the mold of radicals nor reactionaries, but who calmly set about changing their country and world in a determined manner grounded in their femininity, which they expertly used as an asset in maneuvering through a male-dominated world.
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Dolly Wilson. Review of Chilton, Lisa, Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930.
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