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Response to Review no. 137

Echoing a multitude of previous authors, I would like to thank Clare Midgley for a generous and insightful review. I feel that she has summarised the general content and purpose of my book very accurately. Her summary makes it clear enough that my research does in fact address the “big issues” surrounding gender and Empire and the varied politics of the British women’s movement. My approach is indeed mainly empirical, but for me this was a positive choice influenced by what I have felt to be some anachronistic and over-generalised conclusions drawn by fellow-historians in these two contentious, well-populated fields. Without wishing to labour the point, I must say that “deep contextualisation” seems to me the essence of scholarly historical research. Whilst historians may benefit, especially in the areas of post-colonial studies and women’s studies, from an acquaintance with theoretical approaches “borrowed” from adjacent disciplines, many of us are less overawed by such approaches than we were even five years ago. Historicism without rigorous historical research, and a patient sifting of detailed evidence, remains merely a noble aspiration (at worst, a delusion).

Clare Midgley gives a thoughtful summary of the “new insights” presented through my book. I was particularly pleased with her commentary upon the chapter on Imperialism, the Women’s Movement and the Vote. From my perspective, this chapter is the real climax and conclusion of the book. It sets forth my general views on the upper class female imperialists’ relationship with the British women’s movement, and in so doing raises important question marks over widely used explanatory categories in recent women’s history. Should the category of “feminist” be largely confined to middle class liberal women who supported the suffrage cause? Should it be extended to all women who chose to work collectively, and along gendered lines, in support of social reforms benefiting their own sex? After researching organised female imperialism in Edwardian Britain, I have found it impossible to assent wholeheartedly to either of these propositions. The female imperialists saw themselves as imperialists and (in most cases) as part of the non-confrontational mainstream of women’s collective social action. Only a minority deserve Antoinette Burton’s labelling as “imperial feminists”. Suffragists and anti-suffragists co-existed with surprising ease within women’s imperialist associations dedicated to a higher political and social purpose than mere reform of the British constitution. This conclusion should prompt us to join with increasing numbers of American historians in a fundamental re-evaluation of neglected conservative (and sometimes explicitly anti-feminist) women’s organisations on both sides of the Atlantic. Their refusal to fit comfortably within the established paradigms of modern feminist history is a challenge to those paradigms themselves.

Have I been over-cautious in expressing the more polemical aspects of my conclusions? Clare Midgley’s review seems to suggest as much. This is a criticism I can quite happily live with when it is allied to such a perceptive appreciation of my efforts to delve into obscure historical detail, and to let these women speak through their deeds, their personal life choices, their often fragmentary public and private writings. I have attempted to demonstrate that imperialist ladies formed a distinctive and closely inter-related political subgroup in the Edwardian era; and that this grouping rested in turn upon established, gendered social hierarchy and existing networks of women’s social action. A unified and theoretically coherent female imperialism was never on offer. But its tendencies, its theoretical leanings and its preferred modes of action are sufficiently well-evidenced to prompt historical investigation. I have been as concerned to avoid unwarranted over-generalisation as to reach clear-cut conclusions, and make no apology for emphasising complexity and contradiction.

The field of imperial education was more fraught with contradictions than most for the lady imperialists. As Clare Midgley points out, educational and propaganda activities inevitably brought these women fact to face with the dilemmas of social hierarchy as well as those of gender division. Effective propaganda was predicated upon a commitment to spreading the imperialist message: to forming widespread and effective local groups, and to reaching a “broader constituency of membership”. In an era of burgeoning male propaganda societies, and a male-dominated educational establishment, it was also predicated upon successful male/female collaboration, even if this led to a loss of autonomy for female-led imperialist associations. Mass propaganda proved uncongenial for the leading women imperialists, though they made half-hearted attempts to “democratise”. My chapter on educational initiatives is therefore a catalogue of eventual failures, despite much activity and some apparent successes. The female imperialists were unable to carry their “specific feminist focus” through into mass education, except in the gender-segregated enclaves of the Girls Friendly Society. In state schools and in public meetings their gendered and socially exclusive perspectives were sidelined, then crowded out. A connection should be made between this chapter and the discussion in an earlier chapter of the women imperialists’ wary collaboration with like-minded male organisations. Friendly association might prove beneficial, but full amalgamation was correctly judged to be a threat to female leadership and to the imperialist priorities these women held dear.

The “ordinary members” of the Primrose League and of the Girls Friendly Society certainly do merit a study of their own. It would be fascinating to uncover direct or indirect evidence of alternative perspectives upon upper class female hierarchy. But to do so would necessitate research beyond the boundaries of (deferential) organisational records and the papers of women leaders themselves. For the purposes of the book reviewed here, I have deliberately focused upon the lady imperialists’ own top-down approach to society, politics and the Empire. Privileged minority though these women were, and much though they may have over-estimated their own influence, their efforts on behalf of the Empire lie within a significant history of conservative womanhood which deserves far more extensive research. I hope another historian will take up Clare Midgley’s concluding suggestions.