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Robin Secomb

Further information

About the author

Robin Secomb is a PhD candidate at Adelaide University. Her thesis explores the life of Laura Fowler Hope in the context of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British imperialism. She hopes to complete her thesis before the next millennium!

Publication details

Volume 7, November 2000

Borne in Empire: Issues of gender, ethnicity and power behind Laura Fowler Hope's journey to Kalimpong

Leaving the railway at the foot of the hills, we had a little two seated cart for twelve miles over pretty level country. Then 18 miles along the banks of a river in a lovely valley, I in a chair with 8 bearers and Charles on pony back. After 18 miles along the Teesta River we crossed it by a suspension bridge and ascended at once by a very steep path more than 3000 feet in 3 miles. Another 3 miles along a more level road brought us very weary and chilly to [Kalimpong]. (Laura Hope to James R. Fowler 10 February 1907) 1

That Laura Fowler Hope, colonial "Lady Medical", was carried to Kalimpong by Indian bearers was indicative of her membership of the British community that ruled India. More than this though, the journey represents a successful negotiation of nineteenth-century gender discourses and a troublesome colonial-British identity. Indeed, being borne across empire depicts imperial strength and solidarity that belies the cleavages of gender and ethnicity operating beneath the surface (Said, 1995: 7). By exploring these underlying circumstances that surround Laura's life experiences, rather than simply recording the biographical detail, the processes of empire can be revealed (Gagnier, 1991: 10-13).

Laura and Charles, her husband and fellow-physician, worked in East Bengal for over thirty years despite both suffering from severe illnesses exacerbated by the climate (William Goldsack to James, 2 October 1899, Earnest Allnutt to James, 25 July 1911). Missionary zeal does not fully account for the length of their stay as Laura and Charles were careful to define themselves as financially self-supporting doctors rather than missionaries. Indeed they had previously attempted to set up medical practices both in South Australia and Britain. Clearly there were other factors at work. This paper focusses on the experiences of Laura Fowler Hope to argue that gender and colonial presuppositions were a crucial backdrop to the nature of her career in India. Laura successfully maintained public and private relationships while moving out of women's traditional sphere indicating that she was able to navigate contemporary cultural discourses. By unpacking the circumstances of this achievement, a more detailed picture of colonial-imperial interactions can emerge. Before embarking on such an exploration however, we need to begin with a biographical sketch of Laura Fowler Hope and her place in the British Empire.

Laura Margaret Fowler was born on the 3rd of May 1868 in Adelaide, South Australia. She was the second daughter of George Swan Fowler and Catherine Janet Fowler (nee Lamb) who emigrated to South Australia to enhance their financial prospects. Her uncles opened a grocery business, D & J Fowler, in 1848 and by the time Laura was born it was operating across empire (Griffin Press, 1954: 5-10). The Fowlers were a socially prominent middle-class family with progressive views on education and suffrage for [white] women (Mackinnon, 1986: 44-5). Active members of the nascent Baptist church there, they also reaped the benefits of a colonial atmosphere particularly supportive of the Dissenting denominations (Bollen, 1975: 5-6).

Laura Fowler had a typical upbringing for an affluent South Australian girl. That is, she arranged flowers and made jams, played tennis and attended various social functions. To 'finish' her education she resided in Britain with her family while her much loved older brother, James, was at Cambridge University. It is at this point that the correspondence between James and Laura, the primary source of information about Laura Hope, begins.

After returning to South Australia she decided to sit for the matriculation exam, a necessary precursor to university, despite telling James that a degree "would not be much use to me as a girl" (Laura Fowler to James R. Fowler, 26 July 1885, her emphasis). Her days were kept busy with first aid training and domestic duties described to James in lively and affectionate letters. Missionaries on sabbatical from India often stayed at Wootton Lea, the Fowler's residence, exposing the adolescent Laura to tales of their endeavours. The Reverend Silas Mead, a fervent supporter of Baptist missionary William Carey, and one of the founders of the Baptist Church and Overseas Mission in South Australia, was also a frequent visitor (Allen, 2000: 101).

Although typically self-deprecating, Laura achieved excellent marks in her matriculation exams. Perhaps this revelation of scholarly aptitude gave her the inclination to continue (George to Grace Roeder, 13 December 1886). Although James initially opposed her taking a degree, she revealed what George termed the "Fowler obstinacy" and graduated in 1891 as the University of Adelaide's first woman medical graduate (The Pictorial Australian, March 1892: 39). After working for a year at the Children's Hospital in Adelaide as locum tenens, she resigned to marry Charles Hope after which they left for India (Jones, 1996: 491). While this first stay was a financial failure, it proved the beginning of a relationship with East Bengal that lasted more than thirty years (Laura to James, 23 September 1894).

Laura Fowler Hope was born into a colony shaped by Dissenters such as George Fife Angas, a Baptist stalwart. He and others had left Britain because they felt constrained by contemporary British society and were eager to take advantage of the much-vaunted economic potential of the colony (Hilliard & Hunt, 1986: 155-7). They envisaged South Australia as a model colony, fulfilling their dreams as Britain had failed to do (Pike, 1967: 495). There was a strong element of hypocrisy in this as the promise of egalitarianism and religious freedom was not extended to the Aboriginal peoples already living there. Indeed the injustices visited upon them in the rapacious grab for land were little different to that in the other Australian colonies, revealing the same relations of oppression that underlay the empire as a whole (Foster, 1993). Nevertheless, the Fowlers' position within South Australia and the empire provided the means for Laura and her family to flourish.

After journeying to South Australia in search of greater financial and social opportunities, the Fowlers' success occurred because they skillfully traded across empire importing goods for profitable resale in South Australia. They were able to do so because of their position in the imperial hierarchy as white middle-class Britons. The Empire was of great importance to the Fowlers in other ways too. Three of the four children were educated in Britain because its cultural life was regarded as superior to Adelaide's. The links between the Fowlers and Britain were therefore extended to include the colonial-born (Williams, 1980: 97). There was an element of ambivalence in the relationship between colony and metropole as this loyalty to Britain was tested by the realities of geographic and cultural divergences (Stoler & Cooper, 1997: 1-6). Nevertheless, the advantages of retaining a close relationship with Britain clearly outweighed any disadvantages for Laura and her family in the late nineteenth-century. Indeed, above all else, the physical reality of empire did provide Laura a place in which to practise medicine, while the culture of empire enabled the creation of weak "heathens" requiring her ministrations (Said, 1994: 4-10).

White women physicians were rare and Laura Hope's mission to the Indian people was only a reality because of the concerted effort to change dominant middle-class gender roles; a legacy of the British middle-class which had been shaping society since the late eighteenth century (Davidoff & Hall, 1987, Hall, 1992: 79).

Middle-class ideas of masculinity and femininity in the late Victorian era were firmly based on the understanding that women were keepers of the domestic world while men were the public sphere actors (Singh, 1996: 92).

Women were perceived as ordained by God to be help-meets of men. Consequently, by the mid-nineteenth century "the romantic imagination indelibly fixed the image of a rose-covered cottage in a garden where Womanhood waited and from which Manhood ventured abroad: to work, to war and to Empire" (Davidoff & Hall, 1987: 28). The advent of the New Woman in the late nineteenth-century occurred as liberally educated middle-class girls tried to manoeuvre through the gender discourses and venture forth into the public sphere. This foray out of women's traditional realm also challenged understandings of femininity, closely interwoven with the prescribed roles. The resulting ambiguity posed a problem for women wanting to retain their "normal" status while following their chosen career. Laura Hope's experience reflects these tensions because once she began her studies, her role within the family altered.

While Laura studied, her sister Marion continued to supervise the household, social and church activities (George Fowler to Grace Roeder, 2 May 1887). Marion's duties were part of her "natural" realm as a woman and thus did not qualify as work in the same way as Laura's studies. Laura, on the other hand, was studying medicine and science which were perceived as masculine endeavours and were thus accorded greater value (Davidoff, 1995: 231-8). Irrespective of whether Laura was the favoured daughter, George's attitude invites comment. For example, in a letter to his niece, Grace Roeder, he wrote:

Marion busy with household duties while Laura goes in five days a week with me in the morning to the university lectures and gets home about six.[sic] – and consumes somewhat of the midnight oil in preparation for the next day's lectures (George to Grace, 5 November 1888).

Clearly he saw Laura's work as more arduous than her sister's. George Fowler was a liberal and progressive father who fully supported Laura's decision to attend University. It is also clear that he recognised the value of her study because it was in accord with his assumptions about gainful employment. What this illustrates is that by the simple expedient of gaining further education white middle-class women such as Laura were changing their roles within the family. Pursuing a career challenged these normative assumptions even further and society was often suspicious rather than supportive. Women moving into non-traditional occupations needed to retain their support systems for both emotional and financial reasons (Caine, 1994: 252-3, Stanley, 1990: 61-66). Not only that, they had to avoid raising the ire of the wider society.

Laura Fowler Hope achieved a number of firsts for white South Australian women including a medical degree and admission into the British Medical Association. This took her ever further away from the traditional realm. In doing so, she and other New Women risked more than public censure and suspicion. Women had only recently gained limited access to medical education but would-be medical women still had to tread carefully. While Sophia Jex Blake had earlier persuaded the University of Edinburgh to admit women to separate medical classes in 1869, she was tactless in her handling of a campaign against women students. Apparently, "so loud was the outcry and so great the hostility which she provoked that in 1874, after a prolonged legal wrangle the decision was reversed" (Bean & Van Heyningen, 1983: 56). Obviously there were very real penalties that followed rash actions as "patriarchal systems offer[ed] women few opportunities until men decid[ed] it [was] time for change", and these opportunities could be withdrawn (Forbes, 1998:4).

Assuming that individuals exercised some level of subjectivity within the context of gender discourses, it follows then that women were able to position themselves in particular ways for strategic ends; both consciously and unconsciously (Teresa de Lauretis in Mackinnon, 1997: 147). Barbara Caine, for example, argues that Barbara Bodichon, Frances Cobbe and Josephine Butler all experienced a version of girlhood and womanhood that made them necessarily aware of at least some of the obstacles around which women had to negotiate. For example Bodichon's reaction to her father's infidelities became a major factor in her fight for better property rights laws for married women (Caine, 1994: 252-5). Laura Hope exhibited a similar awareness. Liberal though they were, the Fowler family nonetheless operated in a culture with strict gender prescriptives. Laura came from this tradition and was able to work within it quite successfully. This is not to ascribe a false consciousness to her actions, though, as Laura was in many ways a dutiful wife and daughter (Lewis, 1991: 75, Mackinnon, 1997: 138-9). Nonetheless, as illustrated by the way she worked towards gaining James' approval for her degree, she was careful to avoid potential obstacles at home and she extended this strategy to her public life. Consequently, Laura and others like her faced the difficult challenge of following their chosen careers while emphasising their normalcy. The result was a social requirement of "double conformity" whereby they were expected to maintain ladylike behaviours while also complying with the strictures of a system tailored to masculine participation (Delamont, 1978: 140-1). Thus while maintaining the highest academic standards, Laura was also careful to appear "prepossessing in appearance, modest in demeanour, and not conspicuous in regard to costume - the very antithesis of the man in the street's idea of the expected terrible woman medical student." (SAMWS, 1994: 32-3 emphasis added). Other women had similar experiences. Pioneer medical woman, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, for example, wrote that "one is helped rather than hindered by being as much like a lady as lies in one's power" (Delamont, 1978: 146). Even the indefatigable South Australian author and political activist, Catherine Helen Spence, reassured the Adelaide Advertiser in 1893 that despite all her achievements in the public sphere she was still "as womanly as ever" (Adelaide Advertiser, 17 March 1893).

Not only did women such as Laura Hope emphasise their adherence to strict Victorian codes of gentility, they were also quick to ascribe motives in keeping with women's roles as moral guardians. A university degree was therefore justified in terms of how it could benefit others both at home and away, and a career became an extension of one's womanly duty (Bacchi, 1986: 411-12). Those agitating for reform were certainly not employing such strategies solely to attain their desires because most women believed their emancipation to be a means of bettering society. For example, Catherine Helen Spence believed that the New Woman would "be wise, not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad she had been born", and viewed opportunities for women as inextricably entwined with their moral imperatives (Magarey, 1983: 113). Irrespective of their motivation, efforts to ensure that the benefits of women's emancipation were precisely enunciated did help alleviate the fears of those who foresaw moral degeneration as women left their traditional realm (Twells, 1998: 240-1).

In summary, the gender prescriptions for middle-class women at this time could be confining and the women that challenged them did so with care. To do so they had to reconcile their traditional female roles with the expectations of the new. With society watching gimlet-eyed over the whole process, doing one's duty in an outpost of empire could appear attractive. 2 Leaving one's home society invoked the same concerns however, and most women took some pains to ensure that their legitimising reasons were clear (Haggis, 1998: 180-1 ). Consequently Laura Hope was careful to assure her family that she was going to India to discharge her Christian duty (David Fowler to Laura, 7 September 1893 ). Once there though, women such as Laura could wield greater authority by adhering to imperial hierarchies which stressed the inferiority of the indigenous people they encountered (Allen, 2000: 102-104).

As mentioned earlier, the centrality of relations of power to empire is a burgeoning field of scholarship. The extra social power afforded by living "away" adds an important dimension to such understandings of cultural imperialism in relation to white women as has been demonstrated by scholars such as Clare Midgley, Antoinette Burton, et al. A further level of complexity must be included in this analysis when considering the circumstances of women such as Laura Fowler Hope. Prior to living in India, she and Charles had sought without success to establish a practice in Britain. Significantly, in Britain at that time the restrictive gender discourses were accompanied by the assumption that colonial-British were not quite "white" enough. She and Charles were both middle-class South Australians whose families occupied prominent social positions there (Milburn, 1982: 263 & 362). Once in Britain their social position altered because they were regarded as colonials rather than British. I am not suggesting that they failed to establish themselves because of their colonial status, however. What I am suggesting is that in Britain their place in the social hierarchy was less certain. When coupled with the gender prescriptions also operating in Britain, this ambiguity gave Laura an additional impetus for moving to India; a place where she could reassert her authority over the Indian peoples designated as Other.

As discussed earlier, the colonial middle-class South Australian society that Laura Fowler came from was imbued with a sense of respectable Britishness. For the Fowler family, their business and familial links to Britain emphasised this even further. South Australia had been born of a systematic colonisation by free settlers. As a result South Australia was quick to self-righteously differentiate itself from the other colonies (Richards, 1986: 2-8). As Richard Twopeny, son of the 1860s Archdeacon of Flinders in South Australia, acerbically observed:

The Adelaidians are perhaps the most English of all in their ways of thinking, but they are also by far the most narrow minded. For pure Philistinism I don't know any town that equals it. Shut up in their own little corner, they imagine themselves more select than Sydney and Melbourne circles, because they are merely smaller (Richards, 1986: 18-19).

Once in Britain, these pillars of respectability found themselves regarded quite differently. Colonial Australia had long been viewed by many Britons as a convict-haven, a sentiment encouraged by the works of authors such as Charles Dickens (White, 1981: 6-11 & 20-3). Even the relative class fluidity in Australia had a negative impact as Australia became the place to "whitewash black sheep" (Russell, 1994: 36-7). Despite an awareness of South Australia's free settler colonisation in Britain, generalisations about Australia persisted. The situation worsened in the financial crisis of 1893 as many Australian banks folded in near criminal circumstances causing British investors to lose substantial amounts of money and more significantly, their confidence in Australia. Consequently, South Australians returning "Home" at this time were met by a perception of all colonials as uncivilised and not quite respectable (Inglis, 1992: 123-5).

Although they could rely upon "the 'invisible' normativity accorded to white people" as they moved about Britain, the colonial taint remained (Woollacott, 2000: 762-3). Colonials were thought of as "parvenus, cultural incompetents, morally suspect, and indeed 'fictive' Europeans, somehow distinct from the real thing" (Stoler, 1995: 102). Many Australians recorded a sense of ambivalence about their experiences Home, contrasting the dirtiness of London with the cleanliness of the Australian cities or remarking on the strictures of the class system they found, displaying both defensiveness and a sense of disillusionment (Pesman, 1996: 5-6). South Australian born British, with their determination to set themselves above the others, must have felt their "stigmatised Australian identity" keenly, especially those coming from a position of relative prominence such as Laura and her family (Pesman, 1998: 83-5). In South Australia, Laura's social position was stable but once in Britain this comfortable middle class identity was disrupted by her problematic colonial status.

Two of the letters that Laura wrote to James best capture the sense of familiarity and strangeness that accompany a colonial residing in Britain. Upon hearing that her nephew was recuperating in Britain after being wounded at the front, she expressed both her desire to make him "…at home in the home land" and "… less of a stranger in a strange land" (Laura to James – 10 September and 1 October 1916). This tension is also present in other letters as she expresses both her loyalty to Home and Empire, while also decrying the squalor and pollution she found there. When this ambivalence is coupled with the gender prescriptions operating in Britain and her problematic social position as a colonial, it could well be a powerful motivating factor. Living in India ensured that her colonial and gendered status were subordinate to being a doctor and a representative of the ruling elite.

Antoinette Burton among others has drawn attention to the way in which many white women created and reinforced the idea of a hierarchical difference between British and Indian cultures to consolidate their authority over colonial peoples (Burton, 1992: 152). The contention of this paper is that this strategy also helped to subsume gender prescriptions. For South Australian women who had also experienced an ambivalent position as white colonials in Britain, India offered the potential for pre-empting both (Allen, 2000: 104). Thus it is argued that to maximise her status Laura fortified the cultural imperialist project by re-iterating its construction of Indians as incompetent and inferior. When Laura wrote of her adventure by bearer, for example, she did not refer to the bearers as individuals, nor did she acknowledge the effort involved in carrying her, an adult woman, uphill for over twenty miles. It was as if the bearers were indistinguishable from the pony that carried Charles: humans appropriated for transport as the normalised right of the ruling elite. Nevertheless Laura couldn't have completed her journey to Kalimpong without their aid and the inverse relation of her dependency remains unexplored.

In fact Laura and Charles never acknowledge any Indian people as anything close to social equals. Throughout their careers in India, both Laura and Charles worked alongside Bengali nurses and doctors. Despite occasionally recognising the need for Bengali assistance, they were often scathing of the "native" doctors and nurses, categorising them as incompetent and unreliable. Even when recounting the death of a "…faithful [Indian] servant", Laura appears genuinely sorrowful yet does not dignify him with a name or biographical details (Laura to James, 29 November 1913).

When they left India, members of the Pabna Muslim Sahitya Samiti and Wayez Memorial Public library presented Laura and Charles with a letter and poem of appreciation upon their leaving. In part it reads:

It is the selfless and disinterested work among the poor, like yours that forges additional link [sic] to the chain that binds the East and the West; it is your broad and Catholic spirit that knows no distinction of caste and creed that secures a safe place in the affection of the people… (Pabna testimonial letter in AUA).

While this could be read as evidence of some egalitarian relationship between the Hopes and the Bengalis, in fact such service is consistent with the discourse of duty to one's inferiors. Charles and Laura Hope's blindness to the ways in which they were assisted, and indeed enabled, by Indian people was due to normative assumptions of British superiority that they did not challenge because it would have threatened their construction of the power relationship between Indians and themselves. Both Laura and Charles constructed the Other as a shadow self, a receptacle of all the traits considered to be undesirable by them. They could then believe that they possessed only desirable British qualities thus consolidating their position in empire (Said, 1995: 3-7 & 331-2). Thus Laura Hope apparently had few links with those Bengali women who were seeking education and a broader role in the community at the time as authors such as Srabashi Ghosh and Malavika Karlekar have demonstrated. (Ghosh , 1986 Karlekar , 1991) Of course, to have developed links and alliances with such women could have challenged the very notions of cultural superiority that enabled her to cement her position of authority in empire. Yet her inability to move beyond these assumptions meant that opportunities to share knowledge and insight with the Indian women were also lost.

Issues of power and authority formed an important backdrop to Laura Hope's life. In India she was primarily part of the dominant British governing class which allowed her more freedom from gender constraints than she would have had in South Australia or in Britain; the two other places she resided at for lengthy periods. Furthermore, in India she did not have to deal with the ambiguities of her status as a British colonial which had been intensified by the cultural surrounds of South Australia and her own consciousness of class and place. Laura Fowler Hope re-iterated imperial cultural hierarchies and maximised her status and authority accordingly.

But what of the image of Laura Fowler Hope being carried towards Kalimpong by eight Indian men? It is a potent reminder of the primacy of the British ruling elite in that they were able to co-opt Indian labour without having to acknowledge the individuals who supplied it. For Laura as an individual it also represents the triumph of ruling status over gender and a problematic white colonial identity. Yet at the moment of victory it reveals the inverse dependency of Briton on Indian which was ignored in order to retain the myth of British cultural superiority. By choosing to do so, though, Laura missed the opportunity for a deeper level of interaction with the Bengali people. It was a decision highlights the flawed nature of the cultural hegemony within the British Empire.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Margaret Allen, for her invaluable advice and unfailing patience without which this article would not have been written. Any mistakes are entirely of my own doing! I would also like to thank Garry Cooper for his support and humour, not to mention unsolicited cups of tea!


1. The letters come from two locations: the Fowler family Papers are housed at the Mortlock Library of South Australiana, State Library of South Australia (MLSA) record number PRG34, and the copies of letters held by Rory Hope which are held at the Adelaide University Archives (AUA) Donation 50. The latter is differentiated from the former by their abbreviated location. The correspondents are referred to by their full name in the first instance and thereafter by the first name to avoid confusion as several have the same surnames. This article depends heavily on these letters and to simplify matters only those letters directly referred to in the text will be cited.

2. In referring to 'outpost' colonies I am following Brian Stanley's definition of them as distinguished "…by the fact that the alien dominant group remains non-resident in the imperialized territory" Stanley, B. (1990) The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Leicester: Appollos, p.34.

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"Letters: Drs. Laura (nee Fowler) and Charles Hope (1893-1918)." University of Adelaide Archives: Donation Number 50: Photocopies of Papers held by Rory M. Hope. 1 vol. (AUA).

The Pictorial Australian

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