This article traces the genealogy of a persistent cultural stereo-type that has long defined and constituted academic and popular knowledge about Burma and, more broadly, Southeast Asia: the "traditional" high status of women. Although Southeast Asia scholars today generally concur that claims about the high status of women in the region are oversimplified and problematic, postcolonial scholars of Burma largely have perpetuated the discourse of gender equality, which has deterred any attempt to complicate conceptualizations of gender relations and hierarchies in historical Burma.

This study investigates the process whereby the "traditional" autonomy of Burmese women was constructed in opposition to the likewise "traditional" subordinate status of women in South Asia and in contestation of the superiority of European culture and society. It argues that this "tradition" is a product of the multivalent representational practice by colonizing and colonized women and men in unequal relations of power who coauthored essentially and powerfully gendered discourses of colonialism, modernization, and nationalism. This article concludes by suggesting possible ways to move beyond the practice of enshrining persistent and monolithic cultural stereotypes as essential components of Southeast Asian history and to engender scholarship of the region firmly located within, not isolated from, specific and complex historical contexts.