I found this story in Piya Pal-Lapinski’s The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and Culture (2005).
Pal-Lapinski opens this chapter, which is actually called “Tropical Ovaries“, with the following:
“As the British empire reached its zenith in the 1870s, the clinical gaze of colonial medicine became increasingly centered on the management of English-women’s reproductive capacities. Although the effects of tropical climates on European constitutions had been investigated in earlier medical texts, toward the fin de siecle anxieties about gynecological decay in the ‘torrid zones’ easily lent themselves to mainstream discourses of racial degeneration” (74).
Well, hot damn. There is a lot to work with here. In keeping with the rigorously serious tone of this blog, let’s start out by giggling over the phrase “gynecological decay in the ‘torrid zones'”. I have many zones, and not one of them is torrid. More’s the pity.
Right, the childish stuff is out of the way.
Pal-Lapinski takes a close look at Edward Tilt’s Health in India for British Women (1875) in which Tilt “argues that the ‘morbid womb‘ was a major threat to the imperial vision and that Englishwomen returned ‘home’ from the colonies with their ‘tropical’ ovaries in dangerous states of debility and decay . . . . He foregrounds the alarming statistics provided by his friend and colleague Duncan Stewart, professor of midwifery in the Medical College of Calcutta and physician to the Hospital for Native Women: ‘eight out of ten of the European females resident are habitually subject to deranged menstruation, leucorrhea [discharge of mucus from the vagina], or to cervical inflammation’ . . . . With her defective and monstrous womb harboring its ‘hideous progeny’–the potential failure of empire–the memsahibs return home to England, in an effort to recuperate and re-anglicize her exoticized body. The links among climate, racial decline, and reproductive chaos became a significant feature of debates within colonial medicine at this time; the proper functioning of the reproductive organs was central to the preservation of the Raj” (74-75).
Now, there’s no question that when anyone moves to a new country, especially one very far away, there’s a good likelihood of becoming ill, as you probably don’t have certain immunities or tolerances built up. However, as the Pal-Lapinski discusses, the anxiety around and pathologizing of women’s reproductive capacity in the face of ‘native’ influence speaks a lot more about socio-political issues than it does specifically medical ones.
There’s actually some really interesting work being done lately on the role of women and empire. A lot of this significant history has been ignored, as the work women were doing was largely domestic or, as above, centered around reproduction and the body. However, it’s becoming a lot clearer that women were seen as essential to the preservation of empire, if for no other reason than because they kept ‘civilization’ running smoothly. Not that I am in any way glorifying imperialism, but I think it’s always important to retrieve as many lost narratives and voices as possible. It seems that an absolutely enormous element of empire-building has been lost (and is only now being rediscovered) largely because domestic women’s narratives are not always viewed as important in studies of history, even if the Victorians at the time thought they were.
I was just at a really interesting academic talk which traced the extensive letters of of some women out in the colonies. What’s really cool is that there was actually a giant network of widows and spinsters who turned a good profit by shuttling Indian-born British children back and forth between Britain and the colonies. When British children born in India were old enough, they’d frequently be shipped off to one of the colonial society women (and their parents would pay her a hefty fee) to reside with her in Britain and become socialized in ‘proper’ society. You’d have these women, who held extensive property, with at least four children at each house, although sometimes it was as many as ten. It was like a co-ed boarding school, except what they were learning was how to be properly British. There was this constant anxiety that children would go a bit too native if away from Britain. When they were sufficiently anglicized, they’d be shipped back to help maintain the British presence in India.
These widows and spinsters were also really good at helping maintain the consumer need for the colonies, as parents would frequently pay these women in silks and spices, for which she could resell in Britain and get a fine price. This would, of course, be in many ways free advertising for empire: keep us in India and look how well you’ll dress and eat. Send your sons out there, and maybe they’ll send you exotic wares, too.