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

Thumbnail image of The Secret of England's Greatness painting.

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.

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
Alison Fletcher and Catherine Snyder Long Teaching Module: Women in the British Empire, 1800-2000 in World History Commons,