- Women of Empire: Nineteenth-Century Army Officers’ Wives in India and the U.S. West by Verity McInnis
By Verity McInnis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. ix + 285 pp. Illustrations, table, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 cloth.
Verity McInnis’s Women of Empire follows American and British women as they accompanied their army officer husbands across continents to set up new lives as representatives of their nation’s empire. Using the women’s journals and letters as a window into their lives, McInnis follows the women as they negotiated relationships with each other, domestic servants, local peoples, and other military officials. These relationships, along with the women’s explicit and implicit roles within the imperial community, provided women with a fluid space in which to exercise newfound power. That power was, of course, limited by the gendered and marital hierarchies that framed women’s worlds, but McInnis successfully demonstrates that life in the empire offered women newfound opportunities and symbolic importance. Women of Empire thus does the important recuperative work of adding women to the history of the American and British empires, but it also does more than that. It places gender at the heart of the history of empire and demonstrates that gender is essential to understanding the ways empire functioned and was maintained on a daily basis.
McInnis reconstructs this gendered empire by examining the ways wives embraced the military and national mission and then enacted its aims in their everyday lives. As they set up housekeeping in far-flung locations, greeted—and sometimes rejected—newcomers to the communities, hosted parties, participated in official events, and managed the daily affairs of their homes, women engaged in much of the work common for women of their time. Yet these social activities also provided women with a degree of power not held in the metropole. Officers’ wives gained a degree of power commensurate with that of their husbands’ rank and acted as gatekeepers to an exclusive social network that wielded great power for both men and women. Even women’s dress and home décor assumed weighty significance as emblems of national power and prestige. As McInnis argues, every aspect of women’s lives on the outskirts of empire reconstructed the familiar class and racial hierarchies that bolstered their nation’s empires, making army officer wives “imperial ambassadors” (10).
Women of Empire joins a growing list of works that place gender at the center of the story of empire and foreign relations more generally, a list that begins with Kristin L. Hoganson and includes works by Laura Briggs, Philippa Levine, Anne McClintock, Donna Alvah, and Ann Laura Stoler, among many others. This work is an important addition to this growing field.
Texas Christian University