- Standing By Your ManWives in Nineteenth-Century Empires
Twenty years after calls to connect histories of women, gender, and empire were set down in such works as the historian Clare Midgley's Gender and Imperialism and Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel's Western Women and Imperialism, projects to identify and explore women "in empire" remain a rich field of research.1 The books reviewed here sit firmly within this domain. Marrying men who held office as governors took Susanna Rabow-Edling's women to Russian America (present-day Alaska) from the 1820s to the 1860s, while Verity McInnis's women married military officers serving in the American West and British India over the long nineteenth century (1818–1910). Marriage, as much as empire, is under scrutiny in these books. As imperialists, the women were powerful; as wives, they were subject to husbands. These two histories offer intriguing and diametrically opposite answers to the conundrum of women in this space. In doing so, they extend the geographical and methodological scope of nineteenth-century empire's gendered enquiry, bringing the less familiar Russian empire to the fore and presenting ambitious and fruitful comparative approaches.
Elisabeth von Wrangell arrived in Sitka (formerly known as Novo Arkhangel'sk) in 1830, completing an overland journey from St Petersburg that took more than a year. In Irkutsk she paused to give birth to her first child. Elisabeth was the first wife to accompany a governor to the fur trading settlement established in 1803 as the center for the Russian American Company. Her arrival was the product of the company's new policy that all governors should be married and occupy their post with their wives. Company leaders hoped that women in a prominent position would elevate [End Page 151] the tone and social order of the rough trading settlement. As well as local benefits, such improvement would help raise Russia's reputation as an imperial power in the face of growing humanitarian and evangelical criticism of the impact of Europeans on aboriginal societies across the world. The devastating toll of disease in the Pacific was all too evident—for the Tlingit and Alutiiq people as much as other indigenous societies across the oceanic region. Elisabeth von Wrangell (1810–1854), Margaretha Etholēn (1814–1894), and Anna Furuhjelm (1836–1894) were three Lutherans in a total of eight women who occupied the governor's residence at Sitka before the territory's eventual sale in 1867. In a close-up study that gives us fine-grained biographies of the three women during their journey outward and their five-year terms as governors' wives, Rabow-Edling shows contrasting individuals with a similar arc of experience.
All three were young women, newly married to husbands some years older than themselves (all of whom found spouses after receiving their appointments), well-educated, and entering into lives as wives and mothers at the same time as they embarked on their journey to the distant settlement. There they were expected to set an example of social decorum, embody well-ordered domesticity, host public occasions, and also teach in the girls school (for Creole and "native" children). Aside from the Russian state's and company's expectations of how the women should model exemplary womanhood, Elisabeth, Margaretha, and Anna were steeped in the ideals of piety, purity, and duty that defined a woman's purpose.
Their "success" in this civilizing mission, which Rabow-Edling examines in searching detail, varied. There were considerable practical challenges in fulfilling the tasks of education and welfare (mail arrived once a year through most of the period) and in encouraging sobriety, decency, and a level of cultivation in a community that valued these...