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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 508-511

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Book Review

Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race

Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race. Edited by RUTH ROACH PIERSON and NUPUR CHAUDHURI. Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 314. Index. $29.95 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).

It used to be that the British Empire was considered "no place for a lady." When mainly European middle-class women became more directly involved in imperial enterprises as teachers, nurses, traders, or colonial wives in the late nineteenth century, they were later held responsible for "losing the British Empire." In France, conversely, women were upbraided for being indifferent to the French empire in the pre-World War I era; their lack of involvement in things imperial meant that they contributed to weakening la plus grande France. [End Page 508] Whether women were responsible for the loss of vast overseas territories and countless numbers of colonial subjects is no longer debated by a small, select club of largely male historians concerned primarily with Great Britain. In the past two decades, practitioners of women's and gender history have focused increasingly upon the modern European empires and by doing so have reinvigorated a sub-field of inquiry virtually moribund by the 1960s as an academic specialty. But empire is big--too big. And if gender analysis operates only at the level of imperialism as a huge construct, frequently the object of study loses its fine grain, social actors forfeit agency, local meanings fade. Moreover, empires begin to look suspiciously alike when examined principally through imperial rhetoric and discourse--whether devoted to women and gender or other issues. In short, macro-level analysis tends to smooth out important differences; this is all the more true when different kinds of modern empires are juxtaposed for comparative purposes. Fortunately, this is not what happened here. Nation, Empire, Colony paradoxically enlarges the notion and space of empire by combining a micro-historical methodology with a case-study approach.

Prefaced by a fine theoretical introduction written by Ruth Roach Pierson, the sixteen essays in this edited volume resulted from the 1995 conference of the International Federation for Research in Women's History held in conjunction with the 18th International Congress of Historical Sciences. Both of the editors, Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri, were instrumental in that international effort and both have contributed much to women's history and gender studies over the years. The volume's historical range and geographical sweep make it somewhat unusual; chronologically the articles run from the eighteenth century until the post-World War II era and no part of the globe has been excluded. The final essay, a theoretical piece by Himani Bannerji, "Politics and the Writing of History," makes astute observations regarding the failure of the Subaltern Studies group to address women's history; however, this piece is composed in the jargon-ridden prose of the post-colonial tribe and is impenetrable to students and off-putting to many teachers and scholars. Since Pierson presents the main points of each of the other case-study chapters in her introduction, I will not duplicate her discussion, but will instead comment on the volume as an integrated set of arguments.

The fundamental theoretical position is that the elaboration of nation-states, empires, and colonies as historical processes simultaneously forced open some arenas for female insurgency, activism, and agency while foreclosing others. Most of the recent literature on [End Page 509] women and imperialism, whether monographs or edited volumes, tends to view empire through a British field glass, although other imperial powers--France, Italy, the Netherlands, and so forth--are finally receiving notice. But Chaudhuri, Pierson, and their contributors are interested in much more than formal empire. They have placed gender relations, theories, and figurations at the center of their analyses so as to interpret or reinterpret the "neglected experiences of women" on the periphery, however that periphery is defined. Thus, we find a chapter on "Uprooted Women: Partition of Punjab 1947" by Aparna Basu; a piece devoted to Maori peoples...


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