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New Histories of the Memsahib and Missus: The Case of Papua New Guinea Chilla Bulbeck The consensus among the women ... was that they could see long before the men that it was time for them to go. "We'd had our go, it was only right that it was their turn." "Women sense these things more. The men seemed to think of it as a defeat." 'Tt was their country and they wanted to run it themselves." "Somehow the men couldn't see it really happening. All the women knew." "The men took it somehow personally." "It really wasn't our country."1 With these words, a group of expatriate women remember the early 1970s on the eve of Australian withdrawal from Papua New Guinea. The women's reactions were quite distind from those of their husbands, whether it was intuition or a different perspective which allowed them a clearer view of the future. It has long been accepted that white women's and white men's attitudes to the colonial projed differed. The debate has concerned whether white women were more or less racist than men. There are three strands to this debate. Until the mid 1980s the field was dominated by male writers whose main concern was race relations. They judged radsm in terms of opposition to sexual relations or sodal interaction with indigenous people. In the last five years a number of female historians have questioned both the accuracy of the portrayal of white women as "noxious memsahibs" and the appropriateness of male historians' measure of racism , particularly as regards the index of sexual encounters. Over the last few years, women from the third world have entered the debate to reassert the racism of white women in colonial settings. Some of these most recent critiques reaffirm the template of class and race relations developed by male historians; others focus on interactions between white women and indigenous women, finding evidence of white women's belief in radal superiority. Thus only in the last few years has the white woman found a voice in colonial histories. Her voice questions the myth of the ignorant, jealous memsahib who turned the happy arcady of early race relations into a bitter segregation. However, almost as soon as she spoke up, the white woman has been told to shut up again. She is told that she speaks from a selective memory; she paints her role in colony-making in the most favorable light; and she refuses to understand the deep-seated class and race oppression which charaderize all colonies. This essay explores this recent debate in ferninist historiography as it iUuminates the experiences of white women in Australia's major colonial enterprise—Papua New Guinea. © 1991 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall) 1991 Chilla Bulbeck 83 The Life and Times of the Noxious Memsahib Perhaps the memsahib, celebrated in anti-heroic proportions by Kipling's writings, is the best-known image of the racist white expatriate. Charles Miller in 1977 described the British memsahib as "the most noxious figure in the annals of British imperialism."2 Charles Allen in the same year attributed India's "petty intolerances," "cold-hearted arrogance," and prejudices to these women.3 C. D. Rowley, despite his trenchant criticism of the racist aspeds of Australia's administration in Papua New Guinea, dedared "the arrival of the wives forms a turning point; the club becomes the centre of interaction for the tiny group of 'whites'; and here they tend to retire from the 'natives/ "4 The wives engage in gossip which determines promotions. Their moral policing discourages patrol offices from sympathetically implementing the polides which lessen discrimination. Marital infidelity leads to disruption of adrninistration through repostings, while sexual hostility prevents relations with the New Guiñean women: Free and easy relationships of the officer with the villagers, especially the village women, become difficult. As "European" women will tend to be conservative in race relations, ferninine influence and concern for children emphasises the colour bar (while making full use of "native" servants).5 Hypocritical, racist, all-powerful, sexually jealous, Rowley's portrait is of an Antipodean memsahib. James Boutilier endorses this perspective: European women were not well...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 82-105
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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