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African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes

Chapter One. The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African
American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes
History » Women’s History
Imperial, Colonial, and Postcolonial History » Colonial History
Race and Ethnicity Studies » African American Studies
Northern America » United States of America
imperialism, Native American
• Representations of Native American Women
• Images of African Women
• Colonial Women as Caricatures and Colonizers
• Looking Back
• Bibliography
ALGONQUIAN women in New England, wrote William Wood in 1634, were “more loving,
pitiful, and modest, mild, provident, and laborious than their lazy husbands.” Wood
imagined that oppressed Indian women would gladly embrace European gender roles with
Bibliographic Details
A Companion to American Women’s History
Edited by: Nancy A. Hewitt
eISBN: 9781405126854
Print publication date: 2005
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their presumably lighter burdens of female domesticity. Commenting in 1657 on enslaved
African women in Barbados, Richard Ligon remarked that their breasts “hang down below
their Navals,” and “when they stoop at their common work of weeding, they hang almost
to the ground, that at a distance you would think they had six legs.” Ligon’s vision of
nearly deformed African women supported his belief that they, like beasts, were fit for
grueling labor. Pennsylvania was a healthy place, one promotional tract claimed in 1698,
in which transplanted English women proved remarkably fertile: “Barrenness among
women [is] hardly to be heard of,” and “seldom any young Married Woman but hath a
Child in her Belly, or one upon her Lap.” Colonial women who settled there would be as
fruitful as the land. Written in three different places at different times, these descriptions
did not simply mirror their subjects. Rather, images of women were part of complex and
often contradictory efforts by colonizers to understand and control intercultural contact in
the “New World.” (Wood cited in Smits 1982: 293; Ligon cited in Morgan 1997: 168;
Pennsylvania tract cited in Klepp 1998: 919.)
How did Europeans’ perceptions of Native American, African, and European women
influence the project of settlement and expansion in colonial America? Historians have
begun to mine well-known writings of European explorers and settlers in search of
something often previously overlooked: representations of women and the role these
images played in colonizers’ perceptions and practices of conquest. The “linguistic turn”
in academia in the 1980s and 1990s, with its attention to language as an aspect of power
relations rather than as a transparent and neutral means of communication,
The author thanks Ann M. Little for her excellent comments on this essay.
encouraged the interrogation of primary sources as suspect informants. Along with
anthropologists and literary critics, historians have come to understand verbal
descriptions as embedded in and constitutive of (rather than apart from and simply
descriptive of) social relations between different groups. The critical reassessment of
historical sources has in turn boosted research on the perceptions of colonial writers, the
cultural predispositions of their “gaze,” and the sometimes fantastic images they
projected of the would-be colonized. As a result, some historians have focused on the
way colonizers deployed images of women in an effort to promote and justify colonial
conquest. This line of inquiry is still relatively new, and some of the most relevant
scholarship to combine analyses of gender, imperialism, and imagery of colonized women
is based on literary analysis or on historical and anthropological examinations of
nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial contexts. This essay, however, focuses on
perceptions of women in or migrating to British North America to explore what power
relations underlay colonizers’ descriptions of “other” women, and the role that particular
images of women played in the process of colonization.
Representations of Native American Women
Many English readers first encountered “America” in the form of an allegory. By the
1570s, America appeared in numerous European books and maps as an Indian woman
wearing only a feathered headdress. In the famous engraving of “America” by Theodor
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Galle, for example (ca. 1580 after a drawing by Jan van der Straet), America appears as a
native woman on a hammock, aroused from her slumber by Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian
explorer whose name, in feminine form, would become attached to the continents of the
western hemisphere (see Plate 1). The conquistador, fully clad and armed, plants his
banner into the ground with the same firm assertion with which he will stake claim to the
region and the people in it. As Louis Montrose explains, the representation of America as
a semi-nude and reclining woman does much to naturalize the conquest as part of the
predictable relations of men to women and of civilized people to “savages.” In images
such as these, the “New World” is gendered female, and its exploration and conquest is
made sexual. The land, like the women in it, is depicted as there for the taking, available
to any male colonist intrepid enough to grasp the prize. The scene of cannibalism in the
background renders America savage (despite the figure’s idealized European looks),
suggesting that the pending conquest will banish savagery at the same time that it
appropriates both the female figure and the land she represents.
Similarly, as Annette Kolodny has shown, Europeans commonly described the country’s
physical terrain in gendered terms that conveyed the appropriateness of its annexation.
Descriptions of a “virgin land,” one untouched by human agency and awaiting its own
awakening (and profitable exploitation), did much to erase symbolically the presence of
Indians whose agricultural practices and routine forest burnings had long marked the
countryside. Portrayals of a sparsely inhabited and entirely “unimproved” land falsely
suggested that only small numbers of nomadic Indians roamed the area with merely
spurious claims to the region. The descriptions of a land lying in wait, its riches as yet
unexplored because Indian men were incapable of the deed, served as a sexual metaphor
that appealed to European men. William Strachey, for example, argued that the English
could much better exploit “those benefits … which god hath given unto them [Indian
men], but evolved and hid in the bowells and womb of their Land (to them barren, and
unprofitable, because unknowne)” (cited in Brown 1996: 57). Sir Walter Ralegh went so far
as to describe Guiana as “a countrey that hath yet her maydenhead, never sackt, turned,
nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not bene torne, nor the vertue and salt of the
soyle spent by manurance … It hath never bene entered by any armie of strength, and
never conquered or possessed by any Christian prince” (Montrose 1992: 154). Anne
McClin-tock uses the term “porno-tropics” to describe the “long tradition of male travel
as an erotics of ravishment.” For centuries, European travel accounts “libidinously
eroticized” Africa, the Americas, and Asia as places of male conquest (McClintock 1995:
22). The comments by Strachey and Ralegh can stand in for countless examples that
illustrate the point made by Joan C. Scott that forms of social inequality may be modeled
on gendered relations of power, whether or not these social relations expressly involve
men and women. Justifications of conquest that depicted the land and its indigenous
inhabitants as passive and submissive (and hence feminized) implied that colonial
relations of domination were as natural, obvious, and appropriate as Europeans presumed
hierarchical gender relations to be. Acts of conquest framed in gendered terms served to
naturalize relations of power, with Indian peoples and their environment portrayed as the
feminized “Other.”
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Plate 1 America. Engraving (ca. 1580) by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der
Straet (ca. 1575). Courtesy of the Burndy Library, Dibner Institute for the History of
Science and Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Peter Hulme notes, however, that on occasion the feminization could be strategically
reversed, as in Samual Purchas’s 1625 account of the Indian massacre of Virginia
colonists in 1622: “But when Virginia was violently ravished by her owne ruder Natives,
yea, her Virgin cheeks dyed with the bloud of three Colonies … the stupid Earth seems
distempered with such bloudy potions and cries that shee is ready to spue out her
Inhabitants” (Hulme 1986: 160). In this case, the “virgin” land was raped by its own
natives, and the spilt blood was that of the colonies, which are, in the process, identified
with the ravaged land. The colonists have become the natural residents, the passive
victims of native violence, while the Indians are spewed out. Gendered relations of
colonialism could appear in different forms, but they routinely served to justify the use of
colonial force (in this case, as retaliation) against the Indians.
As part of the eroticization of conquest, native women often appeared as figures of
deviant and excessive sexuality. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, described a “shameful”
custom in which Indian women, “being very libidinous, make the penis of their husbands
swell to such a size as to appear deformed.” The women accomplish this with the bite of a
poisonous snake, he said, though as a result many husbands “lose their virile organs and
remain eunuchs” (Montrose 1992: 144). The inversion of a European gender hierarchy,
apparent in the image of depraved and sexually violent Indian women and of men willing
to tolerate emasculation for the pleasure of their wives, again signaled the “savagery” that
to Europeans made moot any native claims to the land and its resources.
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Vespucci’s account sounds entirely fabricated, but actual gender roles and sexual mores
astonished European newcomers and fueled perceptions of Indian incivility. As Kathleen
Brown explains, ethnic identities stemmed in part from “the confrontations of culturallyspecific manhoods and womanhoods” (Brown 1995: 27). Many Native American groups,
for example, provided visitors with female bedfellows. Women mediators offered not only
sexual companionship but also rudimentary language skills and lessons in local customs
that facilitated trade relations. Because these arrangements served an overtly diplomatic
function, Indian leaders debated the merits of such associations before giving their
assent. By contrast, European norms defined only marital sex as acceptable for women.
Although women often transgressed sexual rules and Europeans in fact accommodated
premarital and extramarital sex to a considerable degree, prescriptive mores defined
women’s non marital sexual activity as profligacy. Some Europeans imputed to sexually
available Indian women a mercenary nature; others described them as innocents in a
precivilized Eden. Whether perceived as calculating or naive, Indian women’s sexual
relations with outsiders appeared to Europeans as acts of blatant promiscuity. Colonial
perceptions of sexual “deviance” contributed to a rhetoric of rightful dispossession: if
civilized women were chaste, then lascivious Indian women (and tolerant native men)
further proved that Indians in general (often lumped together in European minds) were
“uncivilized” and therefore without legitimate claim to the land.
Despite the derisive tone in many accounts of Indian women, a great deal of admiration
also infused colonial depictions of their bodies and behavior. Women were described not
only as promiscuous creatures, but as gorgeous ones as well, thus “eroticizing the middle
ground” between European men and Indian women (Godbeer 1999). Margarita Zamora
notes that “eroticization of the feminine implies both desire and disdain,” and she
explains that in the context of a European gender hierarchy, Indian women could be
idealized and denigrated at the same time, without contradiction, while reasserting the
European male viewer’s sense of superiority over the object of his gaze (Zamora
1990/1991: 146). From their first encounter, colonists ogled scantily clad Indians,
fantasized about native women as sexual objects, and produced minutely detailed
descriptions of their physical appearance. John Lawson, for example, a surveyor in the
Carolinas, wrote of Indian women that:
when young, and at Maturity, they are as fine-shap’d Creatures (take them
generally) as any in the Universe. They are of a tawny Complexion; their Eyes
very brisk and amorous; their Smiles afford the finest Composure a Face can
possess; their Hands are of the finest Make, with small long Fingers, and as
soft as their Cheeks; and their whole Bodies of a smooth Nature. They are not
so uncouth or unlikely, as we suppose them; nor are they Strangers or not
Proficients in the soft Passion.
(Lawson 1984 [1709]: 189–90)
By contrast, Lawson (and others) portrayed Indian men as effete and without ardor, and
hence unable to satisfy libidinous Indian women. “Indian Men are not so vigorous and
impatient in their Love as we are,” he wrote. “Yet the Women are quite contrary, and those
Indian Girls that have convers’d with the English and other Europeans, never care for the
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Conversation of their own Countrymen afterwards” (Lawson 1984 [1709]: 193). In this
depiction, feminized Indian men offered no competition to lusty Englishmen for the
sexual interest of native women. This notion of an absent sex drive in Indian men,
combined with the belief that they failed to make proper and profitable use of the land,
reinforced a colonial masculinity that expressed its manhood in an impulse for sexual as
well as geographical conquest.
Karen Kupperman argues that English concerns with gender roles and class relations
among Indians initially outstripped an interest in racial difference. Colonial leaders were
especially keen on ascertaining that Indians had gender roles and distinctions of status
(made visible in posture, gestures, clothing, and hair styles) that affirmed the social
hierarchy in England and its supposedly natural underpinnings of gender and class. Such
hierarchies among Indians also seemed to suggest that “civilizing” the natives would not
be too difficult. Consequently, contradictory images evolved that included not only effete
Indian men but also noble, dignified savages who formed a natural aristocracy. Skin color
was not yet as important as other markers of difference; only when Indians proved
unwilling to assimilate did colonials assert immutable categories of racial difference.
For a long time, in fact, no consensus prevailed among the English as to the cause,
permanence, or even precise shade of Indians’ complexions. Captain Arthur Barlowe
reported in 1585 that Indians on the Carolina coast were “of a colour yellowish,” while
other travelers described Native Americans as tawny, brown, olive, russet, or copper.
Many, like John Smith, believed that Indians “are borne white” and then purposefully
darken their skin. James Adair, who lived among the Cherokee and Chickasaw for many
decades, proclaimed “that the Indian colour is not natural; but that the external difference
between them and the whites, proceeds entirely from their customs and method of living,
and not from any inherent spring of nature.” North America’s “parching winds, and hot
sun-beams … necessarily tarnish their skins with the tawny red colour,” while the
constant application of bear’s grease “mixt with a certain red root” produces in a few
years “the Indian colour in those who are white born.” Europeans could change their skin
color as well. Adair knew “a Pensylvanian, a white man by birth, and in profession a
Christian, who, by the inclemency of the sun, and his endeavours of improving the red
colour, was tarnished as deep an Indian hue, as any of the camp, though they had been in
the woods only the space of four years.” In these descriptions, color was only skin deep,
the result of exposure to the elements combined with applied color. (Barlowe 1966 [1584
–5]: 107; Smith cited in Kupperman 1997: 207; Adair cited in Williams 1930 [1775]: 4.)
Malleable categories of racial difference, however, meant that erotic images of Indian
women could create a “dilemma for a male colonist, as expression of the erotic may
signal his own lapse into savagery” (Robertson 1996: 561). Some feared that
intermarriage with Indians – especially among the lower ranks of colonists-would lead to
complete assimilation to Indian ways. Others, hoping instead that Indian women would
become anglicized and in the process bring native lands under colonial control, made
gendered distinctions of race, depicting Indian women as lighter-skinned than Indian
men. William Bartram, for example, believed that Cherokee women had a “complexion
rather fairer than the men’s.” Englishmen fantasized not only that Indian women were
paler than native men, but also that they preferred to bear white children. Lawson
believed the “handsome” Congaree women of South Carolina “esteem[ed] a white Man’s
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Child much above one of their getting” (Bar-tram cited in Waselkov and Braund 1995: 150
–1; Lawson 1984 [1709]: 35–6). Men like Bartram and Lawson projected not only that
native women preferred white children, but also that the descendents of an EnglishIndian union would eventually approximate the skin color of the white ancestor. Those
who promoted intermarriage as a means of infiltrating Indian culture and acquiring land
thus downplayed differences between Indian women and English men, racializing Native
Americans in ways that served an ideology of conquest.
The discourse about intercultural unions explicitly addressed concerns about class.
Lawson, who supported colonial intermarriage with Indians, made it clear that only
“ordinary People, and those of a lower Rank” should do so (Lawson 1984 [1709]: 244–5).
The well-to-do considered lower-class English people closer to a savage state anyway. In
an English culture obsessed with genealogy and bloodlines, the lower orders could hardly
claim purity of blood, nor could they necessarily insist on their own “whiteness” as the
concept was developing. Some well-heeled colonists assumed that Indians could be no
worse than the already crude members of the lower ranks. Virginia slaveholder William
Byrd, for example, compared Indian women favorably with the English women transported
(often from workhouses) to the fledgling Virginia colony, and he felt he could “safely
venture to say, the Indian women would have made altogether as Honest wives for the
first Planters, as the Damsels they us’d to purchase from aboard the Ships” (Byrd 1829:
120–2). But as race gradually took on fixed qualities and “redness” came to connote
permanent degradation, English ideas about assimilation also changed, reflecting the
shift toward more entrenched assumptions about innate difference. As the balance of
power in inter-cultural relations shifted to colonial advantage, so too did depictions of
voluptuous and eager Indian maidens give way to more standard images of primitive and
dirty drudges.
Images of African Women
While images of Indian women fluctuated considerably over the colonial era and shifted
according to political expediency, European depictions of African women appear to have
stabilized earlier into a negative stereotype. Winthrop Jordan details Europeans’ interest in
Africans from the mid-sixteenth century on, and he notes longstanding assumptions of
primitive and oversexed African women and men. Women were described as lascivious
and crude, with overheated passions, while African men (in contrast to effete Native
American men) were thought to be lustful and endowed with immense sexual organs.
These images of African men, Jordan says, reveal European men’s anxiety about them as
sexual competitors and at the same time implied that white men exercised civilized
sexual self-restraint. Other scholars of English culture have developed more explicitly the
ways in which images of Africans shaped the identity of English men and women as
“white.” Kim Hall’s examination of English literature, painting, and material culture from
1550 to 1640 reveals the pervasive use of racialized language and “tropes of blackness”
by which English people created identities for themselves as white women and men.
Felicity Nussbaum shows how eighteenth-century English novels invented the African
woman as “inscrutable and sexually amorphous.” Nussbaum argues that upper-class
English women imagined English servants and prostitutes as aligned with “savage” African
women, while their own monogamous and middle-class maternity helped “to consolidate
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the national cultural identity” (Nussbaum 1995: 3, 74). Eighteenth-century literature thus
braided together anxieties about female sexual propriety, racial difference, class
distinctions, and national identity.
Historians are beginning to focus on other written sources to explore how images of
African women interacted with European culture, identity, and an ideology of colonialism.
Travel accounts differ from novels and plays in that they purport to be accurate reports of
people and places the author has seen, but as Mary Louise Pratt explains, travelogues,
like natural histories, framed other peoples in ways that aided the colonial enterprise as
well. The language of natural science employed by European observers encompassed new
lands and peoples within a homogenizing scientific framework, giving readers the sense
that they could easily control unfamiliar people. Jennifer Morgan’s analysis of travel
writing from the sixteenth through the late eighteenth centuries demonstrates some of
the “negative symbolic work” that representations of black women performed for readers
in early modern England. The female African body appeared in travel literature as “both
desirable and repulsive, available and untouchable, productive and reproductive, beautiful
and black.” These contradictory images of black women as both mothers and monsters
marked the edges of the familiar (maternity) and the strange (monstrosity), creating a
discourse of racial difference that was “deeply imbued with ideas about gender and sexual
difference” (Morgan 1997:169–70). In particular, depictions of women who shamelessly
suckled their offspring in public with breasts so long they could be flung over their
shoulders evoked images of animal teats (see Plate 2). Furthermore, the belief that African
women experienced painless childbirth made their reproduction (like their nursing) seem
mechanical and effortless. Edward Long wrote in 1774 that black women in Jamaica “are
delivered with little or no labour; they have therefore no more occasion for midwifes than
the female oran-outang, or any other wild animal” (ibid.: 189). Represented as both
sexual and savage, African women appeared perfectly suited for the productive and
reproductive labor of slavery. More studies on images of black women in sources
purporting to be nonfiction will be a welcome contribution to the field. While there have
been great gains in the social history of African American women (especially regarding
demography, work, culture, and families), there is relatively little scholarship on the way
depictions of African and African American women helped shape the development of a
British colonial system based substantially on slave labor and the international slave
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Plate 2 Women in Africa, from Verum et Historicam Descriptionem Avriferi Regni Guineaa,
in Theodor de Bry, Small Voyages, vol. 6 (Frankfurt am Main, 1604), plate 3. Courtesy of
the John Work Garrett Library of the Johns Hopkins University.
Also useful would be more research on how Native American, African, and English people
were “raced” differently and in ways that took gender and social status into account. For
example, the assumption of painless childbirth among African women contributed to the
fiction of casual and emotionally detached reproduction on their part. By contrast, the
pain-free childbirth projected onto Native American women raised the question of
whether they were exempt from “Eve’s curse” and therefore existed in a special state
untouched by “original sin.” When colonial women were said to have “very easy Travail in
their Child-bearing,” as John Lawson put it, the image described robust, healthy women
whose procreation was useful to the imperialist project. Why did the image of painless
labor, projected onto different groups of women, create such striking distinctions among
the women rather than similarities? Furthermore, why did the English imagine – well into
the eighteenth century – that physical traits such as skin color among Indians were a
matter of cultural (and so reversible) choices and that native women tended to be lighter
than their male counterparts, while European assumptions about the fixity of the
complexions of African men and women gained credence much earlier and despite the
vast range in actual appearance of African peoples?
The answers likely reside in the specific and changing social contexts in which
intercultural contact took shape. English inclinations to see Native Americans as less
markedly or permanently different from themselves may have stemmed from early English
dependence on Native Americans for subsistence and military alliances, and from the fact
that Europeans initially failed to enslave Indians and so sought trade with them instead.
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Others, hoping the “New World” would prove a new Eden, found idealized Indians a useful
foil against which to critique European corruption. Some Europeans believed Indians were
the descendents of a “Lost Tribe of Israel” and thus biblical kin whose conversion and
assimilation, they hoped, would come easily. By contrast, the degradation inherent in
human bondage and the association of Africans with slavery, as well as centuries of
contact between Europeans and Africans and an awareness of African resistance to easy
assimilation, probably contributed to the earlier fixing of “blackness” with inferiority in
chauvinistic English minds. David Brion Davis suggests, furthermore, that when people in
England began to imagine themselves the world’s first free people and no longer vilified
their own poor to the same degree, Africans were scapegoated and made to represent all
that was degraded. Interestingly, the notion persists to this day that the “race” of Native
Americans was somehow different (and less) than that of European Americans or, more
especially, African Americans. Many scholars still describe white-Indian conflicts in the
colonies as the result of cultural clashes, while the mere presence of African Americans
transforms social antagonisms into problems of “race.” If African Americans still seem to
have more “race” than European Americans or Native Americans, it is worth investigating
what cultural and national mythologies are at work. Images of women as sexual objects,
mothers, and laborers give especially valuable clues about the construction of difference
and the culturally specific meanings ascribed to gender, and race, and class.
Colonial Women as Caricatures and Colonizers
Images of white women also played an important part in shoring up colonial rule,
although research on white women in the imperial gaze is still underdeveloped for
colonial North America. Scholars of the second British Empire have done superb work on
the ways in which white women ‐ as rhetorically deployed symbolic figures and as actual
persons ‐ participated in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonization of Africa and
South Asia. There the presence of colonial white women became crucial to the definition
and patrol of racial borders, even as they could not hinder the illicit sexual liaisons that
became the prerogative of ruling white men. As Ann Stoler and others have shown,
contests involving white women’s role in the sexual politics of a colonial social order can
reveal much about the complex and gendered power relations between indigenous and
colonial women and men. Regarding early America, we do know a great deal about the
social history of white women and the social and legal regulations that circumscribed
their lives. But we can uncover much more about how attempts to control the behavior of
colonial women by projecting certain images of them meshed with larger imperialist aims
and shaped social relations in the colonies.
English women in British North America had uneven and unstable reputations. From the
beginning, many white women were depicted as lowly immigrants of suspect pedigree,
often as former convicts and prostitutes. Such labels could effectively target wealthier
women as well, calling into question the authority of their husbands to rule in the young
colonies. Missionaries were quick to point out the moral flaws of colonial women, and
they often despaired at the recalcitrance of would-be converts. In 1711, Reverend John
Urmston, a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,
bitterly described North Carolina as “a nest of the most notorious profligates upon earth
… Women forsake their husbands come in here and live with other men.” Should the
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husband follow his wayward spouse to North Carolina, “then a price is given to the
husband and madam stays with her Gallant,” the lovers spread a rumor that the husband
is dead, “become Man and Wife make a figure and pass for people of worth and
reputation [and] arrive to be of the first Rank and Dignity” (Urmston cited in Fischer 2002:
53). For Urmston, the prevalence of illicit sex in North Carolina served as a measure of the
colony’s low moral standing and lack of civility. As with Indian and African American
women, white women’s sexual misconduct became a barometer of social instability in the
culture at large.
Unruly women found their most powerful embodiment in the figures of scolds and
witches, and accused women were often those whose outspoken or independent behavior
transgressed prescribed female deference to men. As Carol Karlsen and others have
pointed out, however, allegations of witchcraft also stemmed from altercations over
property, longstanding feuds between families, and the anxiety that infused a Puritan
culture caught up in political turmoil and engaged in costly Indian wars. In other words,
cracks in colonial rule exacerbated concerns about unruly women and the impact of (real
or imagined) female misconduct. Accusations of deviance served to keep women in line,
reasserting the patriarchal order and underscoring the crucial links between domestic
order and colonial control.
Counterposed images of colonial women appeared in female icons of fecundity and
contented productivity. Such depictions sought to encourage the migration of families
that would in turn consolidate colonial rule. John Lawson was one of many who promoted
colonization by touting the healthful effects of the environment. Second-generation
settlers in Carolina “are a straight, clean-limb’d People” whose children are “seldom or
never troubled with Rickets; or those other Distempers, that the Europeans” endured.
Lawson perceived a distinctly gendered pattern in this environment-induced return to a
more natural state. European American men soon followed in the footsteps of “idle” male
Indians (the “plentiful Country, makes a great many Planters very negligent,” Lawson
explained), while Anglo women, like their Indian counterparts, “are the most Industrious
Sex in that Place.” But in contrast to the image of the “squaw drudge,” transplanted Anglo
women represented happy, healthy laborers. Lest prospective female immigrants worry
that along with good health they would turn a few shades darker, Lawson added the
following reassurance: the “Vicinity of the Sun makes Impression on the Men, who labour
out of doors,” but the Anglo-American women who do not expose themselves to the
weather are “often very fair” (Lawson 1984 [1709]: 90–1). Here again, skin color was made
gender-specific, in the anticipation that immigrants would have concerns about the
climate that combined issues of reproduction, class, and color. Images of white women in
the imperial gaze were thus multiple and unfixed: depictions of harlots and scolds
demanded increased vigilance and social control on the one hand, while portrayals of
healthy fertility promised maternity and increase on the other.
White women’s reproductive behavior became an important part of the process of colonial
settlement and expansion, which is why promotional literature touted women’s ability to
bear children with ease in the colonies. Ruth Perry has shown that motherhood and
breastfeeding in mid-eighteenth-century Britain were “colonized” and made into a service
that women provided to the expanding and bellicose state. The growing concern with
child mortality, Perry argues, resulted from England’s protracted and costly wars against
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France and the endless need for soldiers. In the American colonies, too, procreation
became an imperial imperative, one that merged easily with the biblical mandate to
“increase” and “multiply” (see Plate 3). On the whole, however, the rather shrill English
rhetoric of reproduction for the sake of the state, the movement against wet-nursing
(having another woman breastfeed one’s child), and the concern to establish foundling
hospitals to save the lives of abandoned orphans – these were less characteristic of the
eighteenth-century colonies than they were of the London metro pole. It would be
interesting to know more precisely how colonial ideas about reproduction and the cultural
significance of breastfeeding (that Marilynn Salmon explores) tied in with the expanding
reach of the colonies, wars against the Indians, and developing ideas about race. How, in
other words, did European American understandings of the links between gender and
imperialism contrast with those in the “mother” country?
Plate 3 Reproduced by permission of the British Library.
Scholars have described the British experience in Ireland as a laboratory for conquest
elsewhere. In the process of colonization, Irish people were depicted as a different and
degraded race, with much the same language later applied to peoples in the Americas. It
would be interesting to know whether and how images of women, in particular, translated
across cultures. The sixteenth-century traveler and artist John White, for example,
contrasted “Pict” women with those of tattooed Algonquins on the North Carolina coast,
suggesting that “barbaric” Indians could experience the same civilizing process that
ancient Britons had once undergone (see Plate 4). One wonders how images of Irish
women or poorer English women translated into other colonial contexts and were
transformed there by local circumstances.
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The “imperial gaze” is most easily found in the published perceptions of colonizing men,
but Anglo-American women were imperialists as well, and they, too, projected images of
African and Native American women. Women’s voices are harder to come by than those of
men, but scholars have mined women’s narratives of Indian captivity for the way the
authors positioned themselves vis-à-vis Indian “others.” Christopher Castiglia, for
example, shows that although female authors of captivity narratives participated in a
language of Indian “savagery,” they also often contradicted that image with examples of
considerate and generous Indian hosts who cared for and eventually adopted them.
Although framed by male editors as the tale of a helpless woman’s redemption through
divine providence from uncivilized savages and her return to a superior culture, the
narratives themselves, Castiglia argues, subverted that espoused message. They do so by
showing the admirable agency of Indian women and of the captive herself, the
malleability of cultural identity, and the suffocating limitations of English gender norms
for the “redeemed” captives. It is precisely in those moments when the narrative
undercuts the moral it is supposed to uphold that we can “hear” the woman’s authorial
voice, Castiglia says, and this leads him to move beyond literary analysis to make claims
about the racial ideology of white women captives. Without denying that profound
cultural conflicts existed, Castiglia maintains that the captivity experience enabled
colonial women to articulate a positive view of Indian women that subverted essentialist
racial thinking and raised questions about aggressive colonial expansionism.
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Plate 4 Woman Pict, from Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land
of Virginia, as translated by Theodor de Bry, in Occidentalischen Reisen, volume I, part I,
Frankfurt am Main, 1590. Courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.
Other scholars emphasize the complicity of white women authors with imperialist
renditions of Indians. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, for example, Mary
Rowlandson, captured in Massachusetts in 1676 and held for nearly two months before
she was ransomed, authorized herself in her bestselling 1682 narrative, Sover-aignty and
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Goodness of God, as the symbol of a white and now feminized America. Presenting
herself as the victimized and yet still sexually pure icon of the Puritan state, Rowlandson
promoted aggressive colonial expansion against unredeemable Indians. Ann Little focuses
less on the symbolic imagery of women and more on the captives themselves to argue
that English women imported their norms of orderly households into the captivity
experience and judged their captors based on whether they established hierarchical
families in the English style. This gave women captives less reason to speak highly of
even those native women who cared for and protected them. Clearly, captivity narratives,
straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, provide complex and contradictory
evidence of white women’s perceptions of Indian women.
White women produced images of Africans as well. One Madam Knight, for example,
recorded her daily impressions while traveling from Boston to New Haven in 1704. She
found farmers in Connecticut “too Indulgent” with their slaves, “suffering too great
familiarity from them, permitting thm to sit at Table and eat with them, (as they say to
save time), and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand” (Andrews
1990: 104–5). Traveling to the West Indies and then to the mainland colonies in 1774,
Scottish traveler Janet Schaw, self-described as a “lady of quality,” was shocked when she
first saw the scarred backs of whipped slaves. She rationalized the whippings, however,
choosing to believe that Africans’ “Natures seem made to bear it, … whose sufferings are
not attended with shame or pain beyond the present moment” (Andrews and Andrews
1934: 127). Schaw projected onto enslaved men and women a deficient ability to feel
physical and emotional pain; in her construction, the whiplashes induced only a brief
physical sensation without deeper emotional impact or meaning. This mindset enabled
Schaw to justify the cruelty inherent in slavery and contributed to a racist understanding
of enslaved laborers. While there are excellent studies on nineteenth-century travel
writings by British women, it would be very useful to have more interpretive scholarship
on traveling women in the colonies and their comments on the “other” women they
encountered. The results would likely show neither an uncomplicated bonding with Indian
and African “sisters,” nor the same eroticized images of women so favored by imperialist
Looking Back
Some of the most interesting scholarship is also the most difficult: it explores the
interaction between the imperial gaze and imperial rule, between the imagination and
actual social relations, between the expectations created by a viewer’s projections and the
human exchange that confirmed or disrupted those views. Can historians use the imperial
gaze to write about women’s subjectivities? To seek the real women behind the images
imposed on them is to explore the relationship between colonial rhetoric and the
experience of colonization; it combines textual analysis with social and cultural history.
Karen Robertson, for example, argues that in the gaps and silences of John Smith’s
accounts of Pocahontas we can see the Indian woman’s counterpoint to his version of her,
an alternative mindset not accommodated by Smith’s narrative. Attempts like Robertson’s
are necessarily cautious and often inconclusive, leaving the reader wishing for more, but
not to undertake the venture means forfeiting a rare opportunity to go beyond image and
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convention. Worse, it makes the imperial gaze seem autonomous, as if it existed in a
vacuum uninfluenced by the very people it interprets. As Klaus Neumann explains, “a
critique of European colonial discourse must not be self-referential, but ought to take
into account how European perceptions have been shaped both by what Europeans were
conditioned to see and by what there was to be seen” (Neumann 1994: 119). Alice Conklin
asks: “How might the gendered and racialized gaze of the colonizer be subverted in our
own historical writing?” The trick, she says, is to alternate between accounts of western
hegemony and the experience of subalterns (Conklin 1998: 155).
Just how to tack back and forth remains a matter of experimentation, but subaltern
women in colonial America most certainly could and did look back at colonizing
Europeans with a gaze of their own. Furthermore, women behaved purposefully to alter
the images others had of them. Susan Klepp shows how white women reconfigured
maternal imagery, distancing themselves from an identification with their pregnant state
and focusing instead on the fetus as a separate being. They did so, Klepp says, in an
effort to emphasize their rational capabilities over their reproductive ones. Perhaps some
day we will have colonial-era accounts akin to Walter Johnson’s analysis of the way slaves
in nineteenth-century slave markets molded the perceptions of prospective buyers and
did what they could to disrupt sellers’ stories of an inadvertent or inevitable sale. Or
maybe someone will excavate pre-Revolutionary sources to compare with Mia Bay’s
discussion of African American ideas about race in the United States. Michael Gomez
charts the way with his investigation of an African American ethno genesis in the early
South, and surely it will not be long before gender becomes more integrated into the
analysis. Nancy Shoemaker shows how Native Americans co-opted “red” as a descriptive
term for themselves even as they maintained alternative understandings of “race,” and
Theda Perdue and others have demonstrated that with tenacious perseverance and
creative adaptation to conditions wrought by colonialism, Native American women
countered the image of themselves as “vanishing Indians.” Clearly, there is still much to
explore regarding the multiple and gendered images of “self” and “other” that shaped
intercultural contact and experiences of colonization.
Andrews, Evangeline W. and Andrews, Charles M.(eds.) (1934) Journal of a Lady of
Quality; Being a Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina,
and Portugal, in the Tears 1774 to 1776. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Andrews, William(ed.) (1990) Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s
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Barlowe, Arthur(1966 [1584–5]) “A New Land like unto That of the Golden Age (1584
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Bay, Mia(2000) The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White
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Brown, Kathleen M.(1996) Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender,
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Byrd, William(1829) William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and
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Castiglia, Christopher(1996) Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-crossing, and
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Chaplin, Joyce E.(1997) “Natural Philosophy and an Early Racial Idiom in North America:
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Cite this article
Fischer, Kirsten. “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in
European Eyes.” A Companion to American Women’s History. Hewitt, Nancy A. Blackwell
Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 01 September 2014
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Blackwell Publishing and its licensors hold the copyright in all material held in Blackwell Reference Online. No material may be
resold or published elsewhere without Blackwell Publishing’s written consent, save as authorised by a licence with Blackwell
Publishing or to the extent required by the applicable law.
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