Long Teaching Module: Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000

Alison Fletcher and Catherine Snyder
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This module will help students explore the importance of women—both British women and women from British colonies—to the British Empire, as well as their importance in developing an understanding of Britain as an imperial power to a domestic audience at home. As a result, these materials provide some insight into the ways in which concepts of racial purity and proper gender roles bounded the social worlds of the British Empire.

This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, potential adaptations, guidance on engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the eleven primary sources.


The British Empire

By the late 19th century, the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had known. In addition to white settler colonies in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand, there were colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. In 1815, Britain had become the dominant power in the world following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with its wealth and power built on the slave trade and the growing demand for sugar, tobacco, cotton, tea, and coffee. Apart from southern Africa, the move into sub-Saharan Africa did not really begin until after 1885, when the major western European nations agreed to divide Africa into spheres of influence.

Throughout the 19th century, the British claimed that the empire maintained the Pax Britannica—or peace of Britain. However, in what has been called Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, the British Army was at war somewhere around the world every year during Queen Victoria’s reign. The British Empire was at its largest following World War I, when Britain was granted control of a number of German colonies in the Treaty of Versailles. Ironically, at that time the empire was beginning to implode because of the growth of nationalist movements in the colonies and the debt from the war. The process of decolonization accelerated after World War II, as the majority of colonies gained their independence and joined the British Commonwealth—essentially a trading organization. Although the process of decolonization is often portrayed in British textbooks as peaceful, in fact this was not the case, notably in India and Kenya.

Furthermore, during the 19th and 20th centuries, an increasing number of people from the colonies began to travel to Britain, often for educational opportunities. Following World War II, the British government invited people from the Indian subcontinent, African colonies and the Caribbean to immigrate to Britain to help rebuild the country. This changed the demographics of modern day Britain, which is now a multicultural society.

Recently, scholars have argued that empire did not just occur overseas, but that empire also shaped domestic British history and British identity. From 1850, there was an explosion of images available to the British public about the empire. We live in such a visual world today it is hard to imagine what the impact of the sudden and very dramatic growth of print culture meant to the British, and how the images that began to flood the country in illustrated magazines shaped understandings of empire at home. Nonetheless, these images functioned to instruct their readers about the far away places and people who were connected to their lives through the reach of empire. With them came lessons about indigenous cultures, racial hierarchies, and gender roles.

Women in the British Empire

While British women in the empire were always outnumbered by British men, from the beginning of empire women traveled to many sites of empire, where they established homes and found opportunities and a way of life not available to them in Britain. Beginning around 1850, the numbers of white women living in the empire increased, partly because the empire grew considerably in the later 19th century—the period historians call the Age of New Imperialism—and partly because of the rising concern in Britain over the relationships between British men and indigenous women. Encouraging white British women to travel to the colonies was seen by the British as a way to protect and maintain the social hierarchy of the colonial world, while preserving British racial purity.

In evaluating the role of British women in the empire, it is important to differentiate between colonies in Africa and India and white settler colonies where the situation of British women was substantially different. In Australia, where the number of British settlers rapidly outnumbered the indigenous population, men substantially outnumbered women, especially in the early stages of white settlement. Male convicts outnumbered female convicts four to one, and the beginning of the colony in Australia was marked by the rape of women—both white and indigenous. In Australia, the numbers of women did not equal that of men until after World War II. As the colony developed, most settlers moved to isolated rural farms where women lived hard-working lives. By contrast, in New Zealand, while men did outnumber women, it was a colony that encouraged settlement by families—a factor that shaped the lives of women. Interestingly, in 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote.

In India, British women enjoyed a way of life that would not have been possible for most of them at home. This included the luxury of a large number of servants and the prestige and sense of racial superiority that came with being a colonial power. Until late in the 19th century, Africa was thought unsuitable for white women. The only exception to this was southern Africa, where the British government had encouraged settlement by families since the 1820s, as part of the effort to increase British dominance over the Boer population.

The relationship between British women and colonized women was complicated by a number of factors. For most British women, the empire provided a place of possibility where they could experience a range of opportunities denied them in Britain. At the same time, until well into the 20th century, white women were not allowed to work outside the domestic sphere in empire, except in very specific occupations usually closed to British men, such as the education of colonized women. In most cases, white women sought to maintain a social distance between themselves and colonized women. Yet they lived in close proximity to their female servants, and in many cases entrusted the care of their small children to them.

A number of British women did seek to alleviate the situation of colonized women through missionary work, education, and medicine. They called colonized women their “sisters,” in a relationship that has been characterized by Antoinette Burton as “imperial maternalism.” Attitudes towards colonized women varied, depending on the site of empire. It was not uncommon for British women to view Indian women as needing sisterly protection from child marriage and the restrictions of purdah. On the other hand, attitudes toward African women were much less sympathetic, and they were frequently seen as primitive and highly sexualized.

Following the end of World War II, increasing numbers of women from former colonies moved to live in Britain, to work in a wide range of jobs, notably nursing. For many, Britain was seen as a place of economic possibility, although most of the jobs were low paying.

Views of the British Empire

Until recently, the British Empire was represented in popular culture and scholarly literature as a masculine preserve. The empire was seen as a place where men pursued glory, found wealth, and discovered their masculinity.

In this view of empire, indigenous women and British women were usually seen as marginal, or, in the case of indigenous women, often absent altogether. Scholarship on British women in the empire has portrayed their presence in negative ways, stressing their shallow and secluded lives and their reluctance to establish any contact with non-Europeans, except servants—whom it was implied they treated in demeaning and demanding ways. Furthermore, it was argued that the presence of white women in the colonies damaged race relations and created a great social distance between colonizers and colonized. This was because white women needed to be protected by white men from what was purported to be the unbridled passion of colonized men, and because the arrival of white women in the colonies ended sexual relationships between British men and indigenous women. Obviously, this point of view ignores the exploitative nature of most of these relationships. While these relationships could include marriage, more commonly they did not, and the children were not recognized as British. Moreover, the family was often abandoned when the man returned home. This interpretation of the impact of British women on empire, which still lingers on in the scholarship and popular understanding of empire in Britain today, gave rise to the argument that women lost Britain the empire.

More recently, the studies on both British women and indigenous women have developed more nuanced interpretations of their role in empire. Some scholarship frames British women’s contribution to empire around questions of their complicity or resistance in an effort to challenge the earlier negative stereotype. This approach portrays women either as villains deeply implicated in the running of empire, or as heroines who challenged the hegemonic processes instituted by British men.

More convincingly, other scholarship demonstrates how British women in a male-dominated system could reinforce and at times challenge the power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. However, even those women who challenged specific aspects of empire, such as lack of educational opportunities for Indian women, did not question the framework of British empire.

Thus, regardless of whether the interactions were marked by condescending disregard for indigenous peoples or by a seemingly benign maternalism, the power hierarchies implied in the project of empire resulted in a system that privileged white womanhood and the cultural traditions of the British over those of the colonized. In the last 20 years, postcolonial feminism has demythologized the British Empire by highlighting the insidious legacy for colonized women that, in many places, still exists today.

Primary Sources

The Secret of England's Greatness

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There are many paintings that represent the British Empire, but The Secret of England’s Greatness (1863) by Thomas Jones Barker is one of the most powerful. It depicts Queen Victoria presenting a bible to a kneeling African chief in the Audience Chamber at Windsor. In the background are her husband, Albert, and members of the government. The painting was reproduced in engravings and was very popular at the time. Despite the frequent depiction of empire as a masculine world, the queen was the symbolic figurehead of the British Empire, especially after she was crowned Empress of India in 1876. As you look at the painting, try to imagine what it might suggest to someone living in Victorian Britain about the British Empire. Do you think it possible for a Victorian to imagine switching the position of the two central figures—in other words, Queen Victoria kneeling to an African chief? This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

The Children of Edward Holden Cruttenden

This 18th-century painting of the children of Edward Cruttenden depicted with their ayah was painted in Britain by Joshua Reynolds. The earliest immigrants from India came to Britain as the servants of employees of the East India Company. Many Indian women came to Britain employed as ayahs or nannies. British families who had spent time serving in India brought an ayah back with them to care for the children on the long journey back to Britain. If they no longer needed their services, they were expected to provide for the return voyage home—many did not. Some ayahs were able to return home to India by advertising in newspapers for a position with a family traveling to India. Some Indian women found themselves permanently stranded in Britain. It was not until 1897 that a home for ayahs was opened in London, providing them with a place to stay until they could get a return passage home. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

British Empire: Letter, Mary Moffat

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Mary Moffat (1795-1871) was the wife of Robert Moffat, the missionary for the London Missionary Society who established a mission center at Kuruman in southern Africa. Their daughter married David Livingstone. In 1816, Robert Moffat was ordained and accepted as a missionary by the London Missionary Society (LMS). The previous year, while working as a gardener, Moffat had proposed to Mary Smith, the daughter of his employer. Both young people were 20. Like Robert, Mary had attended a missionary meeting earlier in her life, and she shared his interest in missionary work. Initially, her parents objected to the match because they feared they would never see her again if she went overseas as a missionary wife. For a number of years, Robert Moffat worked as an itinerant preacher in the Cape Colony. On December 27, 1819, after waiting two years for her parents to agree to the match, Moffat married Mary Smith in Cape Town. In 1820, he was appointed to evangelize among the Twsana at the Kuruman mission station. Taking his new wife with him, Moffat moved to take up his new position, arriving after a long and exhausting journey of several months. Kuruman, the most northerly LMS mission station, was situated on the edge of the Kalahari desert, so the soil was sandy and the area was frequently short of water. Although Kuruman would eventually become a major center of missionary activity, when the Moffats arrived the mission had barely begun. In order to survive, Robert Moffat needed to be a hunter, farmer, builder, and carpenter in an unstable frontier area, where struggles over land, labor, cattle, and water between competing groups were endemic. Mary Moffat struggled alongside him, raising her growing family. On December 18, 1828, pregnant with her fourth child and feeling unwell and fearful that she might die in childbirth, Mary wrote to a friend (Mrs. Wrigley) expressing her concern that she would leave “a beloved partner with 3 or 4 small children in the midst of barbarians without a civilized female . . .to keep up a civilized establishment in the midst of barbarians is attended with much care and labour on our parts.” Like other missionary wives, Mary Moffat was expected to create a domestic space, in keeping with evangelical values of domestic femininity. Robert Moffat retired from missionary service in 1870 and the couple returned to England. Mary Moffat died the following year in January. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

Scotland Forever

Painted by Elizabeth Butler, Scotland Forever (1881), depicts the charge of the Heavy Cavalry at the battle of Waterloo fought in 1815. The British victory at Waterloo ended the Napoleonic Wars, and ensured Britain’s position as the worlds most dominant imperial power. Elizabeth Thompson, later Lady Butler, was a leading artist of military scenes in the late nineteenth century, and she continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1920. Her pictures depicting soldiers in battle led John Ruskin to admit that he’d been wrong in asserting that women could not paint military scenes. Married to Lieut. Gen. Sir William Butler, Elizabeth Butler took care to draw soldiers as accurately as possible. Although she never observed soldiers fighting in battle, she did watch soldiers training on maneuvers and took great care to correctly represent military uniforms. The enormous popularity of military paintings in the late 19th century, especially those depicting the Napoleonic period, suggests that there was a nostalgic desire to return to a past imagined as glorious and unchallenged. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

Lady Florentia Sale Diary

Lady Florentia Sale (1790-1853), wife of Major-General Sir Robert Henry Sale, wrote a journal of her experiences during the First Afghan War. In January 1842, in what is usually seen as a humiliating defeat for the British army, 4,500 British and Indian troops with around 12,000 camp followers retreated 116 miles from Kabul back to the British garrison at Jalalabad. Within a month, the majority were dead from exposure due to the appalling winter conditions, starvation or bullet wounds. A few were captured, including Florentia Sale. She was held in captivity for nine months before being rescued by British forces dispatched from India. The British then withdrew from Afghanistan. Florentia Sale wrote her journal during her captivity, probably with the hope that one day she would publish it. In 1843, after her rescue, her journal was published rapidly becoming a bestseller in Britain. A sketch of her was included in the work. Notice that she is wearing a turban in the sketch. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

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.

British Empire: Autobiography, Mary Seacole

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In 1857, only 24 years after the British had abolished slavery in the empire, Mary Seacole (1805-1881) published her autobiography entitled the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Written in Britain, following Seacole’s experiences working among sick and wounded British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, the book became an immediate bestseller. Seacole, who had grown up in Jamaica, was the daughter of a Scottish solder and a free woman of African descent who had taught her daughter the art of healing. Seacole traveled to the Crimea at her own expense and in the face of considerable opposition from the British War office, who refused to support sending “a motherly yellow woman” to the Crimea so she could “nurse her sons.” When she arrived in the Crimea, she set up the British Hotel where she sold goods, supplied hot food, and gave medical help to officers and soldiers. Although Mary Seacole is less well known than her contemporary Florence Nightingale, her work earned her the love and respect of the soldiers who served in the Crimean War. This brief excerpt from her book highlights Seacole’s representation of herself as a professional relied upon by soldiers for medical treatment, her attitude towards British soldiers and the war, and the opportunities available during a 19th-century war for a determined woman. Seacole’s book also complicates our understanding of colonial identities, and raises interesting questions about how a woman from a British colony could create a role for herself at the heart of an imperial war. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

British Empire: Travel Narrative, Mary Kingsley

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Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) is one of the best known British women to have visited West Africa during the period historians call the Age of New Imperialism. Her early life gave no indication of her future renown. She spent the early part of her life confined to her home taking care of an invalid father. In possession of a small income following the death of her parents, she made two trips to Africa, one in 1893, and then another two years later. While in West Africa, she stayed with missionaries whose work she admired. She also traveled up rivers in a canoe collecting fish specimens for the British Museum and making ethnological observations on the people she met. On her return to Britain, she found people were fascinated by her experiences. She published a book Travels in West Africa (1897), and became a very popular speaker on the lecture circuit, talking about her experiences in Africa. She died of typhoid during the South African War (1899-1902), having traveled to Africa to nurse British soldiers. Despite the fact that she made choices in her own life that challenged the accepted gender norms for middle-class Victorian women, she was not in favor of giving women the vote. She argued that women were not well educated and well informed enough to vote responsibly. This excerpt from a lecture Kingsley gave highlights her attitude to Africa and Africans. Imagine if you were in the audience what you might understand about racial difference and the importance of the role of the British Empire in Africa. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

British Empire: Fiction, Indian Tales of the Great Ones

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Born in 1870 into a Parsee family in India, Cornelia Sorabji (1870–1954) became a writer and a lawyer. By the end of the Victorian period, many elite Indian men had traveled to Britain to study. Cornelia Sorabji became the first female law student at Oxford University, where she studied from 1889 to 1894. Since women were barred from practicing as lawyers in Britain until 1919, after graduating she returned to India. There she used her legal skills to work for the interests of women property holders who lived in purdah. In 1923 she was called to the English bar, but continued to practice in India. She was in favor of continued British rule, and in later years lived in London. Apart from Indian Tales of the Great Ones, written for children, she published a number of other works including Love Life Behind the Purdah (1901), India Recalled (1936), and her memoir India Calling (1934). Indian Tales of the Great Ones is a book of children’s stories that was published in Bombay, India, and London. The central elements of the story are based on Indian history. In 1236, following the death of her father, Raziya came to the throne after a succession struggle with her half-brothers. She only ruled for four years, before she was defeated in battle by opponents. However, she is remembered in Indian history as a wise and capable ruler, even though her gender handicapped her ability to rule in a Muslim world. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

British Empire: Fiction, Nervous Conditions

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In 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Africa in the British colony known as Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. From the age of two, she spent four years living in Britain. On her return to Rhodesia, she attended a missionary school in Mutare. In 1977, she went back to Britain to attend Cambridge University, but became disillusioned with life and politics in Britain, returning home without completing her medical degree. She continued her education in University of Harare in psychology. In 1988, Dangarembga achieved success as a novelist with the publication of Nervous Conditions, the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman. In 1989, Nervous Condition won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Dangarembga took the title of her book from Jean-Paul Sartre's introduction to Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth: “The condition of native is a nervous condition.” From around 1850, British explorers, settlers, and missionaries moved north from southern Africa, eventually leading to the creation of the colony of Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company. During the 1960s, demands by black Rhodesians to be included in the political process led a conservative white-minority government to declare independence from Britain. Under Ian Smith, white Rhodesians withstood British pressure, economic sanctions, and guerrilla attacks until 1980, in an attempt to cling to white supremacy. In 1980, the white minority finally consented to hold multiracial elections, and Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory. The country achieved independence on April 17, 1980, under the name Zimbabwe. Nervous Conditions is set in Rhodesia in the 1960s. The central character is Tambudzai, a young Shona girl who lives on an impoverished farm. After the death of her brother, Tambu has the opportunity to live with her Western-educated uncle and to receive a missionary Western education. The book depicts a picture of colonial domination from the perspective of a young girl. In this excerpt, Tambudzai is on her way to attend the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart after receiving a scholarship. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

British Empire: Autobiography, Head Above Water

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Buchi Emecheta was born in Nigeria in 1944 to Igbo parents. She was orphaned at a young age, and subsequently educated at a missionary school in Nigeria. She was married at the age of 16 to Sylvester Onwordi, a student she had been engaged to since childhood. In 1960, she moved to Britain with her husband and children, where she worked as a librarian. Despite the difficulties she encountered living in Britain and raising her five children on her own, she not only received her doctorate in sociology, but she became a best-selling writer. Today she is an internationally renowned novelist who has published many books mostly set in Africa. She also published an autobiography about her life in Britain called Head Above Water, which documents her experiences as an immigrant in Britain in the 1960s. Immigrants have moved to live in the British Isles from Africa and the Asian subcontinent for at least 500 years. However, the demographics of Britain only really began to shift after World War II, when the British government encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries to help resuscitate a war-devastated Britain. In 1951, the population in Britain of people of African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent was estimated to be 74,500; by 1962 it was 500,000. This rapid rise in immigration created a climate of anxiety, and what came to be perceived in Britain as a “social problem.” In 1958, the first race riots in Britain occurred in West London and Nottingham as white reaction to immigration began to escalate. Today Britain is a multiracial society. The 1991 General Census showed that 2.5 million or 4.5% of the population were part of minority groups. Ten years later in the 2001 census, the figures were higher, with one in twelve Britons coming from an ethnic minority. In this excerpt, Buchi Emecheta describes her expectations before she arrived in Britain, and the very different reality she experienced. This source is a part of the Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 teaching module.

Teaching Strategies

This module is part of a growing body of work that seeks to address the neglect in the study of the British Empire of the role of colonized and colonizing women in developing and sustaining the empire. Part of this neglect has been because of the lack of written sources, especially those written by indigenous women. To help compensate for this lack, a number of the sources are images. When "reading" images with students, always ask them to describe what they see before moving to think about the different ways the image can add to an understanding of women and empire. There is also an emphasis in the module on the mid-19th century through the 20th century, when an increasing range of written sources were produced.

As the range of primary sources selected for this module demonstrates, women moved about the Empire for a number of personal and family reasons, which included economic necessity, a desire to seek a better life for themselves and their family, and to escape gender expectations—especially those of Victorian Britain. The voices of colonized women are silent in most literature on empire. Seacole’s autobiography allows students to question this silence and to think about the ways individual agency could allow a women to escape the expectations that usually defined the lives of women—especially colonized women. Looking at Sale and Kingsley, the module helps students to think about the way empire opened up opportunities for British women by allowing them to escape the restrictions of life in Britain. Buchi Emecheta’s autobiography highlights the changing demographics in Britain today and the specific difficulties facing women in adapting to life in Britain. An excellent movie to supplement this text is Bhaji On the Beach. Produced in 1993, the movie depicts a group of Asian British women visiting the English beach resort town of Blackpool for a day of fun. The movie would help students discuss cross-cultural conflict, sexism, racism, and the generation gap in Britain today.

Discussion Questions:
  • What do the sources suggest about the way the lives of women, both colonized and colonizers, varied across different sites of empire?
  • What can we learn from these sources about the ways that the British Empire shaped the lives of colonized and colonizing women? How did women shape the empire?
  • What do the sources suggest about the relationship between different women in the empire?
  • What kind of connections did women help to establish between Britain proper and the rest of the British Empire?

Lesson Plan

Women and the British Empire: A Talking DBQ

Time Estimated
One 80-minute class period and DBQ as an independent assignment.

Because students need a background on the British Empire in order to complete this lesson, the lesson would be most appropriately placed near the end of a unit on imperialism.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. analyze primary-source documents for evidence of roles women played in the British Empire.
  2. devise yes/no questions in order to gain more information.
  3. cooperate with a group in order to formulate an answer to a question.
  4. recognize the multifaceted nature of the role women played in the development and support of the British Empire.
  5. identify different views of the British Empire based on the documents provided.
  • Source 4: Painting, Scotland Forever (1881) by Elizabeth Butler, to be projected on a screen.
  • Duplicate enough copies of the following four sources so that each group has one copy:
    Source 1: Painting, The Secret of England’s Greatness (1863) by Thomas Jones Barker
    (Use painting only, not annotation.)
    Source 7: Autobiography, Mary Seacole (Use excerpt and annotation.)
    Source 10: Fiction, Nervous Conditions (Use excerpt only, not annotation.)
    Source 3: Letter, Mary Moffat (Use excerpt and annotation.)
  • Duplicate enough copies of the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images so that each student has 2 copies.
  • Duplicate enough copies of the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts so that each student has 3 copies.
  1. Methodology: This lesson borrows heavily from the Suchman Inquiry Model of teaching, which allows students to discover key facts by analyzing artifacts and formulating questions. Essentially, the lesson is a talking DBQ.

    In small groups, students are presented with one artifact at a time and asked to analyze the artifact within the framework of a specific question. In the case of this lesson, the question is: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? Once they have analyzed the artifact and taken notes, they then formulate a question to ask the teacher to gain more information. The question should be asked so that the answer is either yes or no. By putting this restriction on the students, if forces them to formulate thoughtful and detailed questions. Each group is given the same artifact at the same time, a few minutes for analysis, and then a few minutes for questioning the teacher. Once one artifact is complete, the teacher then passes out the next artifact. The lesson proceeds in this way until all the artifacts have been analyzed.

    At that point, students use the sum of the knowledge they have accumulated to try to answer the primary question posed them at the beginning of class. Through guided full class discussion, teachers are able to bring students to the necessary conclusions to understand the documents and the learning question.1

  2. For this lesson on women in the British Empire, the question to be answered is: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? For this lesson, there are five artifacts selected for analysis: three paintings, one diary excerpt, one book excerpt and one personal letter excerpt. Six artifacts can usually be analyzed and discussed in one 80-minute class.
  3. Introduction Explain to students that we will be analyzing documents today by playing 20 questions. In small groups, they will receive one document at a time. They will be given ten minutes to analyze and take notes on the document. Then, along with their group members, they must come up with a yes/no question for the teacher that will give them more information. They should come up with more than one question because another group might ask their question before it is their turn. They will also have the opportunity to ask more than one question if time allows. Ultimately, they are trying to answer the following big question: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? Put the question on the board. Once every group has asked a question, the next document will be passed out for analysis. We will proceed in this way for all four documents. When it is each group’s turn to ask a question, it can relate to any of the documents analyzed so far.
  4. Teacher-guided analysis:Before beginning the 20 questions game, indicate to the students that they will analyze one document together as a class to give them an idea of the types of questions they should be asking when it is their turn. At this point, project Source 4: Painting, Scotland Forever (1881) by Elizabeth Butler. Give the students a minute to study the painting.

    Pass out the note sheets; give them a few minutes to take some cursory notes on the painting. Point out to the students that they should ask questions that will help them gather information about the document; specific information like point of view, bias, medium, influence of medium on message, audience and authorship. It might be helpful to write these terms on the board. Ask students to take a minute to formulate some questions about the painting, keeping in mind the larger question we are trying to answer today: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire?

    As students offer questions, compliment them on their thinking and attention to the list of types of information they are trying to gather. Ask them to try to rephrase their questions as yes/no questions if it was not in that form already. This will be a challenge to the students, and possibly somewhat frustrating, but as they begin to form more precise questions, their analysis becomes clearer.

    If students are having difficulty formulating questions, offer some models. For example, one of the pieces of information they need is point of view. A question for the Scotland Forever painting might be:

    Was the artist British?
    Was the artist loyal to the British Empire?
    Was the artist trying to encourage support for the British military?
    Questions that could be generated for the authorship might be:

    Was the artist British?
    Was the artist a soldier?
    Was the artist a man?
    After you feel that students have gained an understanding of how to formulate and ask questions, go on to the first document they will analyze in their small groups. Continue to remind them of the types of information they are seeking and the question they are trying to answer. Answer any questions the students might have about the lesson procedures.

  5. Small-group Analysis:Put students into groups. When everyone is ready, begin by passing out a copy of the first document to each group. The first document is Source 1: Painting, The Secret of England’s Greatness (1863) by Thomas Jones Barker. You might also want to project a larger image of the painting for the students to study. Give them five to ten minutes to analyze and formulate a couple of questions.

    While students are working, circulate to monitor their analyses and depth of understanding. Encourage them to make comparisons with the document they have already analyzed. Refrain from answering questions at this point; encourage them to rephrase their questions so that you may answer them with a yes or a no at the end of this round of document analysis.

    When the time has expired, ask for a volunteer group to begin the questions. Allow each group to ask one question. Remind students that all the questions their classmates ask will provide them with more information. Thus, they should pay attention to the questions and the answers. Once each group has asked one question, proceed to the next document. Try not to allow more than one question per group until all the groups have had a chance to ask a question. This will frustrate the students somewhat, but the result will be more focused and thoughtful questions as the lesson proceeds. If time allows, go back through each group to give them the opportunity to ask more questions.

    Continue with the remaining three documents (Source 7: Autobiography, Mary Seacole, Source 10: Fiction, Nervous Conditions, and Source 3: Letter, Mary Moffat) until the analysis is complete. Try not to spend more than 15 minutes total on each document.

  6. Discussion: At this point, the students have analyzed five documents, one with you, and four as a class asking questions. Make sure they understand this key information about each document. Give the students a few minutes to discuss an answer to the big question: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire?

    When they are ready, invite students to give their answer to the question. Encourage students to take notes on the discussion; this will help them with the upcoming writing assignment. Lead the students through a discussion of the various roles women played and impact of those roles on the British Empire. It is at this point that you may fill in information you think they may have neglected to uncover in their questioning. Clarify any misconceptions that might have arisen.

  7. DBQ Assignment: When it is clear that the students have grasped the lesson’s material, proceed with the DBQ assignment. They will notice that not all of the documents are the same as those analyzed in class. Review the writing assignment with the students and assign a due date.

Possible enrichments activities for this lesson include:

  • Internet research: Allow students to search for other women who impacted the British Empire during the Age of Imperialism. What role did they play? Did they support the empire?
  • Create your own DBQ: Have students use the Internet and classroom resources to find documents to create their own DBQ. Students can be required to find five related documents and write a question tying them together.
  • A presentation on bias: Students can be assigned to find documents representing a specific point of view (African, Indian, British). Those students can then present the impact of British imperialism from those points of view.

Document Based Question

Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)

Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:

  • Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
  • Uses all or all but one of the documents.
  • Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
  • Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.

You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.

Question: Using your knowledge of social studies and the Age of Imperialism in Great Britain, answer the following question using the documents provided in the module: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire?

Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents.

What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?


Bailey, Susan. Women and the British Empire: An Annotated Guide to Sources. New York: Garland Publishing, 1983.
Although slightly out of date, this text is still a reliable source for students to look for sources for research papers. The book lists primary and secondary sources on British women as wives of administrators, missionaries, and settlers. It has some information on colonized women.
Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
In this excellent text, the author argues that British middle-class feminists appropriated imperial ideology to underpin their own claims for equality.
Burton, Antoinette, ed., Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
An outstanding reader that offers an excellent range of primary sources on the British Empire, including many of women.
Chaudhuri, Nupur and Margaret Strobel, eds., Western Women and Imperialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
A series of excellent essays that shed light on the relationship of women to imperialism. The majority of the essays deal with the British Empire.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Washington: The Seal Press, 1988.
Set in the British colony of Rhodesia in 1968, this novel focuses on two young African women and the tensions that their attendance at Western-orientated schools creates for their own identity and for their place in their family.
Emecheta, Buchi. Head Above Water. Oxford: Heinemann, 1986.
An autobiography written by the best-selling author from Nigeria, which chronicles her struggle to “keep her head above water” after she moves to live in England in the early 1960s.
Frost, Lucy. No Place For a Nervous Lady: Voices From the Australian Bush. Queensland: University of Queensland, 1984.
An excellent primary source consisting of excerpts from the diaries and letters of women living in Australia during the early years of British settlement.
Midgley, Clare, ed. Gender and Imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.
An edited collection of nine essays, which provides an excellent introductory source to think about the ways the British Empire shaped the lives of colonized and colonizing men and women in a range of sites of empire.
Morgan, Sally. My Place. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987.
This book provides valuable information on the circumstances of female missionaries in China. Not only does it describe the conditions of these women’s lives in China, but it also delves into their motivations for undertaking missionary work.
Procida, Mary. Married to the Empire Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.
An excellent text representative of the new work on British women in the Empire. Procida argues that from the end of the 19th century, British women living in India were central to establishing and sustaining the British Raj.
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
First published in 1857, this autobiography by Mary Seacole recounts her experiences in Jamaica, Panama, and during the Crimean War.
Strobel, Margaret. European Women and the Second British Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Written by a historian, this book provides an overview of the role of British women in the Empire from roughly 1880.


About the Author

Alison Fletcher is Assistant Professor of History at Kent State University. She has participated in online history teaching projects, such as the Crossroads Online Institute, and is involved in increasing the role that interaction with primary sources plays in the study of history. She is currently working on a project for the Teaching Scholars Learning Community that involves increased use of primary sources in world history courses.

About the Lesson Plan Author

Catherine Snyder has been employed by the Niskayuna Central School District in upstate New York for five years, during which time she has achieved National Board Certification and has published curriculum in the Social Science Docket, the New York State Academy for Teaching and Learning, and A Civics Mosaic. She is currently teaching Psychology and Global History and Geography 10 Honors. Ms. Snyder is also pursuing her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at SUNY Albany; her areas of research interest are civics and the social studies curriculum, social justice theory and electronic discourse. She also is an adjunct in the nearby Union University Masters of Arts in Teaching program. Teachers with questions are welcome to email her directly at: csnyder@niskyschools.org.

This teaching module was originally developed for the Women in World History project.

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-women-british-empire-1800-2000 [accessed July 23, 2024]