«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
The mission station [in nineteenth-century Africa] became a threshold institution for transforming domesticity rooted in European gender and class roles into domesticity as controlling a colonized people. Through the rituals of domesticity, increasingly global and more often than not violent, animals, women and colonized peoples were wrested from their putatively “natural” yet, ironically, unreasonable state of “savagery” and inducted through the domestic progress narrative into a hierarchical relation to white men. (p. 35) “Domestication,” therefore, became a central feature of imperial/colonial projects and of the split status of white women therein: they were cast as the agents and objects of domestication, i.e., among those who would control and who would be controlled.19 White women were to take on a particular role and place in imperial/colonial hierarchies—subordinate to that of white men.
In this sense, domestication discourse signaled the “intricate overlaps between colonial and sexual domination” (Loomba, 2005, p. 135) and was part of the broader colonial practice of
analogizing putative differences, particularly between white women and colonized men:
In the language of colonialism, non-Europeans occupy the same symbolic space as [white] women. Both are seen as part of nature, not culture, and with the same ambivalence: either they are ripe for government, passive, child-like, unsophisticated, needing leadership and guidance, described always in terms of lack—no initiative, no intellectual powers, no perseverance; or on the other hand, they are outside society, dangerous, treacherous, emotional, inconstant, wild, threatening, fickle, sexually aberrant, irrational, near animal, lascivious, disruptive, evil, unpredictable. (Carr cited in Loomba, 2005, p. 135) The workings of analogy make the interlocking nature of sex/gender-based and race-based oppression in the colonial/imperial enterprise readily apparent. White women’s double positioning in the colonial landscape was partly achieved through such analogies. For example, colonial scientific writing in particular presented a combined construction of race and gender that would maintain white male supremacy: “In short, lower races represented the female type of the human species, and females the ‘lower race’ of gender” (Loomba, 2005, p. 136). It is crucial to remember that analogies were never straightforward and always contingent upon the needs of empire (Stoler, 1995). Summarizing the complex discursive operations that normalized bourgeois white rule in metropole and colony, including the roles of white settler women, Stoler (1995) writes: “[The] discourse on bourgeois selves was founded on what Foucault would call a particular ‘grid of intelligibility,’ a hierarchy of distinctions in perception and practice that conflated, substituted, and collapsed the categories of racial, class and sexual Others strategically and at different times” (p. 11). In other words, differently situated populations, and segments thereof, were constituted in relation to and through one another.20 This discursive fluidity helps explain the formation of multiple, sometimes conflicting roles, in terms of subordination and domination, for the white settler/imperialist woman—(domestic) servant and/or wife, mother of home and nation, and moral reformer. I now discuss how white women/feminists would have negotiated their double positioning in the pursuit of (liberal autonomous) selfhood and entrance into modernity as universal, rights-bearing subjects.
White women/feminist liberatory aspirations in modernity The white settler/imperialist woman subject enters the global stage at a particular historical moment—when the post-Enlightenment individual is being consolidated along gendered and racialized lines through the colonial/imperial project.
Scholars across a range of disciplines discuss the array of material practices and discursive techniques involved.21 Andrea Smith (2013a) points to an aspect of autonomous subject production that is relevant to this study:
The post-Enlightenment version of the Subject as a sole self-determined actor exists by situating itself over and against “affectable” others who are subject to natural conditions as well as to the self-determined power of the Western subject. In essence, the Western subject knows itself because of (1) its apparent ability to exercise power over others; and (2) the inability of others to exercise power over it. The “others” meanwhile, are affected by the power of the Western subject (and hence are “affectable”) but they cannot effect power themselves. (p. 265, emphasis in original) In other words, as Smith (2013a), Denise da Silva (2007) and others emphasize, hierarchical constructions of racial difference are fundamental to Western liberal subject constitution.
Like that of Clare Midgley (2007), this study specifically concerns the subjectivities of “white middle-class women... [among whom] a consciously modern and Western feminist movement emerged” (p. 9). Thus, I am led to pose this question: How was racial difference mobilized by the white settler feminist subject as doubly positioned in the colonial/imperial project? 22 As so positioned, what strategies would she have employed to oppose patriarchal subordination?
Inderpal Grewal (1996) suggests the validity and importance of such questions:
If... masculine ideology is central to imperial discourse, what then is the relation of those who oppose patriarchy to imperial structures, to colonization, and to English imperial nationalism?... For it is only by looking at the discursive spaces that feminisms occupy, spaces that are imbricated within other discourses of state and nation, that we can see feminisms not as orthodoxies, but as ongoing practices of locational politics. (p. 58) In providing a brief sketch of “the discursive spaces” in which white feminism/feminists would have emerged (and contributed to), I recognize the ever-present danger of oversimplifying what were complex social and political movements and people (Midgley, 2007). However, consensus in the literature strongly suggests that this negotiation relied on white women activists’ embrace of their racially-superior, white status—alongside an identification with (and rejection of) their subordinate status as women (Grewal, 1996; Lewis, 1996; Loomba, 2005; Valverde, 1992).
Admittedly, the ability and desire of white women (proto-) feminists to embrace or resist the racist and imperialist inclinations of the time and their assigned role as the moral custodians of whiteness would have been affected by class position as well as political proclivity. While acknowledging the existence of transgressive or “self-consciously oppositional” white women (Lewis, 1996, p. 3), these scholars conclude that the “colonial realm and imperial habitus” of the day (Grewal, 1996, p. 80) overdetermined the perceptions and actions of English suffragists, female travelers and the more progressive abolitionists of the time, inclining them to believe in their racial superiority vis-à-vis colonized women.23 Even Vron Ware (1992), who is more tentative in her assertions, concedes that “it was not yet possible to comprehend what feminism’s most effective response to different forms of imperialism should be, by which I mean feminism’s contribution to the downfall of Empire and the liberation of colonized peoples” (p. 163).
Others more conclusively state that white feminism contributed to the solidification of empire, and used racialized, patronizing discourse to further its liberatory aspirations. Despite the critiques of individual feminist intellectuals, Mariana Valverde (1992) writes, “feminist evolutionism not only failed to question the racist presuppositions of evolutionary thought, but produced a profoundly racist form of feminism in which women of ‘lower’ races were excluded from the specifically Anglo-Saxon work of building a better world through the freeing of ‘the mother of the race’” (p. 8).24 This process of exclusion was effectively a process of othering. As Antoinette Burton (1994) explains, in order to “undermine the Victorian construction of woman as Other,” British feminists strategically aligned themselves “with the Self of nation and empire” and constructed “non-Western females as recognizably non-British [Indian] Other” (p.
35). A pattern was established: to secure their collective political rights in the metropole, British feminists would collectively position themselves as superior to a more oppressed female Other, and act “as social reformers of Empire” to “save” more oppressed (inferior) Indian women (Burton, 1994). As implied above, the tendency for white women to assume a superior positioning over Other women conforms to the contours of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought. Even the most radical of white middle-class women would have “felt they were better educated than women elsewhere” (Ware, 1992, p. 128) and therefore justified in imparting this “superior knowledge” to less fortunate women elsewhere.25 It would seem that, notwithstanding their paradoxical status as “the inferior sex in the superior race” (Burton, 1994), white feminists benefited from and sustained a faith in white supremacy.
In short, somewhat ironically, patriarchal formations of empire assisted white women in Europe to fight patriarchy at home.26 For example, Grewal (1996) notes how English suffragists used Orientalist discourse to argue that “the evils of purdah, the harem, and sati” were the eventual results of denying women their political rights and freedom: “The stereotype of women’s seclusion in the Middle East and Asia suggested the need for women to be employed, vote for their rights, and participate in public, and not merely domestic, matters” (p. 82). However, a “double positioning” in terms of race and gender led to white women being “interpellated” into a particular role in the colonial/imperial encounter: as “saviours” of “inferior” other women.
In relation to colonial Canada, Jennifer Henderson (2003) tethers white settler women to the broadly liberalist and racist terms of empire: “[Settler women’s] narratives tell a story about the recuperation of feminist thinking about freedom on settler terrain, a terrain that was constructed as a space bereft of human history, and appropriated as the ground for race-making projects” (p.
12). With Henderson’s observation, I arrive at one of this study’s central theoretical contentions about the foundational contradiction of “universality” in post-Enlightenment modernity: “The imposition of modernity in colonial conditions was predicated on the denial of freedom and autonomy of native cultures” (Yeğenoğlu, 1998, p. 96). Applied to the settler colonial context, this would mean that the “freedom” of the white (proto-) settler woman/feminist would ultimately depend on the dispossession and effacement of the Indigenous female (and male) Other. In what follows, I draw on scholars such as Yeğenoğlu (1998) to explore white women/feminist negotiations of their double positioning (as simultaneously marginalized and dominant) in terms of modernity.
Poised to save: The gendered colonial move to universal status
Yeğenoğlu (1998) sheds light on the stakes involved for Victorian-era (proto-) feminists in clinging to various forms and degrees of racist thought and behaviour. It is nothing short of the successful quest for universal subject status when one is simultaneously and paradoxically rendered as the inferior female subject who is racially superior, but only along masculinist lines.
Recall the foundational move of “universal” Western subject status noted by Smith (2013a):
This separation is fundamentally a racial one—both spatially and temporally. That is, the Western subject is spatially located in the West in relationship to “affectable” Third World others. It is temporally located in modernity in relation to “primitive” others who are never able to enter modernity. The Western subject is a universal subject that determines itself without being determined by others. (p. 265) But how could “the symbolic inferior other at home” (Lewis, 1996, p. 18), that is, the white settler/imperialist woman/feminist achieve universal status when she herself was associated with primitivism? In answer, Yeğenoğlu (1998) describes white Western women’s efforts to simulate “sovereign masculine discourse” (p. 107) with respect to Other women. Unable to secure an authoritative selfhood at home vis-à-vis white men, they turned to the colonies. Grewal (1996)
provides the example of Englishwomen who availed themselves of imperialist travel culture:
As liminal spaces, [colonies] can be proving grounds for Englishwomen’s attempts at equality with Englishmen, their superiority to colonized men, and their ability to be a part of the project of empire conceived of as a heterosexual and masculinist project....
[Such spaces] show the vulnerability of English masculinity and the attempts of Englishwomen to control and share this masculinity that is essential to the English family and nation. (p. 63) In this way, the colonial terrain proved to be as much ideological as geographical for English women, opening up the possibility however tenuous of universal “masculine” subject status.
Because one of my central concerns in examining the solidarity encounter is to see if, how and when white settler women attempt to claim universal subject status, it is important to understand what this involves. Yeğenoğlu (1998) explains that beneath the universalizing gesture of colonial modernity is the establishment of hierarchical difference along racial, gendered and