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  • What's British about Gender and Empire?The Problem of Exceptionalism
  • Philippa Levine (bio)

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rocks the world,
And it waves above each infant head a Union Jack unfurled.

—Aladdin, or Love Will Find a Way

When historians speak of exceptionalism, it is the history and the historiography of the United States that comes most immediately to mind. The notion of American exceptionalism has certainly dominated historical thinking, but its preeminence should not blind us to a parallel tradition within the spectrum of British ideas and rhetoric.1 Britain also espoused a strong doctrine of exceptionalism, which, like that of the United States, was most boldly and widely expressed at the zenith of Britain's power and authority. Exceptionalism, in short, and as Robert Gregg has persuasively argued, was an "imperial formulation" premised on exclusion and elision.2 A celebration of Britain's allegedly unique skills in colonizing vast tracts of the globe, swaddled in the discourse of civilization and progress, justified imperial conquest and rule just as American exceptionalism vindicated the slaughter of native Americans and the appropriation of their lands, especially at the height of westward expansion. In tandem with its powerful validation of empire building, exceptionalism also strengthened the idea of national particularity, with its emphasis on the positioning of one nation as especially endowed or destined for greatness and for rightful power. In the case of modern Britain that power was the sway over colonized peoples and countries, stressing the moral and civilizational gap between ruler and ruled.

Central and fundamental to British exceptionalism in the age of empire was the construction of gendered ideas about manliness and femininity. This focus on gender explained, justified, and sustained not only the distinctions assiduously drawn by the British between their own culture and that of other peoples but also the need and rationale for colonial rule. British rule was justified by the proper masculinity displayed by colonizing men. It was through their attitudes to and treatment of women that other cultures could be measured and judged. Gender itself—masculinity, femininity—was hedged by this imperial exceptionalism, a comparative strategy adopted by both men and women. Women activists, as I show in due course, used the alleged degradation of women in "lesser" societies to advance their own claims to [End Page 273] a greater stake in public activities, while many a male writer measured progress toward civilization specifically in terms of the treatment of women by men.

This balance sheet of gender appropriateness not only served to put distance between exceptional Britain and its lesser colonies in need of enlightenment, but it also defined the nation itself as exceptional. "All nations," as Anne McClintock has argued, "depend on powerful constructions of gender."3 For the British, gender considerations could both define the nation positively and justify imperial intervention. The entitlement endowed by exceptionalism was linked, too, to the idea of inevitability, of a teleological historical path.4 The belief in a predestined order (in American terms, encapsulated in the idea of "manifest destiny") could justify imperial conquest and likewise fixed gender roles; both were part of the greater unfolding of history in which men and women played apparently complementary roles.

Colonized men found themselves variously labeled, some (the best allegedly) as warriorlike. The less desirable were described as feminized effetes, or oversexed and uncontrollable savages, while British men stood above or outside of gender, manly in detached ways that naturalized their superior grace. To be gendered was thus to be removed from rule and power; it was itself a mark of subjection shared by women and by colonized men. Neutrality and objectivity were signifiers, in a sense, of a white masculinity that rose above measurement and assessment. While women and the colonized were held back by, defined by, and marked indelibly by their racial and gendered characteristics, such signifiers were irrelevant in the lives of those who ruled and who saw themselves as fit for, and entitled to, rule. For one should never forget that exceptionalism was, and remains, an expression of entitlement.

Such sentiments were well established by the eighteenth century, developed enthusiastically by the major figures of the...


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