Gender and imperialist policies


Gender is the physical difference that is used to distinguish between a man and woman. Race is a social construct that divides people based on the color of their skin. These two factors combined create a matrix that can be used to divide people in society across various lines. Unfortunately, these are factors over which an individual has no control over. However, despite this fact, there were many instances in the British Empire when they were used to distinguish between members of society and determine the role that people would play in such a society. Looking at the relationship between race and gender, it is clear for an individual to see how these two were tied up in defining what would become the vision and base of policies for the imperialists. The first instance is the definition of the white man. He was to be the face of imperialism. He was to be strong and masculine and represent the colonizer who would be someone who had power over a weaker party. The second instance is the case of the white woman whose powers to vote were stripped off when the “true democracy” took over much of Europe and many other colonies around the world. The race and gender prevented the white woman from taking part in activities that would help shape the democracy in which she survived. The third instance is the case of the Indian woman who was taken to be the property of the Indian man and whose body it was the responsibility of the Indian man to take care of. The final instance is the black South African man who was expected to be uneducated and unskilled, and, therefore, a perfect fit for the hard labor that was performed at the mines. The roles these people had fit right into what imperialism was panned out to be; a system where the strong ruled over the weak.

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The British Empire used imperialism to define the role of the white man as the colonizer. The process of colonizing was not a gentle task. It required a strong force to attack a native force and impose British rule over the locals. Therefore, the imperialist policies intended to make strong individuals out of the British men in order to get people who would go to foreign lands and create a bigger income for the Empire. Therefore, the men had to be strong. They also had to be fearless, moral, enlightened and masculine. These were the characteristics that would be needed for the white mans to take their “advanced” culture to the people who needed to be colonized. The white man was also given authority over the white woman who was presumed to be weak, childlike and feminine; just like the individuals that the white man was expected to colonize. This mindset enabled the white man to be dominant over other the white woman. For instance, if a woman’s husband was part of the colonial force, she would still exercise his powers until another man was found to take his place. The intersection of gender and race placed the white man at the top of the chain. It also placed a lot of responsibility on him. For example, he was responsible for the safety of the white woman and her body. He was to protect her from the other locals of different races; they were considered to be inferior to them, and, thus, not worthy of the white woman. The white men were also to protect the women from the constant threat of rape that surrounded them since the locals were hyper sexualized individuals. In the real sense, the threat of rape did not hang as close to the white woman in the colonies as the white man imagined.

The white woman was denied her rights. Her role was not to be a decision maker under the Imperial terms. For instance, in France, before the revolution, women were able to vote. The women who could vote in the villages were individuals who had some title, education or property. They made decisions about issues that affected them and this helped make life easier for them. As the Revolution took place and the issue of democracy was discussed as a replacement of monarchy, the white woman’s power to vote was stripped off. The woman was instead placed under the care of a man. Women who had titles or property were to get a man to speak and vote for them in the village councils where they had been able to vote before. Throughout the British Empire, there were many instances of women being denied their right to vote. For instance, in the British colonies of Canada and New Zealand, women were denied the right to vote through the use of the laws. In some areas, the denial was masked with the certain phrases like the right being designated for certain members of society. Women were then weeded out using small issues like property or manners. Other areas simply used laws that excluded women from the list of individuals eligible to vote. Denying them this power placed them at the mercy of their men since they had to depend on the decisions that they made. Imperialist policies made the white woman look weak and in need of a man to protect her. Thus, the white man was given the responsibility of taking care of her body and protecting her from the imagined threat of rape.

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The black man in South Africa, under imperialist policies, was supposed to be uneducated. He was meant to be at the bottom of the social chain in the country. Given that gender was in the mix, the black South African woman would be beneath the man. However, the policies intended to place him under the white man so that he could then be used as labor to exploit his country’s natural resources. South Africa had vast amounts natural resources and exploiting them fully would require a lot of cheap labor. When white unskilled laborers from Europe arrived in South Africa, they were at the same level with the black man. Both were impoverished and they were unskilled. Therefore, this was a situation that was in direct contradiction with imperialist policies that required the white man to be a strong prosperous force that the black man could aspire to be. Therefore, this situation reveals the imperialist policy of always having the white man be at the top and the rest underneath him so that they can be used for the advancement of the imperialist policies.

The Indian woman was also part of the British Empire. The practice of sati (a ritual where a widow died on the pyre where her husband’s body was being cremated) was an issue that created a battle ground over what widows could do with their bodies. The imperialists wanted to gain favor with the locals. Doing so would simplify the work of exploiting the natural resource in India. However, the Indian widows’ opinions were not sought out when the British made this decision. History records that British intervention into the issue led to an increase in the number of instances when it occurred. This is yet another case of the British using their influence over people who have no control over their gender, ethnicity or culture in order to push their agenda forward. The woman was denied a say in the matter and the British Empire only had the goal of increasing income at the expense of its subjects.

The British Empire was vast and had many resources that could be exploited. Doing this would not be easy. Therefore, the imperialists had to use factors that already existed in order to give the white male an advantage. He was placed at the top and given dominion over all those “beneath” him. The white woman was a victim of imperialist policies since she was considered to be weak and feminine. The black South African man was meant to be impoverished and unskilled; thus, providing a ready source of cheap labor for the exploitation of natural resources. The Indian widow was simply a tool that imperialists used to try and gain favor of the locals. Gender and race were used constantly in order to advance the agenda of the imperialists.

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  1. Kinsey, Danielle. “13: Assessing Imperialism.” In The Cambridge World History, by K. Pomeranz J. McNeill, 331-365. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  2. Markoff, John. “Margins, Centers, and Democracy: The Paradigmactic History of Women’s Suffrage.” Signs 29.1, 2003: 85-116.
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