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Gender and Empire


Gender and Empire: Connecting the Personal to the Political and the Local to the Global

Tracey Rizzo


     Incorporating women, men, and sexuality into world history courses makes impersonal forces, usually the stock-in-trade of the world historian, relatable to students. As the teaching organ of the World History Association, World History Connected reaches PhD dissertation directors and high school teachers alike, bridging the divide between the archive and the classroom by featuring teaching suggestions from scholars working in a range of fields and dedicated to pedagogy. Reacting to the still relative paucity of panels on gender at the 2017 annual meeting of the World History Association, WHC editor Marc Jason Gilbert conceived this forum as a companion to the December 2017 special issue of the Journal of World History on gender and empire that I guest edited.1 Featuring research articles by some of the authors here, the double issue argued forcefully for gender and empire as a subfield of world history that focuses on women, gender, and sexuality while acknowledging the embeddedness of gender systems in racialized categories.2

     Although intersections between gender and empire can be discerned in all periods of intercultural contact, historians writing in this forum focus on the modern European empires, especially of France and Britain, and their influence in Malaysia, Egypt, India, El Salvador and Vietnam. Nearly exclusively set in the 20th century, they offer world history instructors at every level a rich array of well-documented case studies grounded in their own and the latest scholarship. They variously insist on the inclusion of the United States in comparative studies of modern empire; of Latin America as a way to challenge the chronological markers colonial, postcolonial, and neo-colonial; and of oral histories and material culture to add excluded voices to the archives of empire. They also return our attention to the enduring legacies of white bureaucrats, particularly in their representations of colonial subjects.

     Like most of us, the scholar-teachers contributing to this volume were trained as specialists to conduct original research in a narrow field using mostly conventional archival sources. Most of us have published our research findings in specialized journals or monographs. A few of us have published on teaching. All of us teach survey courses in addition to the very occasional upper-level undergraduate course in our areas of specialization. Most professors, even those at PhD granting institutions, experience tension between our teaching and research. Increasingly, more of us are reflecting on our teaching as scholars, and publishing and presenting on it at national conferences. Some of us worry that personnel committees on campus will not value our teaching-oriented publications. Three of us are mid-career; helping others see how our research can enrich classrooms closes the loop that started when we came to love history as young people.

     All of us see the urgency of infusing the world history curriculum with a gender analysis and find that a focus on empire renders it in bite-size chunks. In historiography, just as in history itself, empire as a conceptual tool connects the local to the global. Global forces, such as economic modernization, act on men and women at the level of the local—even at the level of the domestic, the intimate, and the body. And while historians of empire traditionally focused on male actors, only in the last 20 years have they analyzed those actors as men, variously constructed as conquistadors or statesmen, resistance fighters or bureaucrats. Their relationships with women, often crossing racialized boundaries, complicated imperial power structures and might even undermine them, empowering women in the process. While much scholarship explores relationships between white men in these various roles and indigenous women, scholars today also explore the impact of imperialism on relationships between and among the formerly colonized. Decolonizing the curriculum happens when we trace the legacies of imperialism where white people are not the center of the story.

     By comparing global intimacies in apparently different spaces we can discern world historical forces at work in people of color's private lives. Crucially, those forces act independently of the temporal markers historians use to delineate one era from another; for example, the formal end of direct colonial rule in no way halted those forces, as the experience of Latin America shows. Between the 1920s and 1960s modernizing economic and cultural forces opened opportunities for young women to empower themselves, sometimes only after they had been victims of racial, religious, emotional, or familial repression. Women abandoned by lovers, sometimes with children to care for, sought retribution, justice, maybe even autonomy, by accessing institutions of justice. In postcolonial as much as in colonial situations, class, gender, and racial hierarchies repositioned themselves to contain the aspirations of increasingly mobile young people. Yet individual women occasionally achieved their goals.

     Timothy Nicholson's paper, "Intimate Decolonization: Strategies for Reconceptualizing and Teaching the End of European Empires," tracks the long term implications of interracial romances between East African and Indian students during the 1950s and 1960s. He explores how the censure of interracial relationships in the first decades of independence reveals the durability of British era prejudices. Fears of black masculinity underpinned Indian prohibitions on interracial relationships, including the physical harassment of young couples, and rejection of mixed race offspring. His primary sources, accessible to students, include: Indian newspapers; school transcripts and study abroad promotional literature; official pronouncements on the unity of the Anglosphere; and oral testimonies of the East African students themselves. Guiding his students to skillfully assess these sources, Nicholson leverages student self-focus to inspire an identification with the people they study. Hearing the voices of his interview subjects relating some of the most riveting and personal stories of their lives enables empathy, one of the advantages of using case studies to teach world history. Moreover, Nicholson asks students to consider erasures in the archives, to understand their role in concretizing an official story of the nation and its people. While Nicholson's content would add much to world history courses—whether in the world history survey or in upper division courses on decolonization or the Anglosphere—his use of oral histories and exposition of oral history methodologies can add world content to local or US history projects that incorporate interviews as a part of websites featuring timelines, maps, and photographs. Given the level of student excitement about oral history, and the job-related skills curating them adds to their resumes, Nicholson's research will be useful to all of us, Americanists included, who want to situate the local in the global.

     Similarly, Aldo Garcia Guevara's paper, "Using El Salvador to Teach the World History of Gender, Sexuality, and Modernity," creatively engages students in the use of court records in 20th century El Salvador. For those who have some facility in Spanish, or who identify as Latina/o, exploring these sources may foster an identification with the subjects of his research, de-exoticizing them, which is one of his explicit goals. Like Nicholson, he uses newspapers, photographs, and other visual materials to compare Salvadoran women's experiences to women entering the labor market in the early 20th century in more developed economies. By situating their analysis of such primary sources in economic and cultural theory, students will be able to locate El Salvador in world historical trends, such as those identified in The Modern Girl Around the World essay collection, including increased consumerism, self-expression, and rejection of their parents' mores.3

     As a Latin Americanist and world historian, Garcia Guevara integrates Latin America into global histories of imperialism and decolonization. Rather than cordoning off 19th century Latin America into an early postcolonial zone, he uses it to expose the tenuousness of formal independence in a globalizing world. Just as Nicholson traces the legacies of supposedly moribund British-era racial stratifications, Garcia Guevara shows that Salvadoran civil and criminal courts scarcely differed from their colonial predecessors. In both instances, elites maintained their power by enforcing class, gender, and to a lesser degree, racial hierarchies. Nonetheless, these two papers show that East African and Salvadoran women alike could exert some degree of agency by subverting gender norms as students, workers, or lovers, sometimes with the aid of romantic partners, parents, or friends, sometimes on their own. Defending themselves and their lovers against charges of kidnapping and deflowering, women asserted their right to make their own sexual and romantic choices. In explicating these strategies, Garcia Guevara guides students to an understanding of how patriarchy operates, its general precepts, and how it might be resisted.

     Garcia Guevara's is also the only paper to foreground an economic analysis. As the Salvadoran economy shifted to more intensive coffee production, attracting migrants from areas as far flung as Palestine and China, its population diversified in ways that will surprise North American students with little understanding of Central America. Case studies in El Salvador thus illuminate a number of world historical forces at work in the first decades of the 20th century: neo-colonialism; diaspora and immigration; deepening racial complexities; gender and development; and the impact of economic modernization on tradition. As such, modules on any of these topics, incorporated into lower or upper division college world history courses, will be enriched by the addition of Salvadoran content. Moreover, Garcia Guevara's reading assignments introduce students to aspects of modernization found in many economies including urbanization and public hygiene campaigns, and the backlash against women's mobility, especially prostitution, which usually follows.

     Though his approach to Malaysian history is primarily cultural, Matthew Schauer also integrates an economic analysis of handicraft production in "Imperial Objects: Indigenous Handicrafts, Gender, and Colonial Museums in Modern World History." The production of handicrafts by Malaysian men and women during the period of British rule derived more from British romanticizing, if not caricaturing, of Malaysian traditions than from the tradition itself. Imperial education of laborers in imperial perceptions of indigenous culture resulted in the production of objects for imperial consumption in imperial spaces, thus instrumentalizing the laborers themselves. Like Garcia Guevara, however, Schauer recovers the agency of these laborers by tracing the ways in which artisans maintained control over their work, using small details to add individuality to the object, whether metalsmithing performed by men or lacemaking performed by women.

     Tracing the provenance of artifacts also helps students to understand the function of imperial memory institutionalized to this day in European and North American museums. Field trips to museums enable students to apply classroom learning to community spaces. They also have the opportunity to curate their own digital exhibits, gaining experience in the aesthetics and politics of arranging objects, and in the drafting of catalog copy. Specifically for Malaysia, Schauer guides students through Edward Said's Orientalism as a basic vocabulary exercise before introducing the objects.4 Orientalism on the ground, usually introduced by colonial administrators, did not remain confined to the colonial bureaucracy but influenced native bureaucrats, including teachers, who then imparted imperial gender roles to their students who variously appropriated and resisted them for their own purposes.

     Two other papers explore orientalist perceptions of colonized subjects. In "(Colonial) Intimacy Issues: Using French Hanoi to Teach the Histories of Sex, Racial Hierarchies, and Geographies of Desire in the New Imperialism" Michael Vann theorizes about the colonial city as a project in mapping power and sexuality. Using cartoons drawn by bored French officials, Vann tracks Hanoi's predatory sexual culture. Thus, unlike the other papers in this volume, he does not highlight local women's agency, even where it might have existed; neither is he interested in orientalist caricatures of local men. Instead he stays focused on white male power and insecurity, the cartoons serving as vehicles for repressed fantasies of objectified Asian women. Relating his research to contemporary anxieties about sex and power, Vann, like Garcia Guevara, asks students to consider the mechanisms by which men maintain control over women's bodies across different cultures and eras. Studying imperial maps and plotting their racially-segregated residential, commercial, and red light districts, students begin to understand how the segregation of neighborhoods maintains power structures. While it risks mockery, students can also go "slumming" in actual or imagined cities as a way to experience their own privilege or lack thereof. Proximity to middle class and masculine whiteness expanded spheres of mobility in Hanoi and elsewhere. To understand this, Vann discusses the colonial ranking of prostitutes that positioned Jewish sex workers at the top, the fetishizing of their bodies an index for anti-Asian racism.

     Like other authors in this volume Vann explains how he teaches Orientalism to give students appropriate tools for analyzing his primary sources. He introduces a range of theoretical sources on the history of sexuality in general, and of prostitution in particular, to situate Hanoi in comparative contexts that may be more familiar. Furthermore, while all of the authors here discuss the types of archives in which their sources can be found, Vann exposes students to theory about archives as sites of knowledge production, state run and constructed as monuments to empire, their contents usually situated in colonial capitals or transferred back to the metropole, serving a similar function to the museums Schauer studies. Describing the literal and political provenance of the documents they hold in their hands achieves a universal student learning outcome: critical thinking about sources.

     While Vann's cartoons may be decaying in the state archives of Vietnam, other writings by imperialists are widely accessible. In "Gender as a Category of Analysis for Empire? Femininity, Masculinity, and Orientalism," Stephanie Boyle builds a unit around Modern Egypt by Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, published in 1907. Full of orientalist clichés, Modern Egypt is accessible online for free. This has several advantages for students and instructors; too often primary sources are deployed as mere snippets, depriving students of deep and sustained engagement with one text. Like Schauer and Vann, Boyle also introduces students to Said's Orientalism. Using his analysis, students then read Modern Egypt in the context of other writings by British officials and of contemporary Egyptian writers including Qasim Amin. The inclusion of Cromer in a World History course shifts attention away from British India and the trope of the oppressed indigenous woman toward other outposts of the British empire and stereotypes about Egyptian men. By requiring writing assignments which undergo multiple drafts, Boyle moves students from a superficial engagement with the text to one that is nuanced and contextualized. One of her learning outcomes is to foster an understanding of the enduring influence of such texts to continue shaping Western perceptions of the East. Even though he writes as an Orientalist, Cromer's attention to detail and voluminous reporting on Egypt during modernization provides students with content that is missing from many world history textbooks. A close reading helps students think critically about the information imperialists left us, sometimes the only accessible material we have.

     While these authors do not explicitly integrate their content into US history surveys, there are many ways it could be. Indeed, the comparative study of modern imperialism includes the US by definition, most obviously in the Philippines and Central America. Schauer's essay on Malaysia draws from his larger work that analyzes US interventions in Philippine handicraft production. With many of the same orientalist gender assumptions at work, the Philippines provides an access point into world history for students in US history courses; object analysis helps students grasp the impact of economic modernization on craftsmanship, gender, and labor. Garcia Guevara's essay derives from his larger work on Salvadoran responses to US dominated economic modernization of the global south; case studies of women's bids for independence against family, church, community, and nation illustrate both the disruptive and liberatory dimensions of modernization. But even beyond these direct connections, the papers here reveal patterns in world history that apply equally to the US. Those that explore orientalism offer case studies of more general fixations on the sexualized Asian other, including the allure of Japanese prostitutes (Vann) and the effeminization of Middle Eastern men (Boyle). Nicholson's work on racist views held by non-whites towards other non-whites applies in many different US contexts.

     This forum closes with Karen Phoenix's exhaustive bibliographic essay organized by major eras in US history. Like the other authors she highlights the utility of gender as a way into US transnational history. For US students it is crucial to disrupt the home/abroad binary that often relegates world history to an exotic, irrelevant, or annoying corner of general education. Whereas the diplomatic orientation of US survey textbooks, and to a lesser degree their economic orientation, situates the US at the center of world history, cultural approaches to US history remain provincial. Phoenix highlights the scores of publications that make that approach stale. From cookbooks to the transnational YWCA, Americans interacted with gender and empire on a daily basis, even from colonial times. More than that, global white supremacy, produced and disseminated by modern imperialism, informed American assumptions about indigenous and racialized others, and the laws that followed, such as those circumscribing interracial intimacies or immigration. Phoenix usefully points to a relatively recent focus on US borderlands that automatically draws the US into transnational and comparative history; studies of indigenous gender roles, for example, incorporate communities on both sides of the border with Canada, indeed exposing the artificiality of that border. The movement of enslaved men and women between Caribbean and US plantations is often also masked by national histories. Indeed, Olaudah Equiano's transnational itinerary includes the Arctic and Nicaragua in addition to Virginia and Barbados and renders him a genuinely global citizen. A gender analysis of such communities and individuals makes them more relatable to students by drawing attention to personal life, such as Equiano's marriage to a white woman, or the absorption of white fur traders through marriage into Ontario's first nations.

     Many of the topics here are glimpsed in Intimate Empires: Body, Race, and Gender in the Modern World which I co-authored with Steven Gerontakis.5 Synthesizing the work of a generation of scholars and theorists, we consider intimacy broadly, not limited to sexual relationships, but encompassing friendships, childcare, and other features of the domestic sphere including food, clothing, and furnishings, as well as disease management, including especially sexually transmitted diseases, and body modifications such as circumcision. Using life stories like those of James Cook, Emily Ruete, Olaudah Equiano, Mata Hari, and Assia Djebar, and many lesser known individuals, students can see the processes of imperialism operating not just on identity but on the body itself. Instead of being overly theoretical, it relays individual experiences on six continents and over three centuries. To aid student comprehension, the text includes a glossary of terms from orientalism to ableism. It also provides an overview of modern imperialism but leverages the historiography of gender and empire to both simplify and complicate students' understanding of it. According to reviewer Aidan Beatty:

Rizzo and Gerontakis synthesize research from a truly global range of national contexts and in the process have produced a remarkably useful textbook from which even experienced scholars of bodies and gender, race and imperialism could learn much... These case studies [which introduce each chapter] also act as a kind of unifying thread in each chapter, allowing the authors to draw out and elaborate on their six themes in readily accessible ways. Rizzo and Gerontakis also employ a wisely curated selection of visual material, including a photo essay that pictorially introduces the book. The images used throughout strongly buttress the book's arguments and again add to its usefulness for the classroom.6

     The companion website includes sample syllabi, discussion questions per chapter, links to primary sources, and digital timelines for each chapter constructed by students using Knightlab's Timeline JS. The timelines include tags so that viewers can sort content by topic (e.g., homosexuality, slavery) or by region (e.g., British Empire, Vietnam). Like many textbooks, the e-book can also be assigned in chunks enabling the importation of content into a wide range of course syllabi, from the US or world history survey to focused courses on India, masculinity, or the long 19th century.

     Exploring the social construction of racialized and sexualized bodies, an upper level college course built around Intimate Empires can begin with theories about the development of modern masculinity and femininity complicated by race, class, ability, and age (chapters 1 and 2). Constructing data visualizations that show these identities occurring along a spectrum, students can then survey the institutions that produce these identities from the schoolroom to the courtroom, facilitated by doctors, teachers, missionaries, and vendors (chapter 3). By examining their own consumption of globally produced cosmetics, clothing, music, and food, students immediately grasp cultural hybridity and alternately enjoy and despise the global forces that produce them. As with Salvadoran court records, Malaysian handicrafts, or Vietnamese cartoons, they will become adept at discovering the provenance of the artifacts of empire which saturate their daily lives (chapter 4). Hybrid cultural products include the body itself when practices as diverse as tattooing, birthing, and clitoridectomy crossed cultures and enacted the struggle between tradition and modernity on the body (chapter 5). Students can debate these topics and explore them further in their own research projects. They can creatively imagine gendered acts of resistance, expressed through drawings or poetry, and then find historical examples of lovers eloping or freedom fighters martyring themselves, the stuff of historical films which can also be used to engage students in the study of gender and empire (chapter 6).

     This broad content could also be integrated into courses on women, gender, and sexuality while the specific examples, derived from a bibliography of over 200 entries, could be brought into literally any history or anthropology course. This is the beauty of world history: we develop frameworks such that any story can be understood as revelatory of the human experience.

     As this issue goes to press, news of the College Board's decision to begin AP World History in 1450 riveted the World History Association this summer. Although the papers in this forum are all modern, we affirm the premise of World History as a field that uses case studies to understand sweeping, even transcendent, features of human experience, including those described here that are not wholly unique to modernity. When we refer back, as several of the authors here do, to Buddhism, or the caste system, or medieval property laws, we affirm that nothing modern can be fully understood without reference to what preceded it centuries before. According to current WHA president Merry Wiesner-Hanks, "we've learned world history as a distinct way of approaching the human past that emphasizes skills and ways of asking questions. Through that struggle, we have learned a lot that wasn't initially in our respective areas of expertise, and have come to value histories we didn't learn as students, including those of earlier periods. We want students at every level to have exposure to this broad panorama, to allow them to better understand and function in their increasingly interdependent world."7 As practitioners of a distinct methodology, world historians are naturally interested in how we know as much as what we know; thus we reflect on knowledge production daily as we write and teach. As scholars committed to teaching, we thank the WHA for advocating for the panoramic approach to the study of the past, and enabling access to it for students and teachers at every level of the educational system.

Tracey Rizzo is Professor and Chair of History at UNCA Asheville ( She thanks Heather Streets-Salter, Trevor Getz, Judith P. Zinsser and Steven Gerontakis for all manner of support including impeccable and generous peer review.


1 Tracey Rizzo, ed., “Gender and Empire,” Special Issue of The Journal of World History. 28.2 and 3 (December 2017).

2A generation of scholar-teachers now incorporates theory and case studies from British Empire historians like Antoinette Burton; French empire historians like Robert Aldrich; and US historians like Warwick Anderson to name but a few. These authors pivot to varying degrees to the sphere of the intimate whose theoretical formulation was articulated by Ann Laura Stoler over 20 years ago. See Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, eds., Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Robert Aldrich and Kirsten McKenzie, The Routledge History of  Western Empires (New York: Routledge, 2013); Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 2010).

3 Alys Eve Weinbaum et al, eds. The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

4 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

5 Tracey Rizzo and Steven Gerontakis, Intimate Empires: Body, Race and Gender in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

6 Aidan Beatty, “Review of Intimate Empires,” H-Empire (June 2018).

7 Merry Wiesner-Hanks, “Petition to College Board on Behalf of the World History Association,” June 2018.

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