Fiona Kirkpatrick '10 Scrutinizes Life in Imperial India

Senior Fellow Fiona Kirkpatrick '10
Senior Fellow Fiona Kirkpatrick '10
“I want to research the experiences of British and Indian women during the British colonial rule in India,” definitively states Fiona Kirkpatrick ‘10. And as a Senior Fellow, she has done (and will continue to do) just that: she is exempt from taking classes so that she may devote her time to writing a lengthy thesis of her choosing.

Kirkpatrick’s project, a dissection of imperial life in India, is aptly titled “Gendering Empire: British Women, Indian Women, and Discourses of Race, Gender, and Intimacy in Colonial Rule 1858 – 1947.” Her principal advisor is Assistant Professor of Anthropology Charles LaDousa and her secondary advisor is Associate Professor of History Lisa Trivedi.

Kirkpatrick is herself an anthropology major and a history minor. “You can combine a lot of different ways of seeing the world under the umbrella of anthropology,” she explains. “It reveals, on some level, things that history doesn’t always reveal.” That having been said, her ambitious thesis weaves together several other threads of academic study as well. “It’s an interdisciplinary project,” says Kirkpatrick, noting that her research also draws upon art history and comparative literature, mostly in the forms of personal memoirs and travelogues. However, her primary archival material is Stri Dharma, the journal of the Women’s Indian Association, which “provided a space within which British, Irish, and Indian women could write about topical news stories as well as social reform issues,” she notes.

“I will study how Victorian-era attitudes influenced both the imperial elite and imperial subjects, and address how colonial administrators used women and particular notion of femininity to assert authority and legitimacy,” Kirkpatrick explains. And in order to help organize the vast amount of information, she has broken down her project into three parts: gender, racism, and sexuality (“intimacy”).

In looking at gender issues, Kirkpatrick recognizes that “the colonizers vs. the colonized” is too oversimplified a schism – “you need to look within particular groups themselves to see how issues were more complex,” she says.

The colonizers were not some uniform oppressive force; rather they were made up of men and women who were considered at the time to be very much unequal. Widows, especially, were thought to be a financial burden and so they lived off the meager donations of the community. British women tried to boost their self-image by comparing themselves to Indian women, who were considered by both British men and women to be “degraded people.”

Colonial racism was another large problem. Among many other race-related issues, Kirkpatrick talks about what it was like for a mixed-race child at that time. “And what would you do with them?” she asks rhetorically. If a child was partly British and partly Indian, do they get rights? If so, do they get full rights or partial ones? “These sorts of problems were occurring in colonies all over the world,” Kirkpatrick maintains. “Not just in India.”

Finally there’s the issue of sexuality, or “intimacy.” In one example, there were stern regulations on marriage and reproduction -- like who was allowed to reproduce with whom. To further complicate the matter, “legislation always framed the woman as the problem,” Kirkpatrick says, noting that the legal language of the time was incredibly sexist and made it difficult to ever look at the situation objectively.

She also notes that syphilis had been rampant at the time – and it was always the woman who was considered the problematic sexual being. “In attempting to unpack the gendered narratives of race and intimacy during the British Empire in India,” Kirkpatrick explains, “I hope to embark on an intellectual journey that will eventually elucidate more thoroughly the transnational and imperial foundations upon which contemporary feminisms are built.”

Fiona Kirkpatrick is a graduate of Westtown School.
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