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The Feminist Quest for Identity: Bntish Imperial Suffragism and "Global Sisterhood" 1900-19151 Antoinette Burton In the late twentieth century, there are few practitioners of feminist politics who have not been forced to confront the arguments which link feminist attitudes to racist and classist ideologies.2 Indeed, anyone seeking to understand feminisms and their implications for either collective action or sodal theory must acknowledge that, despite the essential role of gendered analyses in the work of sodal, political and cultural transformation , feminist movements do not and cannot condud their theoretical critiques from any kind of privileged vantage point. In fact, it is precisely because of the embeddedness of feminists past and present in their own cultures, national assumptions, and geopolitical formations that women's movements must constantly recognize that they, too, are products of the discrete historical circumstances in which they think, live and work for change.3 Feminisms are, to borrow from Caroline Ramazanoglu, themselves the "cultural product(s) of a particular historical period."4 Despite the apparently self-evident nature of this daim, the historical relationship of feminisms to European imperialist ideologies remains largely unexamined by historians of western feminist movements. This is not from want of attention to imperialism's unpad on gender relations either at home or in the colonial arena.5 Nor does it stem from a lack of stated recognition of the fact that early western women's movements were shaped by imperial attitudes.6 In the European context this kind of recognition has chiefly taken the form of short and incisive analyses, such as Mariana Valverde's review of Sheila Jeffrey's The Sexuality Debates or Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar's equally important call for a challenge to "imperial feminism."7 Such demands and others like them have been answered over the past decade by feminists in a variety of fields who share a deep concern about the ethnocentric pitfalls of feminist scholarship and who have not failed to address, among other things, "the problems of exclusion in feminist thought."8 But what passes for consensus about the racist traditions of western European feminisms, at any rate, lacks supporting historical evidence and analysis.9 Critical feminist work in a variety of disdplines points again and again to the need for re-examining early "female emandpators" and for understanding their relationships with their imperial cultures10 and to the larger European/American imperial enterprises. © 1991 Journal of Women's History, Vol 3 No. 2 (Fall) 1991 Antoinette Burton 47 As Amos and Parmar pointed out in 1984, "the movement for female emandpation in Britain was closely linked to theories of radal superiority and Empire."11 Despite their insistence that nineteenth century western feminism was "imperial," however, its historically imperial context remains one of the most negleded charaderistics of modern British feminisms . The birth of the women's movement in the late 1850s, with the emergence of women's reform groups, feminist periodicals, and, by 1867, the first women's suffrage petition to the House of Commons, coindded with the unleashing of Palmerstonian imperial confidence and a "creeping colonialism" which, within two decades, would make greater Britain a full-fledged formal empire.12 As the women's movement won one victory —the opening up of university education, the Married Women's Prop erty Ad—after another, the British government annexed the Punjab, Disraeli bought the Suez canal, and adventurers and financiers "scrambled" across Africa. Middle-class British feminisms13 and the British empire thus came of age more or less simultaneously. But the late Victorian and Edwardian women's movements share more than just chronological coinddence with empire. As I have suggested elsewhere, middle-class British feminists matured during an imperial age and partidpated in many of the assumptions of the imperial culture in which they lived and in which they sought female emandpation in its wide variety of forms.14 Despite the diversity of feminist programs during the period 1865 to 1915—from education to suffrage to the crusade against prostitution—bourgeois women with different shades of "feminist'' commitment shared a self-image of themselves as the rightful dtizens of an imperial nation. Many of them justified women's equality on the grounds that, as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 46-81
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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