Teaching

Long Teaching Module: Exploring Empire through the Lens of Childhood and Gender

Elizabeth Dillenburg
Photo of girls dressed as Indian women. Description in annotation below. Scouts in uniforms marching with flags and a sign reading "Union of S. Africa" Black and white still of boy scouts marching past a reviewing stand. Video still showing a boy scout sitting and eating.

Overview

As European empires expanded at the end of the end of the nineteenth century, imperialism came to permeate everyday life and had a pervasive influence on childhood, shaping everything from education to sports and literature. Because children were viewed as embodiments of a nation’s—and empire’s—future, studying childhood provides singular insights into how Europeans understood their empires and their imperial visions and ambitions. Over the past four decades, scholars have studied the ways that imperialism shaped children’s lives and the centrality of children to the imperial project. They also have demonstrated how the study of childhood can challenge traditional narratives of imperialism, in part by exposing the fragility of colonial power and illuminating deeply rooted anxieties about colonial stability and security. Much of the initial work on colonial childhoods centered around boyhood, and while the study of childhood and empire continues to grow, childhood is still often viewed as a gender-neutral term. But discussions of imperialism need to take into consideration the intersections of age and gender. Youth organizations and schools—two central sites where ideas of empire, girlhood, and boyhood were constructed and contested—illustrate the different ways that gender shaped children’s roles and experiences of empire. This module includes five primary sources from different parts of the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that demonstrate their influence and the role of children in empire.

Essay

At the turn of the twentieth century, Britain faced an imperial crisis. While it had emerged victorious at the end of the brutal and costly South African War (1899-1902), it had not been left unscathed. The prolonged nature of the conflict and the poor performance of the British army against smaller Afrikaner (or Boer) forces led Britons to question their imperial might. Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), who had returned from the South Africa War after becoming a national hero during the Siege of Mafeking in 1900, was just one of many Britons who feared for the future of not only the British Empire but also the British race. For Baden-Powell, the crisis was rooted in endemic social problems, and its solution lay in the reassertion of proper gender roles and traditional masculine values, which could be achieved through the reformation of boyhood. To this end, in 1907-1908, he formed the Boy Scouts to stem the tide of racial degeneration and effeminacy that he saw plaguing British society, and especially the working classes, and increase boys’ fitness and efficiency through the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and enthusiasm for the outdoors and “frontier” life. Baden-Powell viewed the strength and health of children as indicative of the vitality of Britain and its empire. He was not alone in such a view. During times of imperial uncertainty, children—as the future empire builders—became the focus of broader anxieties and the targets of educational and reform efforts, which sought to reaffirm traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity and the gendered hierarchical order. The creation of the Boy Scouts provides just one example of the deeply entwined nature of imperialism, gender, and childhood.

While girls wanted to join the Scouts, Baden-Powell rejected this idea, fearing girls’ femininizing influence on boys and that girls would turn into tomboys. He instead advocated for the development of a separate organization, the Girl Guides, to provide girls with distinctive training that centered around their future roles as wives and mothers. While the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were the most popular youth organizations, similar groups also reinforced European gender ideals and a sense of imperial duty through activities and various forms of entertainment. For instance, the Girls’ Friendly Society, a less popular organization but one that was active in the decades around the turn of the century, produced pageants and plays, like the “Indian Tableaux” included here as one of the primary sources, which served as spaces where girls could perform gender and racial roles. 
 
Youth organizations, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, provide a valuable way of studying and teaching about childhood and gender in the empire, since they had a global reach and thus acted as an important vehicle in exporting European gender ideals to various parts of the empire. The worldwide influence of the scouting movement is evidenced by the Boy Scout World Jamboree, which was first held in London in 1920. The jamboree epitomizes how the Boy Scouts affirmed traditional masculine ideas, like militarism, and also how ceremonies, parades, and other displays of pageantry encouraged its young members to think of themselves as an imperial community. Like other youth organizations, the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides imparted notions of what constituted “proper” masculinity and femininity while simultaneously serving as a means of consolidating the British Empire by teaching imperial citizenry and loyalty to boys and girls not only in Britain but also in Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other parts of the empire.

Like youth organizations, schools serve as a productive means to analyze the intersections of gender, childhood, and imperialism, since schools—both in the metropole and colonies—transmitted imperial ideologies and values but also importantly gendered prescriptions. Schools in Britain taught children necessary skills to keep their country internationally competitive and also instill in them a sense of duty to the nation and empire. Girls’ education centered around their domestic roles. As future wives and mothers, girls had the responsibility of ensuring the success of their empire and race by producing healthy children and properly raising them to be future citizens, soldiers, and settlers. Consequently, for girls, a greater emphasis was placed on education in domestic science, hygiene, cooking, and sewing. 

These gender-specific models of education spread to the colonies with the establishment of schools by European colonists and especially missionaries. While education varied widely throughout the British Empire, curricula at colonial schools often centered around religious instruction and vocational training. Children’s—and especially girls’—perceived malleability made them especially valuable to the colonial state. Missionaries, for instance, focused on educating and converting girls because they viewed girls as easier to train and influence than boys and especially adults. Moreover, in their future roles as wives and mothers, girls acted as conduits through which European values and practices could enter and reform colonial societies. The importance of girls’ education is reflected in the article on “Maori Girls School,” included as one of the primary sources here. The article reveals how the education of girls was almost an afterthought of missionaries and the colonial state, who only invested in girls’ education when they realized that they could not “reform” indigenous societies without girls. 

Europeans framed these educational endeavors in humanitarian terms and as being in the children’s best interests, often claiming that indigenous parents could not adequately care for their children, yet such discourses concealed myriad self-interested motivations. As demonstrated by governmental documents, like report by the South African Native Affairs Commission included as one of the primary sources here, education endeavored to cultivate children’s allegiance to the empire and train them in a way that would make them useful to the colonial state. Boys were taught manual labor, most often farming, skills, while education for girls sought to “domesticate” them. The teaching of household skills, like sewing and cooking, remained the cornerstone of girls’ education in colonial and missionary schools through at least the mid-twentieth century, which is evident in the two photographs of Aboriginal girls at the Mount Margaret Mission in Laverton, Australia, in the 1930s, included as one of the primary sources here. Like boarding or residential schools for indigenous children in other parts of the empire, the Mount Margaret Mission sought to assimilate Aboriginal girls and break their bonds with their homes and communities by separating them from their parents.

When studying, researching, and teaching about childhood, gender, and empire, one is inevitably confronted with the challenges posed by the colonial archive, which continues to reflect colonial power relations and privilege European, male, and adult voices over indigenous, female, and youth voices. Records of the colonial state, like report by the South African Native Affairs Commission below, provide little insight into the experiences of children themselves, meaning that children are often rendered silent. Yet these records—and especially their silences, contradictions, and misrepresentations—can hold important clues about the aspirations and anxieties of the colonial state. Although children leave relatively few records, their voices do emerge in correspondences, school essays, and articles they composed for children’s periodicals. These sources must still be approached with caution, since they are mediated by adults, writing conventions, and archival practices, but they nonetheless can provide insights into how children viewed and experienced the empire and also appropriated wider discourses about it. The limitations of written records when studying childhood make visual and material culture especially valuable. While these sources must also be approached with circumspection, they can act as spaces where children do emerge from the shadows of the archives and become more visible. For instance, written records hold few clues about how Aboriginal Australian or other indigenous girls experienced colonialism, but images, like the ones from the Mount Margaret Mission, provide rare glimpses into their lives.

The legacies of imperialism continue to inform the global politics of childhood and gender. Stories about Malala Yousafzai and the kidnapping of the Chibok school girls in Nigeria replicate imperialist language and assumptions, including portraying girls as non-agential figures, using the status of girls as measures of modernity and civilization, and emphasizing the need for white men and women to save brown girls from brown men.1 The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada underscores the horrific abuse and treatment endured by indigenous children under colonialism.2  One only needs to look at the U.S-Mexico border to see how the state still uses the separation of children from their families as a coercive instrument.3 These continued resonances underscore the importance of studying and teaching about imperialism, gender, and childhood.


1See for instance, Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s’s Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia (Berkley: University of California Press, 2018) and her article, “Why is Malala such a polarizing figure in Pakistan?,” Al Jazeera, April 1, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2018/4/1/why-is-malala-such-a-polarising-figure-in-pakistan. See also Chitra Nagarajan, “Focusing on schoolgirl abductions distorts the view of life in Nigeria,” The Guardian, March 2, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/02/nigeria-boko-haram-abductions-chitra-nagarajan. 
2“Canada: 751 unmarked graves found at residential school,” BBC, June 24, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57592243. For more information and resources on residential schools in the United States, see the “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” at https://heard.org/boardingschool/. 
3See for instance, Kelly Condit-Shrestha, “IHRC Symposium Commentary on Migration Across Global Regimes of Childhood,” SHCY Commentary, Society for the History of Childhood and Youth, September 28, 2018, https://www.shcy.org/features/commentaries/ihrc-symposium-commentary-on-migration-across-global-regimes-of-childhood/.

Primary Sources

Photograph of “Indian Tableaux at Endon”

Photo of girls dressed as Indian women. Description in annotation below.
Annotation

This photograph, which was originally published in the G.F.S. Magazine in September 1923, is from a tableau performed by members of the Girls’ Friendly Society (GFS), which was a youth organization akin to the more popular Girl Guides. Tableaus, pageants, and plays were popular forms of entertainment, especially in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and important fundraisers and instruments for publicity for organizations like the GFS. Importantly, pageants and plays also served as spaces where children could enact gender and racial roles and rehearse future roles, in this case as missionaries. Missionaries—and by extension girls—occupied a central place in the imperial story. In this tableau, girls not only acted as nurses and doctors to Indian women but also assumed the role of Indian women. Performances like this one contrasted the seemingly lowly status of Indian girls and women with the more elevated position of European girls and women and underscored the responsibility of girls to rectify this situation, reinforcing the notions that Indian women needed to be saved by white women. Sources like this photograph provide a useful means to examine the representations of European girls, their idealized roles in the imperial project, and how the imperial context informs constructions of femininity and girlhood.

This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Photograph of the Boy Scout World Jamboree in 1929

Scouts in uniforms marching with flags and a sign reading "Union of S. Africa"
Annotation

This photograph shows the South African contingent at the Boy Scouts’ third World Jamboree, held in England in 1929. The jamboree was known as the “Coming of Age” Jamboree, since it marked twenty-one years since the foundation of the Boy Scouts. The photograph provide insights into the core ideals of the Boy Scouts and, more broadly, representations of masculinity and boys’ roles as future empire builders. It reflects the heavy emphasis on militarism, rugged masculinity, and having boys experience “frontier” or outdoors life. 
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Video: March of Flags from 1929 Boy Scout World Jamboree

Black and white still of boy scouts marching past a reviewing stand.
Annotation

This video shows the opening ceremony at the Boy Scouts’ third World Jamboree, held in England in 1929. The jamboree was known as the “Coming of Age” Jamboree, since it marked twenty-one years since the foundation of the Boy Scouts. In the video, Scouts are marching with the flags of their respective countries. Such exercises could easily be mistaken for a military parade and shows the importance of ceremonies and pageantry to the Scouting movement. The videos and others in the teaching module provide insights into the core ideals of the Boy Scouts and, more broadly, representations of masculinity and boys’ roles as future empire builders. 
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Video: Indian Boy Scouts at 1929 World Jamboree

Video still showing a boy scout sitting and eating.
Annotation

This video features film footage of events at the Boy Scouts’ third World Jamboree, held in England in 1929. The jamboree was known as the “Coming of Age” Jamboree, since it marked twenty-one years since the foundation of the Boy Scouts. The footage reveals the importance of militarism and representations of masculinity to the Boy Scout movement. The jamboree also manifested the imperial reach of the Boy Scout movement. For example, boys from throughout the world attended as can be seen by the Boy Scouts from India in this video. While there was an emphasis on international brotherhood, the events also demonstrated how cultural appropriation was central to the Boy Scouts, with boys dressing as Native Americans as seen in another video from the jamboree. 
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Video: Boy Scouts at 1929 World Jamboree Perform as Native Americans

Video still showing Scouts paddling canoes
Annotation

This video features film footage of events at the Boy Scouts’ third World Jamboree, held in England in 1929. The jamboree was known as the “Coming of Age” Jamboree, since it marked twenty-one years since the foundation of the Boy Scouts. As seen in the two other videos from the event, the world jamboree featured military-like marching under flags of various nations while also proclaiming a spirit of international brotherhood. As this video shows, cultural appropriation and an endorsement of colonialism was also a central aspect of the Scout movement as the boys performed in costumes meant to evoke Native Americans. 
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

“Maori Girls School”

Text of an article on girls school transcription below
Annotation

This article, which was published in the newspaper Manawatu Times on April 14, 1905, announces the opening of a school for Māori girls. As described in the article, while missionaries and the colonial state originally focused on educating youth, by which it meant only boys, they gradually realized the necessity of girls’ education. Schools acted as a primary vehicle in the transmission of imperial ideology and European gender ideals. These educational efforts were framed in humanitarian terms, as aiding the progress of the Māori people, but in many cases, such institutions served as a tool of assimilation and “civilization,” as it was envisioned that children would help “reform” these societies with their acquired European habits, values, and culture.
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

South African Native Affairs Commission report on education

Cover with text South African Native Affairs Commission 1903-1905 Report
Annotation

In 1903, Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner for South Africa, appointed the South African Native Affairs Commission to examine “the status and condition of the Natives” and to provide recommendations “on questions concerning Native policy” (1-2). When the Commission published its report in 1905, education formed a central theme. The section on education, which begins on page 66 of the report, makes it clear that the priority was on “industrial and manual training” as opposed to “literary education,” since this training means that “the Native is more useful and contented.” For boys, this training meant that they could then be “constantly employed on farms, railways and public works, and in mines and workshops” (66), and for girls, this training prepared them to be domestic servants (45). This emphasis on industrial over literary training underscores how the colonial state’s interests drove educational policy. In addition to making Africans “useful” to the state, education—which is referred to as one of the “great powers” in addition to Christianity (52)—also served as a means of reforming African society and culture. For instance, the report states “education and contact with Europeans are beginning to effect a change in the family life and habits of that large section of the Native population who have not formally adopted Christianity or civilised ways of life” (51). As mentioned in the essay, one of the challenges posed by sources produced by colonial governments is that they rarely contain the perspectives of children and, in this case, Africans. Moreover, official reports like this one contain information that only presents the colonial state in a favorable light, as it wishes to be seen. Yet within the lines of the report, one can find examples of resistance. For instance, it refers to an ongoing “great struggle” over education and also addresses criticisms about education (52). Such references indicate the colonial state’s control over education, children, and African societies was never as absolute or seamless as envisioned. The full report can be found here.
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Sewing Classes at Mount Margaret Mission

Black and white photo of 10 girls and one teacher seated at tables with needles, fabric, and sewing machines.
Annotation

These two photographs, from the State Library of Western Australia, show Aboriginal girls learning to sew from Dorothy Lovick at the Mount Margaret Mission in Laverton, Australia, in the 1930s. The first photograph shows a middle school class, while the second one features a senior class. As reflected in these photographs, domesticity remained the cornerstone of girls’ education in colonial and missionary schools through at least the mid-twentieth century. Like schools for indigenous children in other parts of the empire, Mount Margaret Mission sought to assimilate Aboriginal girls and break their bonds with their homes and communities. 

As noted in the above essay, understanding the experiences of Aboriginal and other indigenous girls under colonialism remains difficult because of the nature of the colonial archive. Written records from their perspectives are rarely preserved in the archive, which makes visual sources like these photographs especially valuable. These photographs, like all sources, must be approached with caution, since they were created with a specific purpose and audience and meant to convey a certain picture of colonial girlhood. Nevertheless, they provide a glimpse into their lives under colonialism. 
This source is part of the exploring empire through the lens of childhood and gender teaching module

Bibliography

Alexander, Kristine. Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017.
Boucher, Ellen. Empire’s Children: Child Emigration, Welfare, and the Decline of the British World, 1869-1967. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 


Davin, Anna. “Imperialism and Motherhood.” History Workshop Journal 5, no. 1 (1978): 9-66. 


Duff, S.E. Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Church Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895. Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 


Field, Corinne T., Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, Abosede George, and Rhian Keyse. “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 9, no. 3 (2016): 383–401.


Gaitskell, Deborah. “From Domestic Servants to Girl Wayfarers at St Agnes’, Rosettenville: Phases in the Life of a South African Mission School, 1909–1935.” Southern African Review of Education 19, no. 2 (2013): 92-110.


George, Abosede. Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014.


González, Odina E. and Bianca Premo, eds. Raising an Empire: Children in Early Modern Iberia and Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.


Heathorn, Stephen. For Home, Country, and Race: Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.


Helgren, Jennifer, ed. Girlhood: A Global History. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2012. especially the chapters by Nancy L. Stockdale on “Palestinian Girls and the British Missionary Enterprise, 1847-1948 (pp. 217-233); Christine Cheater on “Stolen Girlhood: Australia’s Assimilation Policies and Aboriginal Girls” (pp. 250-267); and Corrie Decker on “Fathers, Daughters, and Institutions: Coming of Age in Mombasa’s Colonial Schools” (pp. 268-288).


Honeck, Mischa. Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendency. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2018.


Jacobs, Margaret. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Johnston, Scott. “‘Only Send Boys of the Good Type’: Child Migration and the Boy Scout Movement, 1921-1959,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 7, no. 3 (2014): 377–397.


Jordan, Benjamin René. Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 


Khoja-Moolji, Shenila. Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia. Berkley: University of California Press, 2018.


Levison, Deborah, Mary Jo Maynes, and Frances Vavrus, eds. Children and Youth as Subjects, Objects, Agents: Innovative Approaches to Research Across Space and Time. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.


Mangan, J. A., ed. Benefits Bestowed: Education and British Imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987. 


May, Helen, Baljit Kaur, and Larry Prochner. Empire, Education, and Indigenous Childhoods. London: Routledge, 2016.


Morrison, Heidi. Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt. Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.


Moruzi, Kristine, and Michelle J. Smith, eds. Colonial Girlhood in Literature, Culture and History, 1840-1950. Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 


Parsons, Timothy H. Race, Resistance, and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.


Proctor, Tammy M. “(Uni)Forming Youth: Girl Guides and Boy Scouts in Britain, 1908-1939,” History Workshop Journal 45 (Spring 1998): 103-134.


Saada, Emmanuelle. Empire’s Children: Race, Filiation and Citizenship in the French Colonies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Sen, Satadru. Colonial Childhoods: The Juvenile Periphery of India, 1850-1945. New York: Anthem, 2005.


Smith, Michelle. Empire in British Girls’ Literature and Culture: Imperial Girls 1880-1915. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 
Smith, Michelle. “Be(ing) Prepared: Girl Guides, Colonial Life, and National Strength,” in Limina 12 (2006): 52-63.


Springhall, John O. “The Boy Scouts, Class and Militarism in Relation to British Youth Movements, 1908-1930,” International Review of Social History 16 (1971): 125-158.


Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. 


Warren, Allen. “Citizens of the Empire: Baden-Powell, Scouts and Guides, and an imperial ideal,” in Imperialism and Popular Culture, ed. John M. MacKenzie (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 232-256.


Wu, Jialin Christina. “‘A Life of Make-Believe’: Being Boy Scouts and ‘Playing Indian’ in British Malaya, 1910–1942.” Gender & History 26, no. 3 (November 2014): 589–619.


On the colonial archive and the difficulties of finding girls within it, see:

Alexander, Kristine. “Can the Girl Guide Speak?: The Perils and Pleasures of Looking for Children’s Voices in Archival Research,” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 4, no. 1 (2012): 132-145. 


Burton, Antoinette, ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.


Conor, Liz and Jane Lydon. “Double Take: Reappraising the Colonial Archive,” Journal of Australian Studies 35, no. 2 (June 2011): 137-143.


Field, Corinne T., Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, Abosede George, and Rhian Keyse, “The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 9, no. 3 (2016): 383–401.


Paterson, Lachy and Angela Wanhalla, “Introduction: Voice, Text and the Colonial Archive,” He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017), 11-35.


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,” History and Theory 24, no. 3 (1985): 247-272. 
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988).


Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 87–109.
 

Credits

Elizabeth Dillenburg is an assistant professor of history at the Ohio State University at Newark. She is the co-editor (along with Howard Louthan and Drew B. Thomas) of Print Culture at the Crossroads: The Book and Central Europe (Brill, 2021) and has published articles and chapters on cricket in South Africa, child migration in the British Empire, girls as empire builders, domestic service in South Africa and New Zealand, and women’s suffrage in Minnesota. Her current project explores girls’ culture, labor, and mobility in the British Empire.

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Exploring Empire through the Lens of Childhood and Gender," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-exploring-empire-through-lens-childhood-and-gender [accessed October 3, 2022]