- Women and French Empire
As an undergraduate in the mid–1990s, I tried on several occasions to write term papers on women in the French colonies. Inspired by coursework and reading on the British Empire, I wanted to explore the experiences and roles of women in the French imperial context. But at that time my university library could provide neither primary sources nor secondary literature to sustain even those modest ambitions, much less the kind of advanced scholarship that was already developing on British women’s engagements with empire. Twenty years later, the scholarly landscape has changed dramatically. The so-called “colonial turn” in French studies has produced a wealth of new research on the French empire, in which gender is a key category of analysis. The convergence of gender theory with postcolonial theory has inspired new investigations of French imperial ideologies and practices, allowing today’s undergraduates to read and write about such topics as the connections between feminism and abolitionism during the French Revolution, the politics of sexual relationships between colonial troops and French women during World War I, or the debates about Muslim [End Page 186] girls’ headscarves in postcolonial France. Meanwhile, women’s and gender history approaches have taken hold in the fields of African, Asian, Caribbean, and Atlantic history, illuminating the experiences of enslaved and colonized women in French-ruled territories around the globe.
For all of these important advances, students interested in French women in the empire or in French women’s involvement with imperial questions will remain frustrated. The relatively late arrival of the “colonial turn” in French history in the 1990s has meant that scholars of French empire moved directly into gender analysis, largely bypassing the historiographical phase in which British women’s historians of the 1980s focused substantial attention on recovering the presence and stories of white women in the colonies.1 This “recuperative” feminist work on British women and imperialism has come under heavy—and not unjustified—fire from postcolonialist critics for perpetuating Eurocentric imperial discourses that privilege the subjectivity of the female colonizer over that of colonized people.2 Scholars have since turned to the concepts and methods of gender analysis to better grasp the complexity of colonial societies and the gendered character of imperial rule. The result is a powerful new understanding of the critical role that gender played in structuring colonial power relations and in justifying Western domination, including in the French empire. Despite their limitations, however, earlier histories of British women and empire developed an important body of empirical knowledge largely without parallel in the French case.3 The books under consideration here seek to redress this relative neglect, bringing welcome attention to the history of women across the modern French empire and making a persuasive case that women played a far more important role in the construction of French colonialism than scholars have previously recognized.
Although all five authors make excellent use of the insights of postcolonial criticism and gender theory, they clearly situate themselves within the traditions of women’s history. Their titles—which use the terms “woman” or “women,” rather than “gender,” to describe their subject matter—clearly reflect this positioning. All five also adopt, to a greater or lesser degree, an explicitly biographical approach, a classic method of women’s history...