Long Teaching Module: Women and Empire

Raymond Hyser
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This teaching cluster assembles an array of primary and secondary sources, as well as teaching strategies and lesson plans, for educators to effectively teach the important roles women played in colonial and imperial projects from the 17th century to the 20th century. Surveying how women interacted with imperial landscapes, both as colonizers and as colonized persons, this cluster explores women around the world in the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish Empires. The stories of colonialism and imperialism are often dominated by adult men and historical writings often reflect this male-centric perspective. These sources provide a means to highlight how women were intimately connected with imperial and colonial projects alongside men and how women played crucial roles in the development and maintenance of empires.


Each of the four long teaching modules that comprise this teaching cluster include an informational essay on the module’s topic, a number of primary sources (48 in total for this teaching cluster), teaching strategies for each module’s content, a lesson plan to teach each module’s content, document based questions relating to each module’s primary sources, and a bibliography for further readings on each subject.

The cluster's first module, Doña Marina, Cortés' Translator, is a case study that focuses on a specific woman in the Spanish Empire, Doña Marina. From 1519 to 1526, Doña Marina provided an invaluable service to Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquistadors by acting as their translator. Focusing on this singular historical figure, this teaching module explores the shifting meaning of Doña Marina (also known as Malintzin and Malinche) and how people perceived her actions and life from the 16th to the 20th century. This module allows students to evaluate a variety of different primary sources on a singular person and to explore the complex role this woman had in the beginning of the Spanish Empire in Latin America.

The second module, Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000, takes a broader approach by examining the importance of women to the British Empire from 1800 to 2000. Rather than a singular person, this module highlights the significant role British women, and women from British colonies, played in shaping the British Empire and the perceptions of Britain’s imperial power to its domestic audience. Like other European empires, British women were always outnumbered by British men in the empire. Despite this demographic imbalance, this module highlights how British women filled a variety of important roles in the imperial apparatus. Additionally, this module explores how colonized women engaged with the British Empire and how these women maneuvered through a complicated landscape.

The third module, North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000, focuses on colonized women, namely North African women, and the French Empire from 1850 to 2000. Concentrating on the North African States of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, this module explores French imperialism in North Africa and the repercussions French imperialism had for the indigenous women of these three states. This module focuses on the lives of several individual women to articulate the varied responses to imperialism and as a means to dispel many of the negative perceptions about women and gender in Arab and Muslim countries.

The last module, Cultural Contact in Southern Africa, examines the cultural contact between the Dutch Empire and the indigenous populations of Southern Africa, principally the Khoikhoi. This module explores the lives of European, Khoikhoi, and slave women in 17th century Southern Africa and summarizes the main issues affecting the women of each group. While the sources from this period are all written by Europeans and overwhelmingly by European men, the source material provides students with opportunities to investigate the historical groups of people that do not have their known written, historical record.

Primary Sources

In Memoriam

In 1857, British rule in India was challenged when Indian sepoy troops of the British Indian Army began a year-long insurrection against the British. To the British, the most shocking aspect of the events in India was the massacre of white women and children by Indian men. There was extensive coverage in the press and illustrated journals, which stimulated calls for revenge. Paton’s famous painting In Memoriam was dedicated by the artist to the Christian heroism of “British Ladies in India during the Mutiny of 1857.” In 1858, the first version of the painting, which depicted Indian sepoy troops bursting through the door, was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in London. The painting aroused immediate debate, as it was thought to suggest that British women were about to be raped by Indian soldiers. The review in The Illustrated London News on May, 15, 1858 stated: “The subject is too revolting . . .The picture is one which ought not to have been hung.” Although British women and children were known to have died during the insurrection, there was no evidence of rape. The artist painted out the Indian soldiers in the original painting, and substituted Scottish highlanders. It was this version that was engraved and sold, leaving intact the myth of the British woman as sexually inviolable by colonial men. This source is a part of the Women and Empire and the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching modules.

Cortés Greets Xicotencatl in Mexican Manuscript

A detail from a larger manuscript page in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, this scene was created by an indigenous painter in central Mexico. Scenes from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, now just fragments from a larger set of images, draw upon preconquest painting techniques and conventions. Like Malintzin herself, the Lienzo straddles a world of indigenous, preconquest practice and European intervention. In this fragment, Xicotencatl, the head of the indigenous state of Tlaxcala, greets Hernán Cortés, the leader of the Spanish conquistadors. The two men would become allies, banding together to defeat Motecuzoma and his capital city, Tenochtitlan. Below and at the center of the image stands doña Marina; her placement underscores the role she played as linguistic and cultural mediator. This source is a part of the Doña Marina, Cortés' Translator teaching module.

Beautiful Fatima

Photography was critical to imperialism. The French army (and the British army in India) employed the camera’s lens to chronicle military exploits, first in Algeria during the 1850s, and later in Tunisia and Morocco. With advances in photographic technology, portrait studios were established in Europe and in European empires. Most studio photography in this period produced family portraits that were staged and arranged by the photographer. However, as the demand for images of non-Western exotic peoples, particularly of women, swelled in Europe and elsewhere, postcards illustrated with posed studio photographs were produced by the tens of thousands. By the late nineteenth century in Algeria and elsewhere, contrived photographic images of the “Arab woman” or “la Mauresque” [The Moorish woman]—who was provocatively presented either covered or uncovered—were widely produced. Many were done in studios in Algiers (or in France or Europe) and employed the same stage “props”—water pipes, oriental carpets, lavish “traditional” costumes, and allegedly “native” women and men. Often, however, the people posing were not even North African. This image of “Beautiful Fatima” was produced in a studio in Algiers and used as a postcard sent home by travelers or tourists to Algeria. This particular pose does not seem especially offensive, although the languid, fey pose assumed by the woman suggests indolence as well as sexual availability. Other postcards, however, were sexually suggestive or explicitly racist, showing men and women—supposedly Algerian—in a demeaning manner. Visually representing “the” Arab or Muslim or Algerian woman in strange, exotic, or erotic ways served to distance the colonized from modern, enlightened, Western societies, and thus to justify their subjugation under the colonial regime. Thus, images and representations of various kinds have always served imperial aims. This source is a part of the Women and Empire teaching module and the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module.

Peter Kolb Travel Narrative 2

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Peter Kolb was a German astronomer and mathematician who lived at the Cape from 1705 to 1713. He was initially sponsored by a German baron to make astronomical observations in pursuit of a way to calculate longitude accurately. When this project ended, Kolb stayed at the Cape and observed everything else. Kolb was writing for a European audience, and therefore often played to their expectations. In the case of the Khoikhoi, the assumption was that these people were among the most primitive on earth. Thus, his work had to be used with caution when trying to reconstruct the early history of the Khoikhoi. On the other hand, when Kolb’s observations are compared with those of modern anthropologists, significant overlaps may be found, so that it seems clear that Kolb spoke directly to Khoikhoi men and women about their beliefs and customs. In the following excerpts, Kolb discusses Khoikhoi practices during and after the birth of a child. Ask yourself how, as a European man, Kolb could have seen or heard about these rituals. Nevertheless, his account cannot be simply discounted, since it is known that Khoikhoi did consider water risky for expectant mothers and newborn infants, and cattle played major and significant roles in the economy and rituals of traditional Khoikhoi society. This source is a part of the Women and Empire teaching module.


Raymond Hyser is a PhD student in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He focuses on environmental history and the history of science within trans-imperial spaces during the nineteenth century with special interest in world history and digital humanities. His current research traces the agricultural knowledge networks of coffee cultivation between the West Indies and South Asia. This teaching module was originally developed for the World History Commons.

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Women and Empire," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-women-and-empire [accessed July 23, 2024]