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Women in the colonies - issues of mixed race relations and gender

Updated on August 30, 2012

How could gender, race and/or class relations be affected when European women arrived at colonial fronts?

Perry looks at British Columbia around 1858-1871, around this time there was a call for white women to settle there. British Columbia lacked much of a white population, and those there were overwhelmingly male. Given this, the seeming acceptance of mixed-raced unions was often credited to the lack of white women. The close living relations of these working-class men to the indigenous peoples threatened the widely held gender and race systems of Europe. Media of the day suggested that white women would be the solution to problems, that they would transform the colony into an ordered agricultural and industrial society. White women, being representatives of the social and civil, would also correct unruly male behaviour who lack the ability to alter or control themselves. Men with greater social standing were considered to be capable of controlling their own behaviour so working-class women were those desired to curb the social behaviour of working-class men. White women were wanted to: prevent interracial sexual practice and mixed marriage, control homosocial culture in favour of a more accepted idea of masculinity and respectability, and also to encourage white men to become permanent settlers in the colonies as opposed to seasonal workers.

Although intimate interracial relations had been common and even encouraged, objections were being listened to during the late 1850s and 1860s. These close interracial relations challenged racial hierarchy. Scientific theories of race were also challenged, some even resorted to claiming that mixed-race children to be made of the worst of each race. The fact that mixed-race relations were often founded on abuse and exploitation of First Women was an issue ignored by most. It was hoped that the introduction of white women would overcome these problems and re-establish the racial divisions expected. It was considered that ‘women’s society’ would prevent men from excessive gambling and drinking. In this, First Nation women were even excluded from the category of woman, the notion of woman being connected to notions of race and civilisation. First Nation women were also often considered the means for white men’s degradation while white women would be the saviours. However, it was observable that ‘white women’s primary colonial utility lay not in their maternity but in their sexual and familial status’.

Men’s homosocial culture lead to men only households which opposed concepts of gender and domestic roles. Women were needed to establish the roles expected by Europe, domestic duties should not fall to men. There also existed a fear of male homosexuality in the absence of white women. However, when women did arrive they did not act as expected of them. They did not uphold the social rules they were desired for, the ‘chasm between representations of white women…and the social practice of white working-class women in colonial setting could be large indeed’. So, it seems the society of white women was not to be the saving grace for the colonies after all.

Perry, A. 1997. ‘Fair Ones of a Purer Caste’: White Women and Colonialism in Nineteenth Century British Columbia. Feminist Studies. 23: 501-524.


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