The best books on the history of feminism and imperialism

Tracey Jean Boisseau Author Of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity
By Tracey Jean Boisseau

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I have been trying for decades to understand how gender, race, class, and nationality are knotted together in ways that are not always obvious or trackable in our personal experience. The books I recommend here have served as brilliant lanterns for me—not simply pointing out the flawed history of western feminism but instead explaining the complicated effects of whiteness and imperialism in the development of today’s feminist identities, ideologies, and consciousness. For me, these histories offer intersectional keys decoding the map of the world we’ve been dropped into and offering a path leading to a more justly feminist future….I hope they do for you too!

I wrote...

White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

By Tracey Jean Boisseau,

Book cover of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

What is my book about?

“White Queen" is what an unusual and fascinating woman named May French-Sheldon (1847-1936) called herself, or claimed that the Africans she met, during her 1891 expedition to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, called her. Her explorer’s outfit—including a full-length, jewel-encrusted, white ballgown, tiara, and waist-length blonde wig—ensured her whiteness would be inextricably linked to what she hoped would be read as “queenliness.” “White Queen” also describes a kind of white, Western, feminist figure whose claims to power, importance, and personal emancipation rely heavily upon and perpetuate a world structured by racism and colonialism.

This book zooms in on the fascinating life and public career of the first woman explorer of Africa to explicate how white American feminist identity—first forged in the fires of colonial conquest—became reliant on tropes of race in ways that still yoke American feminism to the politics of empire.

The books I picked & why

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Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance

By Nupur Chaudhuri (editor), Margaret Strobel (editor),

Book cover of Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance

Why this book?

A collection of very short but incredibly interesting and illuminating essays, this book inaugurated the field of study we might call “feminism and empire.” Strobel and Chaudhuri gathered up the most important histories written to that date that explained how nineteenth and twentieth-century feminism emerged from colonialist contexts all over the world. Asking the question “what difference does gender make?” each author teases out the importance of gender for colonial travel and politics in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Reading this book made me want to contribute to that kind of historical understanding of gender, modeling for me what an “intersectional feminist” method of historical investigation might look like.

Gender on Ice, Volume 10: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions

By Lisa Bloom,

Book cover of Gender on Ice, Volume 10: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions

Why this book?

This slim but explosively dramatic book makes everything you were ever told about the history of polar exploration seem like nothing more than random trivia. Lisa Bloom takes those stories you think you know and offers up the hidden realities of them in ways that explain the race, gender, and sexual politics of not just polar exploration but the idea of “modernity” itself as a crutch for justifying the “penetration” of people and spaces existing at the “ends of the earth.”

Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender & Empire Building

By Laura E. Donaldson,

Book cover of Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender & Empire Building

Why this book?

This book takes a tour through the most impactful and influential popular literature circulating in the 19th and early 20th centuries—the stories that laid the groundwork for a collective Anglo-American consciousness—and explains how these stories produced a set of feminist ideologies that were reliant upon a racist and imperialist imaginary. Whether it is her chapter on the “King and I” in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or her tracking of the “picanninies” romping through “Peter Pan” and a “Passage to India,” Donaldson explains how we came to associate feminism with the ideologies of slavery and colonialism in the deepest recesses of our imaginations.

German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

By Lora Wildenthal,

Book cover of German Women for Empire, 1884-1945

Why this book?

This book teaches us how German imperialism tied itself to the emancipation of women, by focusing on the expansion of the German state into Africa and the Pacific rim. In the generations leading up to the establishment of the Third Reich, German women made themselves indispensable to German imperialism as nurses, wives, missionaries, mothers, sexual partners, and upholders of racial purity. This is simply one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, making clear the granular details of how empires were built and why gender matters in our understanding of them.

The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s

By Liz Conor,

Book cover of The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s

Why this book?

This might be my favorite history book, period. Conor explains how “modern womanhood” in Australia came into being and was marked by the successful managing of one’s (sexualized and objectified) public appearance, including the way “primitive woman” (aboriginal or black) was constructed as a colonialist foil for the modern (white) Australian woman—whether she was a “screen-struck” movie fan, beauty contestant, or flapper. This book makes clear how women, as the principal focus of a newly visual mass media, came to define their “liberation” in sexual as well as racial and nationalist terms.

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Interested in 20th century, feminism, and imperialism?

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