In his Rules for Wife Behavior, Colonel Joseph Whistler summed up his expectations for his new bride: “You will remember you are not in command of anything except the cook.” Although their roles were circumscribed, the wives of army officers stationed in British India and the U.S. West commanded considerable influence, as Verity McInnis reveals in this comparative study of two female populations in two global locations. Women of Empire adds a previously unexplored dimension to our understanding of the connections between gender and imperialism in the nineteenth century. McInnis examines the intersections of class, race, and gender to reveal social spaces where female identity and power were both contested and constructed.
Officers’ wives often possessed the authority to direct and maintain the social, cultural, and political ambitions of empire. By transferring and adapting white middle-class cultural values and customs to military installations, they created a new social reality—one that restructured traditional boundaries. In both the British and American territorial holdings, McInnis shows, military wives held pivotal roles, creating and controlling the processes that upheld national aims. In so doing, these women feminized formal and informal military practices in ways that strengthened their own status and identities. Despite the differences between rigid British social practices and their less formal American counterparts, military women in India and the U.S. West followed similar trajectories as they designed and maintained their imperial identity.
Redefining the officer’s wife as a power holder and an active contributor to national prestige, Women of Empire opens a new, nuanced perspective on the colonial experience—and on the complex nexus of gender, race, and imperial practice.