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!