How imperialism endangered women’s vote

Penny WangPenny Wang is a second year undergraduate studying for an English Literature and History degree at Newcastle University. As a Chinese student, her experience in Britain has led her to develop an interest in diasporic groups. Currently working on a university-funded research project on women, leisure and diaspora in the North East during the First World War, she focuses specifically on Belgian, Italian and Chinese communities. Lady Lugard’s prominent role in the relief work for Belgian refugees during wartime prompted her to find out more about this unusual woman.

It is easy to dismiss things when they are not obvious and such is the case of Flora Shaw, later Lady Lugard. Previous biographers first dismissed the importance of her whole life, and later the early part of it before she took up journalism. Although the most recent biography demonstrates her prominent contribution to the imperial project, her anti-suffragist role is only mentioned in fleeting. This continued despite the many studies on connections between imperialism and the suffragist movement: she is often much less discussed than her anti-suffragist peers due to the comparative ‘muteness’ of her stance.

But was her role really that insignificant?

In fact, her eminence in other fields allowed her to endanger the suffrage movement in subtle ways. The reason why Flora Shaw did not feature as visibly in the suffrage debate was that women’s vote was not her priority: her major devotion was rather to the British imperial enterprise. Note here that the traditional gender difference was one of the crucial props of the Empire: it laid the foundation for a hierarchical society. Such rank and order guaranteed both the stability of the metropolis and that of the colonies, as well as justifying the analogous inequality between the centre and the province.

For the anti-suffragists, women’s suffrage was incompatible with the imperial ideology: it symbolised a gender transgression where women divert themselves from their ‘natural’ station as domestic mothers and intervene in men’s parliamentary politics. If effected, such a move would definitely ‘emasculate’ England. It was also seen as threatening women’s social purity, a fundamental female quality in the Christian belief system – another mainstay buttressing the imperial project.

Interestingly, this discourse of the ‘domestic mother’ was also deployed by some suffragists: women’s indispensable role in the expansion and consolidation of the British Empire – hostesses of the ‘home’ and helpmeets of men – would validate their share of citizenship. However, this rhetoric of women’s distinctive role was first employed by the anti-suffragist side. The ominous suggestion is, therefore, the ubiquity and wide acceptance of the anti-suffragist ideology – so much so that it was not only justifiable but also elemental in the argument of their opponents.

Shaw’s familial background and childhood experience in Ireland were crucial to her induction into the imperial project, the one great cause she saw as the only solution to all poverty in Britain. Unsurprisingly, during the early stage of her writing career in the last decades of the nineteenth century, she incorporated the imperial values into her stories for children. Among the many dogmas including fixed class distinctions and justifications for the British rule over Ireland, the duty of the ‘gentleman’ and the idealistic ‘Victorian gentlewoman’ featured heavily. As prints were cheap and new developments were mushrooming in women’s and children’s education, such literature served the exact purpose of imprinting on the younger generation the implicit gender roles in the imperial ideology.

By the time the suffragists won their battle in 1918, the little girls who once read Shaw’s popular Castle Blair and Hector would then be middle-aged. It is therefore not hard to make the link between the influence of her stories on them from their youthful days and the apathy of many women, even those of working class backgrounds, to this new right to vote in the post-war era.

Shaw later moved into writing journalism, first for Pall Mall Gazette and the Manchester Guardian and finally The Times, where she travelled around the globe as a colonial correspondent. She could then reach out to a wider audience, achieving a more significant political impact. Her words and deeds seemed contradictory: it looked as if she was actively opposing the gender standard she advocated. Nonetheless, a closer inspection reveals her consistency.

In a speech to the Scottish Geographical Society during her career as the Special Correspondent of The Times in Australia, she solicited that young and educated people of Britain be sent to farm the lands of Australia. Their laudable work in this ‘store house of raw material’ would substantiate her vision of the mutual benefits between Britain and her province. Deploring the small number of British women in Australia, she strongly encouraged them to go there, asserting, as can be expected, that ‘[d]airy, poultry-rearing, and fruit-growing would fall naturally into their department’. To her, the issue of women travelling to colonies was not problematic so long as they remained true to their ‘God-given’ position as the helpmeets of men and contented themselves with performing domestic duties.

What these women would achieve individually was not an expedition of the colony, but a duplication of the domestic sphere, and their role in this ‘new’ land was still that of housewives’. Collectively, they became the maternal hostess of the British Empire – the larger and greater ‘home’. Shaw justified this concept of ‘home’ by asserting that Australians had in ‘their veins […] the British blood’ and were thereby of the same ‘race’ as the British people. In the long run, this settlement of British women proved to be harmful to local feminisms: it necessitated an ‘othering’ of the native women to establish the white superiority and supremacy to suit the imperial ideology, questioning colonial women’s deservedness to rights as advocated back in England.

Shaw reconciled her unusual experiences by claiming membership among these women harbingers of the British Empire: her travels and interventions to the colonial policy were no more than tending to the domestic affairs of the imperial home. As for Shaw’s political involvements, she was always conscious of her gender role and adeptly cast herself as a figure of modesty after her late marriage, lobbying around for her husband’s colonial enterprise as Lady Lugard, living entirely up to the standard of the virtuous Victorian wife.

The printed media was not her only channel to exert influences. During the First World War, Lady Lugard’s relief work for the Belgian refugees was so noteworthy that it gained her the title of ‘Dame of the British Empire’. The War Refugees Committee she set up was one of the most important charity organisations, and was imbued with her ideology. This was manifest in its constitution (where men held most of the leading positions while women were assigned to clothing and accommodation departments) and its treatment of refugees dependent upon class and gender.

Lugard virtually encompassed all the three major types of distinguished women anti-suffragists in Julia Bush’s work: the maternal reformer, the woman writer, and the imperial lady. The title of DBE was more than an acknowledgment of her contribution: it erected her as an exemplar to be admired. Thus, her resplendent achievements made her anti-suffragist ideology likely to be accepted. Since those anti-suffragist women brandishing their attitude often incurred charges of hypocrisy in that their implication in politics was against their own principles, the road Lady Lugard took seems to be a more secure choice.

This dangerous imperialist-cum-anti-suffragist Flora Shaw/Lady Lugard imperiled women’s suffrage not by flaunting her viewpoint – in fact, the anti-suffragist campaign might never have occurred to her as a worthy diversion. However, her unwavering dedication to bolster the British Empire was so successful  that the inherent anti-suffragist aspect of her ideology was approved of by many along with her other codes of conduct. In other words, this female imperialist readily put the suffrage cause into danger in an almost sidelining manner. This reminds us again of the difficulties faced by the fighters for women’s suffrage and the fragility of feminism in its early stage as well as nowadays. Above all, it warns us against the insidious nature of the imperial ideology which jeopardises equalities of all kinds.


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Cahalan, Peter, Belgian Refugee Relief in England during the Great War (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1982)

Callaway, Helen and Dorothy O. Helly, ‘Crusader for Empire’, in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. by Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 79-97

—, ‘Lugard, Dame Flora Louise, Lady Lugard (1852–1929)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, May 2006  [accessed 24 July 2016]

Carrington, Bridget, ‘“Good, and lovely, and true”: A consideration of the contribution & legacy of Flora Shaw’s fiction for children’ in A Victorian Quartet: Four Forgotten Women Writers (Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing, 2008)

Grewal, Inderpal, Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel (Durham and London: Duke University, 1996)

Shaw, Flora L., ‘Australia’, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 10 (1894), 169-184

Storr, Katherine, Excluded from the Record: Women, Refugees and Relief 1914-1929 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010)