«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
“Notions such as companionate marriage are formed in relation to oriental despotism and the harem, and this form of marriage suggests new ways for women to position themselves in English society within the domestic space. The construction of the harem as a space of female incarceration within ‘traditional’ and ‘unprogressive’ “Eastern’ societies uses a contrast with the ‘freedom’ of European women. New strategies of disciplining societies through knowledge and surveillance rather than through domination are evident in the binary of freedom and unfreedom that marks colonial discourses on women in India and that enables female subject formation in England” (pp. 60– 61).
Lewis (1996) draws essentially the same conclusion about the consolidation of the Western woman subject in modernity when referring to the “humanist project”; she notes that women authors such as “Bronte and Eliot couched their demands for female emancipation precisely through the Orientalizing of a structural other” (p. 29).
Noting the historical construction of “East” vs. “West,” Narayan (2000) argues, “an ‘insistence on cultural difference’ was even more characteristic of the colonial project than gestures towards ‘sameness,’ an insistence that helped to cover over the sad similarities of ethnocentrism, androcentrism, classism, heterosexism, and other objectionable ‘centrisms’ that often pervaded both sides of this reiterated ‘contrast’ between ‘Western culture’ and its several ‘Others’” (p. 95). For her part, Grewal (1996) writes, “Such attitudes toward ‘native’ women worked, in some instances, to disguise and, in other instances, to bring to prominence problems in women’s conditions in England, while promoting the discourse of colonialism as a civilizing venture” (pp. 73–74).
Yeğenoğlu (1998) writes, “Such a gesture provides the ground for the production and legitimation of a normative discourse where the West and the ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ condition of its women are taken as the norm. If the position of the Orient and its women are represented within such a dualistic logic, then it follows that the colonial nature of this ‘feminist’ discourse is not an exception but rather part of a system that requires the representation of difference as negativity to be able to posit the positivity of the norm” (p. 104). Along these lines, Loomba (2005) writes, the “emergence of the articulate Western female subject and her entry into individualism... [was] inflected, indeed made possible, by the expansion of imperialism” (p. 139).
Grewal (1996) identifies worlding as “also an intrinsic part of the English movement for women’s suffrage, which started around 1860, over a decade after the publication of Jane Eyre, in 1874, when women in England fought for their rights with frequent references to the subordination and incarceration of Asian women” (p. 64).
Benjamin Graves (2010) finds parallels between Spivak’s concept of worlding and Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish: “Spivak suggests that the Third World, like the commodity fetish, becomes a sign that obscures its mode of production, thus making Western dominance appear somehow given or natural” (para. 3).
Grewal (1996) seems to invoke Spivak’s double registers (childbearing and soul-making) in her study of the tropes of home and harem, if by “home” she means the domestic responsibilities of the British bourgeois female in relation to actual domiciles and the English nation, and by “harem” the colonial spaces wherein that same female self could assume the role of superior traveler or missionary.
In fact, as Grewal (1996) points out, Native women are largely an absent presence in imperial discourse in general and in feminist or female travel narratives in particular: “Few women, travelers or feminists... mention meeting women from these countries. If they do, they present them as ‘natives,’ never by name nor as personalities who differ from each other. Empire remained a place to send indigent women and a dumping ground for what had no place in England, and the Orient became a symbol of female seclusion and oppression that Englishwomen were believed unable to live under and that suggested the need for their emancipation” (p. 79).
Interestingly, even the feminized helping imperative could be said to retain a masculinist bent, as made apparent in Woollacott’s (2006) appraisal of British missionary women in nineteenth-century colonial India: “Women missionaries cast themselves in masculine terms as the chivalrous saviours of these unfortunate captives [i.e., elite Indian women’s seclusion in zenanas], able as they were to ‘penetrate into the recesses of their dwellings’ to bring them news of salvation that could help them throw off their barbarous shackles” (p. 96).
Feminist historian Cecilia Morgan (personal communication, 2010) also notes that there are fewer historical studies on interactions among women in Canada compared to other white settler societies. Existing studies on gender and coloniality in Canada include Barman and Hare (2006); Carter (1997, 2006); Carter et al., (2005);
Henderson (2003); Franca Iacovetta and Valverde (1992); Perry (2001); Pickles (2002); Rutherdale (2002);
Veronica Strong-Boag (1977); Valverde (1991, 1992); and Van Kirk (1980).
For a concise theoretical treatment of the relationship between social and spatial segregation, see Razack (2002), who proposes that spatial theory affords a way to “see the operation of all the systems of domination as they mutually constitute each other” (p. 6). She reviews four core ideas of spatial analysis engaged by contributors to the edited collection: 1) space as a social product (Lefebvre); 2) the body in space (Foucault, Kirby, Mohanram); 3) gender, transgression, and journeys through space (Phillips); and 4) space and interlocking oppressions.
Carter (1997) ties captivity narratives directly to broader discourses of white settler nation building that justified the takeover of Indigenous lands. She corroborates a point made earlier by Patricia Limerick (1987): “The idea of captivity organized much of Western sentiment... It was an easy transition of thought to move from the idea of humans held in an unjust and resented captivity to the idea of land and natural resources held in Indian captivity— in fact, a kind of monopoly in which very few Indians kept immense resources to themselves, refusing to let the large numbers of willing and eager white Americans make what they could of those resources” (p. 46).
According to Martin-Hill (2003), the image of She No Speaks “emerged from our darkest era, similar to the infamous ‘end of the trail’ warrior—defeated, hunched over, head down and with no future” (p. 108). Her opposite is found in “[Villainous Woman], a master manipulator with a golden tongue who has malicious intent against all Native people. This stereotype was advocated by missionaries, Indian Agents and those in colonial agencies that felt threatened by the leadership that Indigenous women demonstrated” (p. 111).
Maternal feminists dominated the Canadian women’s movement in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries (Strong-Boag, 1977). In her research on white Protestant middle-class women in early nineteenth-century Britain, Midgley (2007) describes a central tenet of maternal feminism: “Women activists of the period, in common with later feminists, combined arguments based on equality, variously defined, with those based on difference— their moral superiority to men or the importance of women’s role as mothers, for example—in asserting claims to fuller participation in the life of the nation” (p. 8).
The Famous 5 Foundation website (n.d.) describes the group of five women as follows: “Emily Murphy. Nellie McClung. Henrietta Muir Edwards. Louise McKinney. Irene Parlby. Five Alberta women drawn together by the tides of history and a shared idealism. Each was a true leader in her own right: one a police magistrate, another a legal expert who founded the National Council for Women. Three served as Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta—among the first female elected officials in the entire British Empire. And they did all this before they were even fully defined as persons under Canadian and British law.” See Eva Mackey’s (2002) fascinating work on the construction and maintenance of Canada’s national mythology and the functioning of liberal concepts such as pluralism, diversity and tolerance. For Mackey, the “heritage of tolerance” is the predominant myth. Examples include the Benevolent Mounties (tied to peaceably settling the West through the application of superior forms of British justice); the Benevolent State treating its Indigenous peoples better than the US treats “theirs”; and, the multicultural tolerance of difference. Mackey pithily captures the problem with tolerance: “The power and the choice whether to accept or not accept difference, to tolerate it or not, still lies in the hands of the tolerators” (p. 16).
Apparently, Edwards would become a “feminist ally” only later in life after her husband’s death: “Like the female missionaries in Canada and the British activists in India, [Edwards’s] relationship with Aboriginal women often situated her as cultural mediator and missionary, sometimes as maternal imperialist; only occasionally, after the death of her husband, did she act as a feminist ally” (p. 55).
Ahmed (2000) clarifies her meaning with this example: “The good citizen [of British Neighbourhood Watch discourse] is structured around the body of the dominant (white, middle-class) man, who protects the vulnerable bodies of women and children from the threat of marginalized (black, working-class) men. However, these differences are concealed by the very modes of recognition: the figure of the stranger appears as ‘the stranger’ precisely by being cut off from these histories of determination (= stranger fetishism). That is, the recognition of strangers involves the differentiation between some others and other others at the same time as it conceals that very act of differentiation” (pp. 31–32).
Jacqui Alexander (2005) makes a related point with her notion of palimpsestic time where pasts, presents and futures are co-constitutive. Elsewhere, I elaborate upon its positive connotations by exploring theoretical affinities between Alexander’s work and Indigenous feminist notions of relational sovereignty (D’Arcangelis, 2010). If for Indigenous peoples, the “past, present and future are understood to be inextricably connected” (Anderson, 2000, p.
15), reclaiming past traditions is by definition relevant to future incarnations of nationhood. Similarly, Smith (2006) argues that “Native ceremonies can be a place where the present, past and future become co-present... a racial remembering of the future” (p. 17). Alexander’s (2005) palimpsestic time as related to tradition and the Sacred gestures towards the conceptual mechanism of rekindling traditions, which would facilitate inclusive, relational and non-hierarchical forms of sovereignty. Palimpsestic time means “the imperfect erasure, hence visibility, of a ‘past’” (p. 190); it counters assertions that Indigenous peoples and their traditions are defunct and indicates why the recovery of traditions is possible. As subjects, we can never excise ourselves from the “past,” but can work to discard its oppressive and embrace its liberatory aspects. Alexander (2005) not only believes memory work to be possible, but, in accordance with Indigenous feminist assessments of decolonization, sees “memory as antidote to alienation, separation, and the amnesia that domination produces” (p. 14).
Ahmed (2000) reframes Spivak’s (1988) seminal question “Can the subaltern speak?” to explain the development of a privileged epistemic community. She discusses a particular form of the desire to “know” Others: “It is this question [“who is knowing here?”] that brings the ethnographic desire to know more about strangers into contact with the post-colonial concern with the politics of representing others.... We need to ask, what knowledges are already in place which allow one to speak for, about or to a ‘group of strangers’? In other words, we need to move our attention from the production of otherness to the (re)production of strangerness” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 61).
The “Impulse to Solidarity”:
White Women, Proximity and Settler Self-making In this chapter, I describe the parameters of the white settler woman’s desire for proximity to Indigenous women, and the subtle and not so subtle ways in which it can operate in the service of liberal self-making.1 Drawing on the work of Ahmed (2000) in particular, I locate a host of interrelated desires and discourses under the umbrella of proximity, ranging from the longing to be accepted into an Indigenous community to the desire to have a purposeful life. Through a careful reading of participant narratives, I argue that the reproduction of gendered colonial subjectivity—and the quintessential helping behaviour at its core—is often operationalized through this pursuit of proximity. By “getting close” (figuratively or literally) to Indigenous women, the white settler woman can re-create the fiction of equal power relations between the two groups and (attempt to) transcend her location in colonial power relations, thus maintaining a sense of legitimacy/belonging. A central feature of white settler liberal subjectivity is the shared desire among settlers to transcend social relations, disavow our dominant status and reconstitute ourselves as legitimate national subjects who belong here. Such discursive moves can exacerbate solidarity tensions, and obscure and uphold inequitable structural power relations.
At the same time, I highlight the fraught nature of this endeavour: the reproduction of the white settler liberal subject in solidarity encounters never proceeds seamlessly or without contestation.