Women and the British Empire

From its earliest inception, women had played a myriad of critical roles in imperial history. In fact, in many ways it could be considered that it was a woman who gave the initial impetus to create the British Empire in the first place. Elizabeth I reigned during the first significant ocean voyages that helped turn England into an ocean going maritime nation. It is also no coincidence that Queen Victoria is considered to be the quintessential imperial monarch as her long reign coincided with the apogee of Britain's Imperial power. And, is if to bookend the history of the British Empire by female monarchs, Elizabeth II was the monarch who reigned whilst the vast majority of the colones were given their independence and helped to transist the institution into a Commonwealth.

However, it is not just at the top that women played a crucial role; women found roles for themselves as social campaigners, artists, explorers, wives, medics, missionaries and virtually every other profession. Some even managed to immerse themselves into what had been considered to have been all male professions such as soldiers, sailors and doctors - often using subterfuge to achieve their aims.

There was no geographic limit to the experience of women in the British Empire - every single colony felt the presence of women in some form or other; sometimes thanks to their profession; often as settlers in their own right; frequently accompanying spouses; sometimes unwillingly as indentured servants or slaves. The reasons for women's presence in the colonies was as varied as the populations that moved around the vast Empire.

Women often found that the prejudices of the home culture preceded their arrival. But also, the host culture often had views on femininity and the role of women in society that challenged Anglo-centric precepts. Some women could also find a freedom on the frontier that they could not have dreamed of back in Britain. Other women were keen to replicate their traditional roles in the new and often exotic locations - although frequently having to make compromises with local customs, climate and nature. Fashion, children, housing were just some of the factors of life that would be influenced by unfamiliar and new surroundings.

Women from different social classes often had vastly differing experiences in the various colonies. Those from the upper classes could often find themselves in gilded, but often stultifying, cages. Their roles being defined by aristocratic norms back in Europe. In fact, the relative rarity of women from this background in the colonies could often result in them being placed on pedastals and being expected to live to even higher feminine ideals than they may have experienced back in Britain. Women from the poorest classes could find that life in these colonies could be every bit as challenging, if not even tougher, than in the crowded cities or rural poverty of Britain.

The role of women would also change and adapt over the long history of the Empire. Women would gradually find more opportunities and more equality as time went on. It is no accident that the first women to vote in the British Empire were in the colonies - not in Britain. For instance, New Zealand granted women the right to vote (1893) over two decades earlier than women in Britain (1918). Ostensibly they wished to encourage female migration to a colony that had a large imbalance of the sexes. But in reality, once women were voting in one part of the Empire, it gave encouragement, inspiration and hope for women in the other colonies! Advances in one part of the Empire were quickly disseminated through the rest. When Florence Nightingale carved out a profession of nursing for women in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada all followed suit and a Colonial Nursing Service was later set up to send women nurses to even the poorest of colonies. Ideas on equality could spread on the steamships, telegraph wires and newspapers scuttling around from one colony to another with increasing speed and ease.

There was no single experience for women in the British Empire, but it is true that their experience, expectations and opportunties were often different from that experienced by men. Their experience assuredly evolved, changed and modified over time, but there were often more obstacles for women than for men in discovering their true potential and living fulfilling lives within the imperial context. However, many persevered and thrived in exotic, challenging but often dangerous parts of the world. They dealt with new cultures, new climates and new geographies to carve out lives for themselves. Many were content to never return home to the mother country, others used the opportunities to create careers for themselves or support their families, some died from unfamiliar diseases or in wars and conflict. The story of the British Empire cannot be fully understood without fully appreciating the role of women in its story!

Mrs Christian Davies
18th Century Cavalry Trooper
James Barry / Margaret Ann Bulkley
First Woman Doctor in Britain
Annie Besant
Political and Social Activist
Lady Butler
Fanny Coker
Freed Slave
Ethel Tawse Jollie
Mary Kingsley
Florence Nightingale
Marianne North
Lady Sale
Soldier's Wife, Captive and Author
Mary Seacole
Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond
Model for Britannia
Further Reading
Voices and Echoes: Tales from Colonial Women
by Joan Alexander

Diary of a Colonial Officer's Wife
by Laura Boyle

Dearest Priscilla: Letters to the Wife of a Colonial Civil Servant
by Emily Bradley

A Household Book for Africa
by Emily Bradley

Gender, Culture and Empire: European Women in Colonial Nigeria
by Helen Callaway

The Incorporated Wife
by Hilary Callan

Not for Me the Wilds
by Barbara Carr

Journey of a Lifetime
by Olive Champion

Seven Years' Island Hopping
by Roddy Cordon

The Real Paradise: Memories of Africa 1950-1963
by Ann Davidson

The Badge of Britannia: The History and Reminiscences of The Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service 1886 - 1966
by H. P. Dickson

Into Africa: The Imperial Life Of Margery Perham
by C Brad Faught

Emergency Exit
by Sylvia Foot

Tales of the Fiji Islands: By the Wife of a District Commissioner
by Ann Gittins

A Scorpion for Tea: Or, to Attempt the Impossible
by Rosemary Hollis

Too much to Tell
by Molly Huggins

Every Road Leads Back Home
by Dora Hutchings

A Time in Arabia
by Doreen Ingrams

It's a Bigger Life
by Lucille Iremonger

Harmattan: A Wind of Change: Life and Letters from Northern Nigeria at the End of Empire
by Carolyn Johnston Sudan Tales: Reminiscences of Wives in the Sudan Political Service, 1926-56
by Rosemary Kenrick

The Sultans Came to Tea
by June Knox-Mawer

A Resident's Wife in Nigeria
by Constance Larymore

Kilimanjaro Tales: Saga of a Medical Family in Africa
by Gwynneth Latham

The Prophet's Camel Bell
by Margaret Laurence

Stepping Stones: Memoirs of Colonial Nigeria 1907-1960
by Sylvia Leith-Ross

From Aden to the Gulf: Personal Diaries, 1956-66
by Margaret Luce

Love is a Grapefruit: Life and Times of Olive Alexanderina MacDonald - An Exercise in Social Commentary by Her Other Half
by Andrew S MacDonald

So Many Worlds
by Patricia Maddocks

The Jacaranda Children
by Margaret Mamaki

My Other Family: An Artist-Wife in Singapore 1946 - 1948
by Patricia Morley

Zambian Odyssey 1958-1998
by Kate Morris

A Decade In Africa
by Judy Morrish

Coconuts and Coral
by Gwendoline Page

Variations on a Theme: Memories from Members of the Queen Elizabeth's Overseas Nursing Service Association
edited by Pirkis, Dorothy Park

Private Secretary (Female)/Gold Coast
by Erica Powell

To My Wife, 50 Camels
by Alys Reece

Angels in Africa: Memoir of Nursing with the Colonial Service
by Bridget Robertson

The Old Third World: The Golden Years
by M A Ross

Nigerian Memories
by Noel Rowling

Bush Life in Nigeria: An Account of the Experiences of the Wife of an Administrative Officer in Northern Nigeria from 1934-1944
by Elnor Russell

Come On, Eileen! Encounters And Experiences
by Eileen Sandford

The Donas Remember
by Alice Shirley Schofield

The Governor's Lady: Entertainment And Recipes At Government House, The Cayman Islands
by Scott, Joan Hall

Diary of a Colonial Wife: An African Experience
by Joan Sharwood-Smith

Before the Knife
by Carolyn Slaughter

Heart of Africa
by Joan I. Smith

A Patch of Africa
by Joan I. Smith

Matilda, Her Life and Legacy
by Joyce Stevens Smith

European Women and the Second British Empire
by Margaret Strobel

Forty Years of Service: The Women's Corona Society 1950-1990
by Cecillie Swaisland

Facing the Bow: European Women in Colonial Malaya 1919-1945
by Jean Teasdale

Britannia's Daughters: Women of the British Empire
by Joanna Trollope

Cypher Officer
by Elizabeth Watkins

Olga In Kenya: Repressing The Irrepressible
by Elizabeth Watkins

There is Only One Nigeria
by Peggy Watt

Catching the Bag: Who'd be a Woman Diplomat?
by Margaret West

View from the Peak: An Autobiography
by Phoebe Whitworth

A Saharan Sketchbook: A Memoir of a Journey in an Africa of Yesterday
by Ollivia Willes

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