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Reviewed by:
  • Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation and Race
  • Heloise Brown
Ian Christopher Fletcher, Laura E. Nym Mayhall and Philippa Levine, Editors, Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation and Race (London: Routledge, 2000)

This collection provides a range of perspectives on the relationship between women’s suffrage campaigns and nationalist and imperialist identities. It addresses international contexts from Britain and the US to Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Iran and Palestine.

It is argued that women’s suffrage in the British empire was a key influence in the construction of national identities. The aim is to demonstrate that the enfranchisement of women was not only a question of the expansion of democracy, but also a means of negotiating raced and gendered forms of citizenship.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which showcases new ways of understanding imperial suffragist feminism. Part one is concerned with the argument that suffrage needs to be viewed as a political discourse, not simply a social one; part two considers the importance of suffrage in local and imperial contexts; and finally, part three addresses transnational (as opposed to international) alliances and movements. The focus, it is argued, is on the political and cultural significance of women’s suffrage, and throughout, the emphasis is on campaigns for the vote across the empire. There is a conscious attempt to counter the existing historiography by avoiding representing Britain as the radical centre of the movement. However, the arguments regarding the freshness of the book’s approach to the suffrage are, perhaps, overstated: it is hardly the case that existing work has analysed the campaign for enfranchisement in predominantly social rather than political terms, as is suggested in the editorial introduction. A somewhat rigid boundary between the social and the political seems to be assumed, that is not necessarily borne out in the relevant chapters. Nonetheless, this collection of essays will play an important role in expanding and extending current understandings of how imperialist, nationalist and suffragist discourses interacted with one another in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The first part of the book provides some examples of political and cultural analyses of suffrage campaigns. There are valuable examinations of the role of the suffrage campaign in wider politics here, and a range of discussions on the ways in which the social and political inform one another. Three of the five chapters in part one (those by Laura E. Nym Mayhall, Antoinette Burton and Pamela Scully) address various aspects of South Africa’s history, and these alone make this text essential for anyone researching political ideologies in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century South Africa. Part two continues the focus on the suffrage in both local and imperial contexts. New Zealand, the UK and Palestine are examined to show how homogeneous ideas of womanhood were used in conjunction with racial hierarchies in the campaign for the vote. The real strengths of this section lie in the two chapters on Palestine, one of which addresses Jewish women’s campaigns for equality, and the other of which is concerned with Arab women. Both give an informed analysis of the role of nationalism in this contested state, but the latter, by Ellen Fleischmann, is a highlight of the book. Fleischmann engages with existing debates to integrate theoretical issues relevant to the volume as a whole with a localised discussion that demonstrates the problematic relationship between women and nationalism.

Part three, the concluding section of the volume, is concerned with transnational feminism. Donal Lowry’s examination of anti-feminism in Rhodesia highlights the limitations of focusing on suffrage as the central plank of reform, while Catherine Candy’s study of transnational representations of the 1930s Indian franchise question is the first chapter to make an explicit connect with transnationalism specifically, and draws clear links between the subject of discussion and the wider thrust of the book as a whole. Angela Woollacott’s chapter on the Australian women’s suffrage movement is perhaps the most transnational in terms of subject matter, focusing as it does on feminists’ attempts to mediate their relationships to both the imperial ‘motherland’ and colonized women of color...

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