Ian Christopher Fletcher, Laura E. Nym Mayhall, Philippa Levine, eds. Women's Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation, and Race. Ser. Routledge Research in Gender and History. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. xxii + 252 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-20805-5.
Reviewed by Marilyn Booth (Research Scholar, Program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Center for African Studies, and Program in Comparative and World Literature, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (April, 2002)
Imperious Ironies: Politics of Suffrage, Discourses of Citizenship, and Facts of Empire
Imperious Ironies: Politics of Suffrage, Discourses of Citizenship, and Facts of Empire
Getting the vote has been of central symbolic as well as practical import in women's collective struggles for gender justice in the modern age. Consequently, women's suffrage was one of the earliest foci of West-oriented historiography on gender activism, a key trope in the construction of a liberal Euro/North American feminist narrative of historical struggle and triumph. The vote was no less resonant as a signifier of possibility, participation, and transnational empathies for women engaged in national liberation struggles the world over. In post-World War I Egypt, for example, elite women appropriated the imagery of European women's wartime work as the road to the vote to argue for their own ambitions to political participation in a putatively independent nation. It is no wonder, then, that women's suffrage structured much early feminist historiography. As the study of gender has ramified and grown in sophistication and coverage, though, the vote has receded as a peg from which to drape feminist scholarship. Equally, and ironically, suffrage as a political process has tended to drop out of the picture, in favor of seeing it as a signifier of the social: a measure of women's "progress" in attaining access to social goods, cultural capital, and economic latitude.
This collection of essays argues the pivotal positioning of women's suffrage as indicator, mechanism, and multivalent symbol in struggles over democracy's expansion and as a key domain in individual and collective identity formation during nation-state consolidation. For these scholars, suffrage, rather than being seen as a touchstone within women's history, holds center stage in formations of national and international politics. Inseparable from this--and central to every essay in this book--is the multiple force of women's suffrage in maintaining, extending, and resisting imperial authority in the age of high imperialism, specifically in the British Empire, formal and informal. From the dominions settled by white immigrants to the direct colonial hegemony in India, the less formal Mandate authority in Palestine, and British-versus-Russian "spheres of influence" in Iran, competing discourses and activisms around women's suffrage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had everything to do with the stakes of imperious London's future. For "the woman question" as a thermometer of civilizational "levels" (a discourse appropriated and shaped by elites the world over) had its mirror-image in the rhetoric of an imperial civilizing mission whose self-definition as the savior of colonized womanhoods through the proliferation and example of "the (British, or European, or white, or Christian) race" served as convenient justification for Britain's continued multi-continental hegemony. If "the race" was supposedly "the human race," only certain segments of it had access to political authority. What interests did different categories of imperial citizens and subjects have in proposing--or in opposing--women's political participation as voters, posed at different intersections of imperial authority, civil society, and anti-colonialist nationalisms? How did women's suffrage--whether enacted or not--affect the meanings accruing to circuits of political participation, the national or the imperial?
Only three of this volume's fourteen essays treat societies of the Middle East directly, but scholars of the Middle East will also benefit from other essays' careful historicizing of imperial-colonial relations and the roles played by gender-based rights campaigns therein. Analyses of maternalist discourses as useful both to women's-suffrage advocates and to its opponents (as in Donal Lowry's fascinating portrait of a Rhodesian anti-feminist who became the British Empire's first female parliamentarian!) resonate against the symbolic uses of motherhood by early Arab feminists, for example. And the varying valences of commonality, appeal, resistance, and conflict that colonized elites (including feminists) throughout the formal and informal empire demonstrated with respect to the metropole are pertinent to the study of feminisms in the Middle East.
The editors make clear their participation in the relatively new scholarly allegiance to "the transnational" as methodology as well as scope, that is, to the notion of empire as a set of flows and multi-directional relations, "both centripetal and centrifugal, between colonies and metropole, ^Å[a] web of interactions includ[ing] relationships between colonies" (p. xiii). This perspective also foregrounds the argument that while suffrage as institution is formulated within national boundaries, suffrage as theater of action need not be. It was not only that women of different national communities made alliances; white women of settler colonies--and to a much smaller extent, indigenous women from colonized territoriesmade their presences felt in London politics. Ian Christopher Fletcher notes the transnational character of suffrage politics in the Isles themselves, for Scottish, Irish and English women adopted variant styles of "transnational solidarity" attendant partly on the status of national struggles "within" the "United" Kingdom. Groups sensitive to diversity in the "local" suffrage struggle, were less sensitive to struggles elsewhere in the empire, silent on a "hidden imperial racial hierarchy" (p. 112). Angela Woollacott shows that Australian feminists both drew from their experience in the metropole's feminist circles and formulated a more egalitarian "Commonwealth" feminism that eventually took note of "mutual interests between India and the self-governing dominions" (p. 208).
Attending to the mutual impact of colony and metropole in discrete contexts, as a set of essays this volume tends to look like the spokes of a wheel. There is little attention to colony-colony interaction except perhaps in the inevitably tangled narrative of Arab Palestinian and Zionist nationalisms in Mandate Palestine; Ellen Fleischmann on Palestinian women's activism and Ruth Abrams on Jewish women's Equal Rights Association show the loud silences that bound women's activisms there. Abrams shows the dependence of the Jewish association on bourgeois feminist organizations in Europe, noting the paradox of supporting an ideal of liberal nation-state citizenship but in "a national ideology born in the midst of a rejection of liberal values" (p. 121), where "democratic" and "theocratic" outlooks competed. Not only were the professional women who founded this organization silent or patronizing toward Arab women; they also put themselves in an heirarchized, quasi-imperial position with regards to other Jewish women, those of Sephardi communities, linking them discursively to Palestinian Arabs by characterizing both groups as mired in practices that mitigated against support for women's emancipation agendas such as that of the Europe-gazing ERA. Yet, Abrams points out, one cannot trace the fissures in support for suffrage according to communal adherence: Ashkenazi haredim were implacably opposed to any public role for women, while Sephardi, more distant from Orthodox interpretations, were "more flexible" (p. 125).
But many essays do make the point that if the spokes were all attached to London, they did not necessarily "flow" that way: women campaigning for suffrage did not necessarily look to Britain, and those who had attained the vote in advance of British women--or of some British women--used that chronology advantageously, as they also resisted notions that the imperial "center" could paternalistically (or maternalistically) speak for all. These essays decenter Britain even as they return periodically to London. Mrinalini Sinha's essay on Indian and English women's organizations divergent positions on Indian women's suffrage, in the years after women over 30 had gotten the right to vote in Britain, analyzes these groups' "shared, but contradictory, investment...in the rhetoric of internationalism" (p. 225) but to very different purposes. Imperial feminists saw "internationalism" as a continuance of imperial reach, and most did not address the hierarchical and racist assumptions that shaped their own outlooks. Gender activists in India, whether they regarded themselves as feminists or not, also drew on the notion of "women" as a "potentially unified political category" (p. 225), evincing a debt to bourgeois liberal feminist ideals. Yet for them, the category of "women" as voters of the future conveyed a concept of autonomous national communities within an international framework cemented partly by "sisterhood"--but not the big-little sister relationship envisioned by their British counterparts. At the same time, Indian women's suffrage could be imagined as the recuperation of ancient Indian women's societal position, thus offering nationalists an impeccable sign of both national "continuity" and "modern" progress while simultaneously posing a historical venerability against Britain's "upstart" empire. Similarly, Raewyn Dalziel shows the symbolic importance to male nationalists in New Zealand of instituting the women's vote in 1893, as part of a declaration of a vanguardist "social laboratory" that settlers used to justify their presence and parade their "progressiveness" with respect to the "mother country." Because the women's vote was a matter of social reform rather than democratic expansion, "women found their new power...strictly bounded" (p. 88).
The editors have divided the volume into three parts, respectively on suffrage as political process and identity; imperial suffragism as a focus for comparative analysis; and transnational linkages. These divisions are overwhelmed by the careful attention to complexities in most of the essays. In Part I, Laura Mayhall's essay on British suffragists' use of the struggle over settlers' political rights in South Africa, and the ensuing war of 1899-1901, to advance their own claims and the empire's hegemony simultaneously, shows the formation of political identities as necessarily transnational. Antoinette Burton, whose work on the mutual constitution of Victorian/Edwardian feminism and high British imperialism has been key in opening up the intellectual spaces that contributors to this volume occupy, analyzes Josephine Butler's argument for supporting British participation in the Boer War to "save" black Africans from Afrikaners--not incidentally, through the participation of white British women in the mechanisms of empire. Burton utilizes Wendy Brown's notion that "wounded attachments" to the state, or partial belonging and partial power, create the impetus among marginalized subjects to seek not only redress but also the status of citizen. Using the "wounds" of colonized Others, imperial feminists deployed a diction of "empathy" to claim their own political centrality as spokespeople within--and certainly not against--the imperial formation. The female citizen as a signifier of modern political participation defined herself through investment in an Other whose claims could be kept safely at bay through equal investment in the hierarchies of empire.
Parts II and III hold material of direct interest to scholars of west Asia, the essays by Abrams and Fleischmann already mentioned, and an essay by Mansour Bonakdarian tracing British suffragists interest in Iranian women's political activism in the period 1906-11, as the British suffragist campaign was at a pre-World War I height and Iranian women were active in the constitutional crisis. Bonakdarian finds that both stereotypes and culturally respectful visions went in both directions; homogenizing narratives of "other women" were countered by attempts to understand specificities. British suffragists took note of interest in women's suffrage among Iranians so long before women in Britain had attained the vote: a reminder that specific feminist campaigns in other parts of the world were often simultaneous with, or preceded, those in "the West."
Although the editors state that their goals in this volume focus more on how suffrage has permeated and shaped inter/national politics than on how it has shaped the category "women," less overtly, one issue that this volume raises and historicizes is that of the extent to which campaigns for women's franchise, or other assays onto the public political stage, can be considered "feminist." In proposing women's equal political participation (at least at the voting box), women's suffrage must be "feminist." Yet, even without considering the potential for negative impact of one feminism (an imperial feminism constructed on racist assumptions) on another (a feminism emerging from, and part of, an anti-imperial liberation struggle), it is clear that tactics women used, as well as explicit and implicit assumptions activists deployed in their campaigns, could undermine as much as advance feminist goals, not only by accepting the strictures of an existing political system not built on equality as the context in which to work, but also by posing gender difference as a basis for political activism. The only essay that explicitly raises the issue of feminist definitions is Fleischmann's narrative of Mandate-era Palestinian women's activism, which political exigency set firmly within the national struggle. Thus, women's activism was complexly situated within not only local but regional and transnational histories, notably that of British imperial support for the Zionist settlement project. While these Palestinian women "did not articulate an explicitly feminist agenda" (p. 139), Fleischmann finds their use of "traditional gender norms" such as notions of honor and women's privacy to resist British troops suggestive of an "indigenous feminism" that exposed contradictions in Mandate policies. Fleischmann suggests that these women had found a "safe" way to also challenge "internal patriarchal norms" in the interest of their future civil rights. Examining elite women's activism, Fleischmann unpacks the statist orientation of women's organizations, which unsurprisingly in the context of ongoing national struggle, "had a particular concept of the 'political' which divested feminism of its political content, and instead relegated it to the domain of the 'social' (p. 146). Moreover, Fleischmann notes succinctly that the Mandate government's policy of "non-interference" in daily life competed with changes that its presence partly brought about, both in terms of growing demand for middle-class professionals, women as well as men, and in terms of a rapidly intensifying political situation from the late 1920s.
I agree with Fleischmann that in respecting multiple allegiances one must not construct a "false dichotomy between women's expressions of support for feminist or nationalist causes" (p. 139). But it seems to me that a resistant use of gender norms--marvelously appropriate to shame British officers cognizant of the official discourse of "respect" for "native" norms--might tend to maintain as much as to loosen gendered boundaries of comportment, even as facts on the ground called women--especially non-elite women, as Fleischmann notes--to traverse public ground as part of the resistance movement. Resorting to the rhetoric of "tradition" can be a dangerous strategy. Protesting British violations of women's "traditional rights" and the sanctity of the home was a great nationalist tactic, and the women's courage is undoubted--but was it a feminist move? If "the very existence of women's dynamic activism defied the [conservative] definitional foundations of Palestinian nationalism" (p. 148), does this constitute feminism? In any case, if suffrage itself was an irrelevance in the urgency of the national struggle, in the strains of the Mandate period one finds the shape of activisms to come.
Indeed, the screaming relevance of historical narratives to fissures of the present sounds throughout this volume. Legacies of colonial boundaries made, racist policies enacted, and religious-communal identities exploited are all entwined in histories of women's suffrage. The acceptance of racial hierarchies by feminists who argued against gender hierarchies meant, for instance, that to imperial feminists gazing at South Africa, debates over male suffrage meant "white male suffrage" (Mayhall). In Mandate Palestine, women's political rights were hostage to politics. Abrams notes that Jewish feminists' demands were "caught up in the struggle to determine the character of the new institutions to be created under the British Mandate" (127). As in so many situations, women's suffrage as an issue became a marker of male political stances more than a goal in itself; feminist campaigns also had to contend with the British imperial practice of defining populations by religious belonging, which precluded some feminists' "quest for secular status" (p. 129) yet, ironically, allowed a Jewish lawyer to argue for (and gain) the right to practice on the basis that Muslim women were not prohibited from the practice of law by any explicit injunction in Islamic law! In South Africa, a maternalist construction of (white) women as political subjects, largely silent on race, "helped consolidate white power through metaphoric images invoked by suffragists about the relation between white women and Africans" (p. 69), as Pamela Scully demonstrates in "White Maternity and Black Infancy." The enfranchisement of white women depended on disenfranchising black South Africans, infantilizing them as the objects of white women's legislative energies. Scully's essay is powerfully explicit on the operation of silence in maintaining existing power structures, a theme that runs through this collection, and is sadly pertinent to our own time. Abrams notes the continuity between Mandate-period Jewish women activists' distance from both Sephardi and Arab Muslim or Christian women and contemporary failures of communication. And for Fleischmann, "The intractability of the struggle which continues to this day has had an inordinate impact on the history and development of the Palestinian women's movement, resulting in an evolving, complex correlation between feminism and nationalism the origins of which can be traced to the Mandate period" (p. 139).
Gesturing to the sad present as well, Sinha's essay notes that Indian women rejected the notion of separate communal electorates in India, an issue entangled in the 1930s with that of women's suffrage, while British women anxious to assert their self-defined mission of speaking for the other women of the empire--and extending that empire's life--lobbied for communal divisions, a common tactic in imperial rule-books. Yet Indian women's organizations, rejecting the "internationalism" of British feminisms, "provided cover to a hegemonic nationalism that remained vulnerable to critiques of its unspoken gender, caste, class and religious hierarchies" (p. 236). Sinha has the last word in this collection--and it is one that speaks loudly to our riven times.
Sinha shows that some in Britain--without apparently sensing the irony or the arrogance of their words--argued that only enfranchised British women, "and thus neither organized and enfranchised women in India nor male Indian politicians--could truly represent the cause of Indian women before the imperial state" (pp. 226-27). British women, some of them now enfranchised, wanted to demonstrate their own influence over the future of the empire before it was too late--before Indian women could determine their own course! If the imperious ironies of imperial feminisms now seem obvious to us, it is partly because of the groundbreaking historical work of Antoinette Burton, Mrinalini Sinha, Philippa Levine, and many others, including those working in west Asian and North African contexts; and partly because of our own historical moment and the narratives now that feminists have created and challenged. Wherever we may be located, our own feminist and transnational age has imperious ironies of its own, but how fortunate we are as scholars and activists to partake in excellent scholarship that shatters the frameworks of near and distant pasts by carefully examining them, splinter by splinter.
. Marilyn Booth, "Women's Constructions of the Great War in Egypt," conference paper, "The First World War as Remembered in the Countries of the Eastern Mediterranean," The German Institute for Oriental Studies, Beirut, Lebanon, Apr. 27-May 1 2001.
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Marilyn Booth. Review of Fletcher, Ian Christopher; Mayhall, Laura E. Nym; Levine, Philippa, eds., Women's Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation, and Race.
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Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.