The best books on how gender helped empires to rule the world

Angela Woollacott Author Of Gender and Empire
By Angela Woollacott

Who am I?

I’ve been teaching university courses on gender and colonialism for about thirty years. I find students engage with the stories of the daily lived reality of women and men in the past. The books on my list are ones I have assigned at universities in two different countries. It’s so powerful to read someone’s own story from centuries ago, in their own words, like that of Mary Prince. While I love to recommend fiction to history students, I’ve always been fussy about only assigning novels set in a time period and context that the author knew first-hand. It makes these stories—like Heart of Darkness, Burmese Days, and Coonardoo—truly historical evidence. 

I wrote...

Gender and Empire

By Angela Woollacott,

Book cover of Gender and Empire

What is my book about?

Through key episodes across a broad range of British Empire history, Angela Woollacott examines how gender ideologies and practices made the daily lives of women and men, structuring imperial politics and culture. 

Fiction and other vivid primary sources present the actual voices of historical subjects. The book covers topics and debates in imperial and colonial history, from slavery and indentured labour, to militarism, warfare, and domestic service. Colonial subjects and imperial officials moved around the world. Yet hierarchical conceptions of gender and race shaped British colonialism from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, with very real consequences. Woollacott draws on decades of scholarship, providing fresh insights and interpretation. Authoritative and approachable, this is essential reading for students of world history, imperial history, and gender relations.

The books I picked & why

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The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself

By Mary Prince,

Book cover of The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself

Why this book?

We all know that slavery was practised by many empires through world history, but it is rare to find the voice and life experience of someone who was enslaved. Literary scholar Moira Ferguson has edited and republished the memoir of Mary Prince, who was born into slavery in Bermuda but escaped in 1828 when her owners took her to London. Mary Prince found refuge with anti-slavery reformers, who wrote down and published her account of her life. I find it a searing account of how enslaved people were torn from their own families and loved ones, and the brutality of their lives in the Caribbean. Be warned: the sexual assault, violence, and cruelty are shocking. But if you want to know about slavery, this book will tell you.

Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad,

Book cover of Heart of Darkness

Why this book?

Joseph Conrad, one of the most famous novelists in English in the early 20th century, was born in Ukraine to a Polish family. His first career was in the merchant marine, taking him to many parts of the world ruled by European empires. Heart of Darkness was based on his own observations as a ship captain in the Congo. It’s tough but compelling. Conrad’s indictment of the terrible atrocities committed by ivory traders, in King Leopold of Belgium’s personal fiefdom, shows the brutal treatment of enslaved labourers. But it also has gender at its heart. The fictional Captain Marlow cannot bring himself to tell the truth to Kurtz’s fiance at home in Brussels. European femininity, seemingly, had to be protected from the depravity of European masculinity in the colonies.

Burmese Days

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Burmese Days

Why this book?

George Orwell is best known for his futuristic political visions, searing political satire, and his expose of the deprivation of the English and French labouring classes in the interwar decades. My favourite of his books is Burmese Days, set in 1920s British colonial Burma (now Myanmar) and based on his own time there as an imperial police officer. Its detailed descriptions of the social lives and daily pastimes of Britons in a remote colonial outpost reveal the ways that gender structured colonial race relations. The book’s protagonist, himself critical of other white colonisers, meets his inglorious end because he utterly fails to understand or empathise with his Burmese concubine. His obsession with a young Englishwoman made him blind to his own injustices.


By Katharine Susannah Prichard,

Book cover of Coonardoo

Why this book?

Katharine Susannah Prichard was one of Australia’s prominent 20th-century novelists, controversial because of her Communism. But her 1929 novel Coonardoo was considered outrageous, not because of its class politics, so much as its daring to tell a story of interracial love. Set on a remote cattle station in northern Western Australia, Coonardoo presents the veiled love story of the white station owner and an exploited Aboriginal servant. To me, the love story is plausibly told through a focus on their childhood bonding and shared affinity for the land. The historical value of the book now—limited by its presentation of Indigenous culture through a settler lens—is in cataloguing the terrible treatment of Aboriginal station workers, especially the sexual abuse of Aboriginal women, and in the nearby pearling industry.

Black Skin, White Masks

By Frantz Fanon, Richard Philcox (translator),

Book cover of Black Skin, White Masks

Why this book?

Frantz Fanon was born in the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, lived in France itself, and worked as a psychiatrist in the French colony of Algeria. Thus, he saw French colonialism from multiple angles. Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, brings his psychoanalytic training to bear on the psychic damage to colonised and Black people under racist and colonial regimes. A powerful analysis of how racism warped subjectivity, the book explores the wounded masculinity of Black men. While I admire Fanon’s writings and his insights into how racism works are essential reading, his interest in Black women’s damaged selfhood is less apparent. The occasional evidence of sexism in his work tells us that gender injustice was not his main focus. The workings of gender under colonialism were complex indeed.

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