A Comparison of Antoinette Burton's Article the White Woman's Burden and Other Writings

This paper is based on Antoinette Burton’s article, “The White Woman’s Burden”, which chronicles the British feminist movement’s relationship to colonial Indian women between 1865 and 1915. Firstly, this text will be comparing and contrasting Burton’s article to other writings on the same subject in the same historical period. In addition to this, the text will juxtapose how anglo women (Memsahibs) living in India viewed Indians in relation to their female sisters back in England. In addition to this, the paper will examine the different feminist’s perspectives at play at this time.

For example, the text will examine the views of those trapped within the confines of imperial colonial thought and others (whom Burton fails to mention) that were fiercely anti-colonial. The purpose of this essay, (in contrast to Burton’s one sided account) is to give a balanced overview of the different range of thoughts and ideologies at play during this time.

If compiling a list of feminist ideologies in today’s society we might have, Marxist, Radical, Liberal, Traditional and Gynocentric feminist discourses.

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Burton’s article gives the impression that feminism of this period was more or less confined to one particular type. That is, their feminist ideas were shaped by the imperial society of the then British Empire. To this, Burton argues that anglo women of this time saw themselves as the moral backbone and mothers of the empire (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:143).

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Furthermore, they felt they had a responsibility to civilize their inferior colonial counterparts (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:143). Burton includes contemporary comments such as, “Somewhere between the Martyr Saints and the noble dog are pitiful Indian women” (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:147). Further to this, comments such as, Indian women are in need of salvation by their British feminist sisters”, speak volumes as to Indian women’s status (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:153).

Selective comments such as these give a clear indication of how these feminists viewed the Indian woman. Of interest here is the fact that most feminist reformers of this time, including Josephine Butler the head of the “Ladies National Association”, never went to India. They got the bulk of their information second hand from agents they sent to India to gather information (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:154). When comparing and contrasting how anglo women (Memsahibs) in India saw their Indian sisters the picture is quite different. Nupur Chaudhuri, in her article, “Memsahibs and their servants” gives several examples of how these Memsahibs viewed their Indian sisters. For example, in popular women’s magazines of the time, we can read accounts referring to dark skinned Indians as niggers (Chaudhuri, 1994, p23). In addition to this, one account stated that the “Indians were dirty in the extreme and possessed of every bad habit” (Chaudhuri, 1994, p23).

Another article stated, “I think they are a nasty, stinking, dirty race and nothing more can be said of them” (Chaudhuri, 1994, p37). Darwinian discourse, prevalent at the time, led to remarks that Indian servants resembled monkeys (Chaudhuri, 1994, p 25). Furthermore, in contrast to their British counterparts who saw Christian conversion of the Indians as good, anglo women had fears that the common ground of religion would confuse master servant relationships (Chaudhuri, 1994, p21). When comparing these contemporary views of India it is clear there was no clear consensus on these issues.

To support the thesis of her argument, Burton cites three cases (Pandita Rambai, Rukhmabai and the Sorajbi sisters) that were held up as examples of what superior white influence could achieve. For example, Nicol MacNicol (1994:23), in his book “The Story of Pandita Rambai”, gives the account of a converted Christian woman who studied in England and set up a school for Hindu widows in Poona in India. This narrative lauds the fact that she embraced the religion of Empire and set up a school for Hindu widows who were severely treated under Indian culture (MacNicol, 1994:23). Burton suggests, that if one Indian Christian woman can accomplish this, then think how much could be achieved by converting the multitudes.

The book, “Feminist Lives in Victorian England”, by Basil Blackwell (1990:18) examines Rukhmabai, the first Indian woman trained in medicine. Rukhmabai graduated from the London Medical School in 1894. However, she was better known in Indian and British circles as the woman who successfully won a court case to release her from a childhood marriage contract (Blackwell, 1990:14). Burton shows how the feminists used this case to convey the evils of child marriages and give themselves the moral high ground. For example, by using Rukhmabai’s case, they convey the idea that firstly, the practice is immoral and secondly there is a need to bring western Christian ideals to Indian marriages. The third case considers the Sorabji sisters who Chandani Lokuge (2001:24) in her book, “The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji”, describes as being against everything Indian. Cornelia Sorabji was India’s first female barrister and along with her sister and mother, wrote against Indian practices such as suttee (the practice of widows throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyre), purdah (isolation of women from society), female circumcision, infanticide and child marriages (Lokuge, 2001:20). In these cases, Burton shows clearly how these feminists made links between empire and the importance of women within empire.

Burton pinpoints the formation of feminists linking empire with womanhood with Josephine Butler and the Ladies National Associations’ struggle to repeal the “Contagious Diseases Act” (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:143). They sought to end prostitution with the argument that this law did not work. The L.N.A. argued that moral suasion was the answer, rather than legislation that only promoted vice by implying that it was necessary(Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:139). By insisting on equal moral codes for both sexes it not only led to the repeal of the C.D.A. in 1886, but shaped the sexual premises used in feminist’s moral arguments for female emancipation (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:140). After the act was repealed, Butler and hundreds of repealers in danger of becoming redundant immediately turned to empire as the focus of their efforts (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:140).

The Burton text mentions the Pankhurst family (famous suffragettes who helped win the vote for women) and makes the connection that similar tactics were still in existence years later when the Pankhursts came to the fore. Burton points out that Christobel and mother Emolline Pankhurst were children of the empire and fought for women’s emancipation from this perspective (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:141). They argued that England was the, “storm centre” of the international women’s movement and they had to fight for their rights first before emancipating others (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:143). Furthermore, they saw Britain as the, “mother of all parliaments” and the “mother country” and everyone else should fall behind imperial Britain (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:143). As witness to their imperialistic views, during WW1 these two women gave up the suffragette struggle and focused totally on the war effort (Chaudhuri & Stroble, 1992:149). What Burton fails to mention is that not all feminist ideology ran along imperialistic lines.

In contrast to the examples that Burton proposed, there were many feminists who fought for Indian women’s rights from a different perspective. This paper will look at three cases to give the “other” view of how “other” contemporary feminists thought. Shirley Harrison in her book, “Sylvia Pankhurst, A Crusading Life 1882-1960”, gives an overview of the “other” less mentioned Pankhurst family member. In contrast to her sister and mother’s imperialistic views, Sylvia fought for women’s rights including Indian women from a gender and class perspective (Harrison, 2003:7). She was a close friend of socialist Keir Hardie of the Labour Party and traveled to Russia after the Russian revolution and met Lenin (Harrison, 2003:8). To this, the government at this time jailed her for sedition over what they called her pro-communist articles (Harrison, 2003:10). Furthermore, in contrast to her mother and sister, who gave up the suffragette struggle during WW1, Sylvia continued the struggle (Harrison, 2003:12). In other words, Sylvia was definitely not pro-imperial politics.

Another radical feminist of this time was British woman Annie Besant, who founded the Central Hindu College at Varanasi to promote Indian culture in 1898 (Anderson, 1994:556). In addition to this she established the Indian Home Rule League in1916 and became its president (Anderson, 1994:566). Far from being a child of the empire, Besant was fiercely anti-colonial and pro-India. Annie lived the last of her life in India and died there in 1933 (Anderson, 1994:577). The third case is Madeleine Slade who was born in England in 1892 into a traditional aristocratic family (Chaudhuri, 1992:7). Madeleine became a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi and of Indian home rule. Gandhi was so impressed by Madeleine, he gave her the Hindu name of Meera in view of her devotion to him and her dedication to the service of India (Chaudhuri, 1992:23). Gandhi utilized her talents at Kanya Gurukul, Dehra Dun, where she taught English to Hindu women as well as studying Hindi and the Scriptures (Chaudhuri, 1992:37). She said that India was her home and she felt like a foreigner in England (Chaudhuri, 1992:43). These women fought for women’s rights from a gender and class rather than imperialistic perspective.

This paper has compared and contrasted Burton’s article with other feminist discourses prevalent during the same historical periods. Furthermore, it has examined the different kinds of feminist thought that were current at this time. That is, the pro imperialist establishment vis a vis the anti imperialist establishment. The paper highlighted these different perspectives by comparing and contrasting three feminist cases from Burton’s text with three from other sources. In addition to this, the essay looked at the different ways in which Anglo women viewed Indian women. For example, the Anglo women at home and the Anglo women living in India had vastly different perspectives. This text has shown that contrary to Burton’s thesis, there are many different ideologies and viewpoints in operation during this historical period.


  1. Anderson, N., F., 1994, “Annie Besant and Womens rights in England and India 1874-1933”, Womens History Review, 3, (4), winter, p563-580.
  2. Blackwell, B., 1990, Feminist Lives in Victorian England, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Chaudhuri, N., 1994, “Memsahibs and Their Servants in 19th Century India”, Womens History Review, 3, (4), winter, p17-29.
  4. Chaudhuri, N & Stroble, M., 1992, Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
  5. Fletcher, I., & Mayhall, L., (ed), 2000, Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire, Routledge, London.
  6. Lokuge, C., 2001, India Calling, The Memories of Cornelia Sorabji, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
  7. MacNicol, N., 1994, The Story of Pandita Rambai, Plutarch Press, Seattle.

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A Comparison of Antoinette Burton's Article the White Woman's Burden and Other Writings. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-comparison-of-antoinette-burton-s-article-the-white-woman-s-burden-and-other-writings-essay

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