- French Women and the Empire: The Case of Indochina by Marie-Paule Ha
This well-researched and well-documented monograph by Marie-Paule Ha is a much-needed addition to the scholarship on gender and French imperialism in Indochina. Until now, little has been known about French colonial women and the sociopolitical [End Page 256] context surrounding their migration to, and settlement in, the colony. Drawing on rich but hitherto barely exploited sources — including colonial archives, memory texts, private writings, and interviews — Ha’s extensive research illuminates the complexity and the diversity of these women’s lives, and presents findings that challenge the general assumption about the homogeneity of their profiles and their passive homemaking role in the colony. Commencing, in Chapter 1, with a search for the facts surrounding the ‘real’ Mme Donnadieu (mother of the French writer Marguerite Duras), Ha’s investigation into the portrayed hardship of this widow’s life in Indochina develops into in-depth research on French colonial women’s history. In Chapter 2, the author’s recontextualization of the nexus between gender, migration, and the empire permits her to approach the masculine French civilizing mission from a feminine perspective. In Chapter 3, Ha draws on the Orientalist tradition that underpins the making of the native woman to analyse the twin discourses of the colonial feminine mystique and the white woman’s burden. She brilliantly demonstrates here the impossibility of the double mission expected of French colonial women: to maintain white superiority while acting as educators for the less ‘civilized’ female natives. Focusing, in Chapter 4, on an analysis of the persona of the coloniak, Ha argues that the portrayal of the metropolitan bourgeoise migrant, motivated by an agenda of empire-building, was an invention of the promotional literature and did not reflect the reality on the ground. Supported by government data, the author addresses this class-related discrepancy by identifying and analysing different categories of French nationals: soldiers-turned-settlers; the mixed-race (Chapter 5); female civil servants (Chapter 6); and female professionals (Chapter 7). Devoting the last chapter to examination of the coloniales’ social and domestic life, Ha argues that, contrary to the French government’s expectations, the presence of white women in the colonies and their homemaking efforts did little to reinforce French norms and values. Rather than serving as an exclusive model of Frenchness, their imperial home became a two-way contact zone, a hybridized site of encounter and interaction between colonizers and colonized. Ha concludes with a return to the demystified figure of Mme Donnadieu and a stress on the coloniales’ role and agency. This book synthesizes narratives and valuable archive data pertaining to the coloniales’ accounts, and breaks new ground in the understanding of colonial gender politics of the Third Republic. This reader’s only regret is that some Vietnamese words are misspelled (‘Khan’, p. 195; ‘Troung’, p. 196; ‘Phoung’, p. 208; ‘cagna’, p. 219), and were not included in the index. This small point notwithstanding, this book is both an invaluable source of reference for researchers and scholars, and a call for further research in the growing areas of colonial, gender, Vietnamese, and Asian studies.