Feminism under the Raj: Complicity and resistance in the writings of Flora Annie Steel and Annie Besant

Nancy L. Paxton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


This article focuses on the autobiographical writings of Flora Annie Steel and Annie Besant to assess how living in India under the British Raj shaped their analysis of race, class, and power, and feminism. Steel and Besant were exact contemporaries, born in 1847, married at age 20, bearing two children each. Both lived in India for at least 20 years, learned several Indian languages, and wrote numerous books, including some about women's issues. Steel and Besant were members of the second generation of feminists who came of age after the defeat of Mill's petition for women's suffrage, and their writings reflect many of the tensions characterizing feminism from 1870 to 1920, especially in their positions on authoritarianism, class solidarity, female sexuality, and suffrage. This essay suggests the undocumented role that imperialism may have played in shaping British feminism in the second half of the 19th century. Their writings show how the nation-state forced them to define themselves as either "loyal or disloyal to civilization." Steel saw herself as a suffragette while maintaining an otherwise "loyal," racist, elitist, and politically conservative analysis of British and Indian society; Besant transcended many of these racist and classist assumptions and came to define herself, finally, as disloyal to British civilization because of her support first for birth control and later for Indian nationalism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)333-346
Number of pages14
JournalWomen's Studies International Forum
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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