Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee


Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni picture

Image by Dying Fall/CC Licensed

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet. Her work is widely known, as she has been published in over 50 magazines, and her writing has been included in over 30 anthologies.

She was born in India in 1956 and lived there until 1976, when, at age nineteen,  she left Calcutta and came to the United States. She continued her education in the field of English by receiving a Master’s degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. To earn money for her education, she held many odd jobs, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread in a bakery, and washing instruments in a science lab. At Berkeley, she lived in the International House and worked in the dining hall, slicing Jell-O and removing dishes from the dishwasher. She briefly lived in Chicago and Ohio before she settled in Sunnydale, California in 1979. She currently lives in Houston, Texas and teaches at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Since 1991, she has been the president of MAITRI, a helpline for South Asian women that particularly helps victims of domestic violence and other abusive situations. She is also involved with Pratham, a non-profit that seeks to improve literacy among disadvantaged Indian children. She has said that the one word which would describe her is “enthusiastic” and she that she is motivated to be excellent in her field and to create literary art of lasting value (qtd in “Profiles”). She sees herself as “a listener, a facilitator, a connector to people,” and, “to me, the art of dissolving boundaries is what living is all about” (“Dissolving” 2).

Major Themes

Arranged Marriage book cover

Arranged Marriage, 1996

Much of Divakaruni’s work is partially autobiographical. Most of her stories are set in the Bay Area of California. She is is invested in writing about the immigrant experience, which continues to have resonance in today’s world. Her book, Arranged Marriage, is a collection of short stories about women from India caught between two worlds. In The Mistress of Spices, the character Tilo provides spices, not only for cooking, but also for the feelings of homesickness and alienation that the Indian immigrants in her shop experience (Softky 1997). She writes to unite people by destroying myths and stereotypes. As she breaks down these myths and stereotypes, she dissolves boundaries between people of different backgrounds, communities, ages, and even different worlds.  She says, “Women in particular respond to my work because I’m writing about them, women in love, in difficulties, women in relationships. I want people to relate to my characters, to feel their joy and pain, because it will be harder to [be] prejudiced when they meet them in real life” (qtd. in Softky). Divakaruni’s interest in women began after she left India, at which point she reevaluated the treatment of women there. At Berkeley, she volunteered at a women’s center and became interested in helping battered women. She then started MAITRI with a group of friends, which eventually led her to write Arranged Marriage.

Arranged Marriage and her novel, The Mistress of Spices, are both highly acclaimed works. In Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni beautifully tells stories about immigrant brides who are “both liberated and trapped by cultural changes” and who are struggling to carve out an identity of their own (Holt 1).  In one story, “Doors,” the character Preeti, after moving to the United States, has come to love the Western idea of privacy. She faces a dilemma when her husband’s cousin wants to come live with them. She expresses her discontent with the situation and thus demonstrates her new found decisiveness and resistance to her husband’s view of a traditional Indian wife. In another story, “Clothes,” the husband of the narrator, Sumita, dies and she is faced with the decision of staying in America or going back to India to live with her in-laws. Sumita calls widows who are serving their in-laws in India “doves with cutoff wings.” Divakaruni deals with a variety of issues in the book, including racism, interracial relationships, economic disparity, abortion, and divorce. She says that the stories are inspired by her imagination and the experiences of others (Mehta 4).

Mistress of Spices book cover

Mistress of Spices, 1998

The Mistress of Spices is unique in that it is written with a blend of prose and poetry. The book has a very mystical quality to it, and, as Divakaruni puts it, “I wrote in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable.” (“Dissolving” 2). The novel follows Tilo, a magical figure who runs a grocery store and uses spices to help the customers overcome difficulties. In the process, she develops dilemmas of her own when she falls in love with a non-Indian. This creates great conflicts, as she has to choose whether to serve her people or to follow the path leading to her own happiness. Tilo has to decide which parts of her heritage she will keep and which parts she will chose to abandon. The novel was later made into a movie of the same name in 2005.

Divakaruni’s novel, Sister of My Heart is about the lives of two women and how they change marriage as one woman comes to California, and the other stays behind in India.  The Vine of Desire (2002) continues the story of the two friends.  The Unknown Errors of Our Lives is a collection of stories “about family, culture, and the seduction of memory” (book jacket).

Chitra Divakaruni is the editor of Multitudes, an anthology she uses in her own classroom. She states about the book, “I didn’t want to sacrifice quality, and [the stories] focus on problem solving, not just how terrible things are” (qtd. in Softky). The anthology includes stories about communication styles across cultures, expectations of friendships, the Los Angeles riots, and prejudice against gay people. The book contains works by a variety of authors, and some are even by her own students.

Before she began her career in fiction-writing, Divakaruni was an acclaimed poet. She writes poems encompassing a wide variety of themes, and she once again directs much focus to the immigrant experience and to South Asian women. She shows the experiences and struggles involved in women trying to find their own identities. Divakaruni’s latest collection, Leaving Yuba City, is unique because it includes series of poems based on and inspired by various art forms, including paintings by Francesco Clemente, photographs by Raghubir Singh, and specific Indian films, such as “Salaam Bombay”. With these poems, Divakaruni once again shows how boundaries can be destroyed. Her verse illustrates how different art forms are not independent entities, but how they can, in fact, influence each other. The following is a poem from Black Candle, which contains poems about women from the India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The Arranged Marriage

The night is airless-still, as
before a storm. Behind the wedding drums,
cries of jackals from the burning grounds.
The canopy gleams, color
of long life, many children.
Color of bride-blood. At the entrance
the women have painted a sign
of Laxmi, goddess of wealth, have put up
a blackened pot to ward off
the witch who lives beyond
the Sheora forest and eats
young flesh.
Guests from three villages
jostle, making marriage jokes. A long
conch blast for the groom’s party,
men in dhotis white as ice. Someone runs to them
with water of rose, silvered betal leaves,
piled garlands from which rise
the acrid smell of marigolds.
The priests confer, arrange wood and incense
for the wedding fire. The chants begin.
Through smoke, the stars
are red pinpricks, the women’s voices
almost a wailing. Uncles and brothers
carry in the bride, her face hidden
under an edge of scarlet silk, her trembling
under the wedding jewels.
The groom’s father
produces his scales and in clenched silence
the dowry gold is weighed. But he smiles
and all is well again. Now it is godhuli,
the time of the auspicious seeing.
Time for you, bride of sixteen,
mother, to raise the tear-stained face
that I will learn so well,
to look for the first time into
your husband’s opaque eyes (14-15).

Major Works


  • Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Dark Like the River (1987)
  • —. The Reason for Nasturtiums (1990)
  • —. Black Candle (1991)
  • —. Leaving Yuba City (1997)


  • Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Arranged Marriage: Stories. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
  • —.  The Mistress of Spices. New York. Anchor Books, 1997.
  • —. Sister of My Heart. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
  • —. The Unknown Errors of our Lives . New York: Doubleday, 2001.
  • —. Neela: Victory Song. Middleton: Pleasant Company, 2002.
  • —. The Vine of Desire. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
  • —. The Conch Bearer. Book One of the Brotherhood of the Conch. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2003.
  • —. Queen of Dreams. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
  • —. The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming: Book Two of the Brotherhood of the Conch. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2005.
  • —. The Palace of Illusions: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • —. Shadowland: Book Three of the Brotherhood of the Conch. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2009.
  • —. One Amazing Thing. New York: Hyperion, 2010.


  • Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Multitude: cross-cultural anthology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
  • —. We Too Sing America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
  • —. California Uncovered: Stories for the 21st Century. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2004.

Awards and Honors

1995: The American Book Award for Arranged Marriage: Stories
1997: The Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize and the Pushcart Prize for poems in Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems
1997: Mistress of Spices shortlisted for The Orange Prize
1997: Los Angeles Times Best Books of 1997 for Mistress of Spices
1998: Seattle Times Best Paperbacks of 1998 for Mistress of Spices
1999: “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” included in Best American Short Stories
2003: “The Lives of Strangers” included in O’Henry Prize Stories
2003: Pushcart Prize for “The Lives of Strangers”
2007: Distinguished Writer Award from the South Asian Literary Association
2008: University of California at Berkeley International House Alumna of the Year Award
2009: Cultural Jewel Award from the Indian Culture Center, Houston
PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for Arranged Marriage: Stories
Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction for Arranged Marriage: Stories
2011: Light of India Jury’s Award for Journalism and Literature

Selected Bibliography

  • Albert, Janice. “How now, my metal of India?” English Journal (Sept 1997): 99-100.
  • Divakaruni, Chitra. Black Candle. Corvallis: CALYX Books,1991.
  • —.”Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.” San Francisco Chronicle (24Dec 1995):  A10.
  • —. “Dissolving Boundaries.” (1997). Web. <http://headlines.entertainmentmarket.com/boldtype.divakaruni.article$597>
  • Holt, Patricia. “Women feel tug of two cultures.” San Francisco Chronicle (1 Aug 1995):  E5.
  • Mehta, Julie. “Arranging One’s Life.” (1996). Web. <http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/10.03.96/books-9640.html>
  • “Profiles: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.” Web. <http://www.helloindia.com/profiles/profile.shtml>
  • Softky, Elizabeth. “Cross-cultural understanding spiced with the Indian Diaspora.” Black Issues in Higher Education (18 Sept 1997): 26+.

Related Sites

MAITRI homepage

Author: Nilu N. Patel, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012

Djebar, Assia


Image of the author.

Image by Michel-Georges Bernard/CC licensed

1936 Born in Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, Algeria on August 4.

1957 Publishes first novel, La Soif, under pen name Assia Djebar.

1958 Publishes second novel, Les Impatients. Marries Walid Garn. Works toward advanced degree in history at University of Algiers.

1962 Publishes novel Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde.

1967 Publishes novel Les Alouettes Naives.

1969 Rouge l’Aube, a play written in collaboration with husband Garn, performed at the third Panafrican Cultural Festival held in Algiers. Publishes volume of poetry, Poems pour l’Algerie heureuse.

1977 Directs her first film, La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.

1979 Directs second film, La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli, a documentary juxtaposing French newsreels of World War I and II and Algerian women singing traditional songs.

1980 Publishes short story collection, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. Marries Malek Alloula, Algerian writer, and they reside in Paris. Appointed to Algerian Cultural Center in Paris.

1985 First novel of projected quartet published, L’Amour, la fantasia.

1987 Second novel of projected quartet published, Ombre sultane.

Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade: Expressing “Third World” Feminist Issues

Revising Colonial Constructions of History

Image of Fantasia book cover.

Fantasia, 1993

Djebar revises traditional history in the novel using several techniques which successfully decenters the colonizer’s version of history and make space for the participation of women in the struggle for national independence. Djebar first presents colonial history in the form of letters, diaries and published accounts of French soldiers and officials, searching through them to find places where women bubble up to the surface and their participation is recorded despite history’s determination to erase their contribution and existence. In addition to finding moments in which the colonizers are forced to confront the problematic existence of women revolutionaries, Djebar presents the words of women freedom fighters themselves, translating them from Arabic to French. Recording the women’s stories in sections of the novel titled “Voices,” Djebar troubles the split between the spoken and the written, suggesting the limitations of traditional history and the richness of her culture’s oral traditions. Considering the French invasion of 1830 and the twentieth century War of Algerian Independence, as well as adding pieces of her own autobiography, Djebar complicates the notion of linear history, presenting an alternative view of the interdependence of the personal and the national, the past, the present and the future.

Subjectivity and the Subaltern

The intellectual movements of the 20th Century, including Derridean deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, have continued the move away from the 18th and 19th century notions of the universal subject, contesting the unified “I” and replacing it with fractured, multiple subject positions. Feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Gayatri Spivak and others are interested in theorizing female subjectivity in all its diversity and multiplicity in answer to phallocentric constructions that continue to figure subjectivity as masculine and female consciousness as lack. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak summarizes her project of constructing a new model of female subjectivity, a project Djebar takes up in L’Amour, la fantasia: “My readings are, rather, an interested and inexpert examination, by a postcolonial woman, of the fabric of repression, a constructed counter-narrative of woman’s consciousness, thus woman’s being, thus woman’s being good, thus the good woman’s desire, thus woman’s desire” (299). Djebar joins her own voice and life story with the stories and voices of Algerian women revolutionaries, replacing silence and the colonizer’s version of history with a celebration of female experience and expression. Speaking neither for nor to her subaltern sisters, Djebar speaks with them, emphasizing the collective nature of female expression. Djebar realizes the ways in which her own story is intimately linked to the forgotten and silenced testimonies of other women: “Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when in this absence of expressions of love (love received, ‘love’ imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia” (Djebar 202). In telling their stories, Djebar and the women revolutionaries reclaim not only their individual and collective voices, but their bodies as well.

Speaking the self is linked in important ways to speaking the experience of female embodiment. Sidonie Smith articulates the intersection of subjectivity and body that occurs in autobiographical projects: “When a specific woman approaches the scene of writing and the autobiographical ‘I,’ she not only engages the discourses of subjectivity through which the universal human subject has been culturally secured; she also engages the complexities of her cultural assignment to an absorbing embodiment. And so the autobiographical subject carries a history of the body with her as she negotiates the autobiographical ‘I,’ for autobiographical practice is one of those cultural occasions when the history of the body intersects the deployment of subjectivity” (22-23). Djebar’s treatment of the veil, her own escape from cloistering, and her subsequent access to academia and writing suggests that the female body is a locus of potential power, rebellion, and knowledge that threatens the status quo of male privilege: “The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: The body which male neighbors’ and cousins’ eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it, the body which, in trances, dances, or vociferations, in fits of hope and despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love” (Djebar 180). The image of the dismemebered hand at the novel’s conclusion suggests the connection between body and voice, subjectivity and embodied experience: “Later, I seize this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory, and I attempt to bring it the qalam” (Djebar 226).

Feminist Challenges to Discourses of Nationalism

The story of Djebar and the women freedom fighters is also the story of Algeria and the journey from colonization and subjugation to independent nation. Djebar’s text refigures nationalist strategies by replacing history written by the colonizer with a history of heroic women. The re-writing of history is a common step in the project of nationalism, but most often the revised history of a colonized nation continues to be a male-centered history. By moving women from the margin to the forefront of her recreated history, Djebar documents women’s historic roles as revolutionaries and makes the case that they deserve status as full citizens in the new nation they have helped to build. Danielle Marx-Scouras draws connections between Djebar’s themes of subjectivity, body, voice and nationalism as they relate to Djebar’s feminist political agenda: “The amputated hand symbolizes Algeria, mutilated by a history written by the hands of others (French historians, writers, artists) but, perhaps more importantly for Djebar, it also represents Algerian women amputated in their desire to write or express themselves. The dominant images of the novel – abduction and rape – sexualize the representation of Algeria, which becomes, in the final analysis, the female body. If it is on this body that the history of the French conquerors has been written, it is from this body that the decolonization of a people must be written – be they men or women” (176). The nation that women have helped to make independent has a duty to recognize the issues and concerns of women’s oppressions. Djebar’s project seeks to “resurrect so many vanished sisters” (204), to restore them to their rightful place within the new nation, to have their voices speak and be heard as full participants in the project of decolonization and nation-building.

Selected Bibliography

  • Djebar, Assia. Vaste est la prison: roman. Paris: Albin Michel, 1995.
  • —. Far from Madina. London: Quartet, 1994. (originally published in French as Loin de Medine. Paris: Albin Michel, 1991)
  • —. A Sister to Scheherazade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1987. (originally published in French as L’Ombre sultane. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1987.)
  • —. Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade. Dorothy S. Blair, trans. London: Quartet, 1985. (originally published in French as L’Amour, la fantasia. Paris: Jean-Claude Lattes, 1985.)
  • —. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Marjolijn de Jager, trans. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. (originally published in French as Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. Paris: Edition des Femmes, 1980.)
  • —. La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli. 1982.
  • —. La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua. 1979.
  • —. Les Alouettes naives. Paris: Julliard, 1967.
  • —. Rouge l’aube. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.
  • —. Poems pour l’Algerie heureuse. Alger: S.N.E.D., 1969.
  • —. Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde. Paris: Julliard, 1962.
  • —. Les Impatients. Paris: Julliard, 1958.
  • —. La Soif. Paris: Julliard, 1957.
  • Donadey, Anne. “Assia Djebar’s Poetics of Subversion.” L’Esprit Creatur 33:2 (Summer 1993): 107-17.
  • Green, Mary Jean. “Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hebert’s Kamouraska and Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” The French Review 66:6 (May 1993): 959-66.
  • Ghaussy, Soheila. “A Stepmother Tongue: ‘Feminine Writing’ in Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Calvalcade.” World Literature Today 68:3 (Summer 1994): 457-62.
  • Goodman, Joanna. “L’Ecrit et le cri: Giving Voice in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Edebiyat 6:1 (1995): 1-19.
  • Marx-Scouras, Danielle. “Muffled Screams/Stifled Voices.” Yale French Studies 82 (1993): 172-82.
  • Mortimer, Mildred. Assia Djebar. Philadelphia: Celfan Ed. Monogs., 1988.
  • —. “Language and Space in the Fiction of Assia Djebar and Leila Sebbar.” Research in African Literatures 19:3 (Fall 1988): 301-11.
  • — . “The Evolution of Assia Djebar’s Feminist Conscience.” Contemporary African Literature. Hal Wylie et al, eds. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents & African Lit. Assn., 1983.
  • Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Rewriting Writing: Identity, Exile and Renewal in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 71-93.
  • Page, Andrea. “Rape or Obscence Copulation? Ambivilance and Complicity in Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia.” Women in French Studies 2 (Fall 1994): 42-54.
  • Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed. New York: Routledge, 1987.
  • Zimra, Clarisse. “Writing Women: The Novels of Assia Djebar.” SubStance 21:3 (1992): 68-84.

Author: Jennifer Bernhardt, Fall 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Mies, Maria


Maria Mies is a Marxist feminist scholar who is renowned for her theory of capitalist-patriarchy, which recognizes third world women and difference. She is a Professor of Sociology at Fachhochschule in Cologne, Germany, but retired from teaching in 1993. Since the late 1960s she has been involved with feminist activism. In 1979, at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, she founded the Women and Development program. Mies has also written books and articles that deal with topics relating to feminism, third world issues and the environment.

Brief Analysis of Writings

The Lace Makers of Narsapur, 1982

The Lace Makers of Narsapur, 1982

One of Mies’ founding works in the development of her theory of capitalist-patriarchy was a study that she prepared for the International Labor Office (ILO) under the World Employment Program (WEP). WEP was founded in 1969 and its goal was to develop polices aimed towards alleviating mass poverty and unemployment around the world. The work that Mies did for this program was published by Zed Books under the title The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market in 1982. It is a detailed case study of women’s involvement in the lace making industry of Narsapur. The Chief of the Rural Employment Policies Branch of ILO, Dharam Ghai, declared that this study reveals current policies “lead to the impoverishment of the women, and a polarization not only between classes but between men and women as well” (Mies 1982).

This case study traces the historical development of the lace industry in India since the 17th century and then turns to a qualitative analysis of the production and reproduction relations within the industry and the effects that they have on women. Mies stresses that a statistical follow up of her study is desirable, yet due to the inadequacy of secondary sources (e.g. census data) she was forced to concentrate on primary sources. This lack of official data on women highlights the nature of women’s work, which is often labeled as part of the informal sector or as that which makes up the “shadow economy.” The work of women is labeled as such because it is not considered as work contributing to the economy, but rather as housework or subsistence work. Mies labels this phenomena the ‘housewifization’ of labor, which allows for women’s labor to be viewed as subsistence work (i.e. natural) and not considered in the production of capital.

In her study of the lace makers Mies argues that that ideological views often coincide with economic systems. For example, in her study she notes that in Narsapur a status symbol of belonging to a high caste or class is if the women of the family stay in the house (implying that they are not required to bring in capital) and do not go to work in the fields (Mies 1982: 33). Therefore many of the poorer women took up lace making, because it brought with it a higher sense of status. Yet, lace making was not considered as productive work, even though it brought capital into the household, because it was performed in the house and viewed as something women did in their spare time. In this case society is benefiting economically from women’s work, yet due to the ideological views of women’s roles within society it is not viewed as work. Mies notes that policies for alleviating poverty often view poverty as a technological problem (e.g. the Green Revolution), whereas her study of the lace industry suggest that poverty also arises from ideological concepts of women’s work. This is the foundation of Mies’s theory of capitalist-patriarchy.

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, 1998

Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, 1998

This theory is presented in her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor (first published in 1986 and then again in 1998). In this book Mies focuses on third world women, the international division of labor, and the capitalist system from a Marxist perspective. She claims that there is an intrinsic relationship between capitalism and patriarchy and that we can no longer accept a classical Marxist explanation of the capitalist system, because it does not include women. She goes on to propose that capitalism usurps the labor of women through a patriarchal system, which labels it as housework or subsistence work. In turn this “subsistence” work is not accounted for in the cost of labor (i.e. production), which leads to the accumulation of capital. This means that the labor of women is exploited by the system of capitalist-patriarchy, because it is not given credit for the economic benefits that it provides for the system.

She goes on to evaluate women’s role within the International Division of Labor (IDL), which she represents as a sexual division of labor. With the rise of multinational corporations (MNCs) and the global economy, women’s labor has been increasing exploited, for women are viewed as docile, low wage, flexible workers with low visibility and little power.

Mies also couples issues of third world women and the theory of capitalist-patriarchy with that of ecofeminism. She wrote a book in 1993, with Vandana Shiva, entitled, Ecofeminism. In the book they argue that women and the environment, of both the North and South, are negatively impacted by capitalist-patriarchy. They propose that in order to protect the environment and women, we must reject the idea of unrestrained economic growth and mass consumerism.

Works by Mies

  • Mies, Maria. Indian Women and Patriarchy. Delhi: Concept Publishers, 1980.
  • —. The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market. London: Zed Books, 1982.
  • — and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books/Fernwood Publications, 1993.
  • —. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1998.
  • — and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. The Subsistence Perspective. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1999.

Author: Jennifer Bagley, 1999   Last edited: July 2012

Partition of India

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
- Jawarharal Nehru, “Tryst With Destiny” speech celebrating Indian independence

The partition of India (1947) Image by themightyquill/CC Licensed

The partition of India (1947) Image by themightyquill/CC Licensed

August 14, 1947 saw the birth of the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan. India won its freedom from colonial rule at midnight the next day, ending nearly 350 years of British presence in India. When the British left, they partitioned India, creating the separate countries of India and Pakistan to accommodate religious differences between Pakistan, which has a majority Muslim population, and India, which is primarily Hindu.

Whether the partition of these countries was wise and whether it was done too soon is still under debate. Even the imposition of an official boundary has not stopped conflict between them. Boundary issues, left unresolved by the British, have caused two wars and continuing strife between India and Pakistan.

The partition of India and its freedom from colonial rule set a precedent for nations such as Israel, which demanded a separate homeland because of irreconcilable differences between the Arabs and the Jews. The British left Israel in May 1948, handing the question of division over to the UN. Unenforced UN Resolutions to map out boundaries between Israel and Palestine have led to several Arab-Israeli wars and the conflict still continues.

Reasons for Partition

By the end of the 19th century, several nationalist movements had emerged in India. Indian nationalism had expanded as the result of British policies of education and the advances made by the British in India in the fields of transportation and communication. However, British insensitivity to and distance from the people of India and their customs created such disillusionment among Indians that the end of British rule became necessary and inevitable.

While the Indian National Congress was calling for Britain to Quit India, in 1943 the Muslim League passed a resolution demanding the British Divide and Quit. There were several reasons for the birth of a separate Muslim homeland in the subcontinent, and all three parties — the British, the Congress and the Muslim League — were responsible.

As colonizers, the British had followed a divide-and-rule policy in India. In the census they categorized people according to religion and viewed and treated them as separate from each other. The British based their knowledge of the people of India on religious texts and the intrinsic differences they found in them, instead of examining how people of different religions coexisted. They also were fearful of the potential threat from the Muslims, who were the former rulers of the subcontinent, ruling India for over 300 years under the Mughal Empire. To win them over to their side, the British helped establish the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh and supported the All-India Muslim Conference, both of which were institutions from which leaders of the Muslim League and the ideology of Pakistan emerged. As soon as the league was formed, Muslims were placed on a separate electorate. Thus, the separateness of Muslims in India was built into the Indian electoral process.

There was also an ideological divide between the Muslims and the Hindus of India. While there were strong feelings of nationalism in India, by the late 19th century there were also communal conflicts and movements in the country that were based on religious identities rather than class or regional ones. Some people felt that the very nature of Islam called for a communal Muslim society. Added to this were the memories of power over the Indian subcontinent that the Muslims held, especially in old centers of Mughal rule. These memories might have made it exceptionally diffficult for Muslims to accept the imposition of colonial power and culture. Many refused to learn English and to associate with the British. This was a severe drawback as Muslims found that cooperative Hindus found better government positions and thus felt that the British favored Hindus. Consequently, social reformer and educator Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College, taught the Muslims that education and cooperation with the British was vital for their survival in the society. However, tied to all the movements of Muslim revival was the opposition to assimilation and submergence in Hindu society.

Hindu revivalists also deepened the chasm between the two nations. They resented the Muslims for their former rule over India. Hindu revivalists rallied for a ban on the slaughter of cows, a cheap source of meat for the Muslims. They also wanted to change the official script from the Persian to the Hindu Devanagri script, effectively making Hindi rather than Urdu the main candidate for the national language.

The Congress made several mistakes in their policies which further convinced the League that it was impossible to live in an undivided India after freedom from colonial rule because their interests would be completely suppressed. One such policy was the institution of “Bande Matram,” a national anthem historically linked to anti-Muslim sentiment, in the schools of India where Muslim children were forced to sing it.

The Congress banned support for the British during the Second World War while the Muslim League pledged its full support, which found favor from the British, who needed the help of the largely Muslim army. The Civil Disobedience Movement and the consequent withdrawal of the Congress party from politics also helped the league gain power, as they formed strong ministries in the provinces that had large Muslim populations. At the same time, the League actively campaigned to gain more support from the Muslims in India, especially under the guidance of dynamic leaders like Jinnah. There had been some hope of an undivided India, but the Congress’ rejection of the interim government set up under the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1942 convinced the leaders of the Muslim League that compromise was impossible and partition was the only course to take.

Impact and Aftermath of Partition

“Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy.” — Mahatma Gandhi, May 1942

The partition of India left both India and Pakistan devastated. The process of partition claimed many lives in riots, rapes, murders, and looting. Women, especially, were used as instruments of power by the Hindus and the Muslims.

Fifteen million refugees poured across the borders to regions completely foreign to them because their identities were rooted in the geographical home of their ancestors, not their religious affiliations alone. In addition to India’s partition, the provinces of Punjab and Bengal were divided, causing catastrophic riots and claiming the lives of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike.

Many years after partition, the two nations are still trying to heal the wounds left behind. The two countries began their independence with ruined economies and lands without an established, experienced system of government. They lost many of their most dynamic leaders, such as Gandhi, Jinnah and Allama Iqbal, soon after the partition. Pakistan later endured the independence of Bangladesh, once East Pakistan, in 1971. India and Pakistan have been to war multiple times since the partition and they are still deadlocked over the issue of possession of Kashmir.


1600: British East India Company is established.

1857: The Indian Mutiny or The First War of Independence.

1858: The India Act: power transferred to British Government.

1885: Indian National Congress founded by A. O. Hume to unite all Indians and strengthen bonds with Britain.

1905: First Partition of Bengal for administrative purposes. Gives the Muslims a majority in that state.

1906: All India Muslim League founded to promote Muslim political interests.

1909: Revocation of Partition of Bengal. Creates anti-British and anti-Hindu sentiments among Muslims as they lose their majority in East Bengal.

1916: Lucknow Pact. The Congress and the League unite in demand for greater self-government. It is denied by the British.

1919: Rowlatt Acts, or black acts passed over opposition by Indian members of the Supreme Legislative Council. These were peacetime extensions of wartime emergency measures. Their passage causes further disaffection with the British and leads to protests. Amritsar Massacre. General Dyer opens fire on 20,000 unarmed Indian civilians at a political demonstration against the Rowlatt Acts. Congress and the League lose faith in the British.

1919-Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (implemented in 1921). A step to self-government in India within the Empire, with greater provincialisation, based on a dyarchic principle in provincial government as well as administrative responsibility. Communal representation institutionalised for the first time as reserved legislative seats are allocated for significant minorities.

1920: Gandhi launches a non-violent, non-cooperation movement, or Satyagraha, against the British for a free India.

1922: Twenty-one policemen are killed by Congress supporters at Chauri-Chaura. Gandhi suspends non-cooperation movement and is imprisoned.

1928: Simon Commission, set up to investigate the Indian political environment for future policy-making, fails as all parties boycott it.

1929: Congress calls for full independence.

1930: Dr. Allama Iqbal, a poet-politician, calls for a separate homeland for the Muslims at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League. Gandhi starts Civil Disobedience Movement against the Salt Laws by which the British had a monopoly over production and sale of salt.

1930-31: The Round Table conferences, set up to consider Dominion status for India. They fail because of non-attendance by the Congress and because Gandhi, who does attend, claims he is the only representative of all of India.

1931: Irwin-Gandhi Pact, which concedes to Gandhi’s demands at the Round Table conferences and further isolates Muslim League from the Congress and the British.

1932: Third Round Table Conference boycotted by Muslim League. Gandhi re-starts civil disobedience. Congress is outlawed by the British and its leaders.

1935: Government of India Act: proposes a federal India of political provinces with elected local governments but British control over foreign policy and defense.

1937: Elections. Congress is successful in gaining majority.

1939: Congress ministries resign.

1940: Jinnah calls for establishment of Pakistan in an independent and partitioned India.

1942: Cripps Mission to India, to conduct negotiations between all political parties and to set up a cabinet government. Congress adopts Quit India Resolution, to rid India of British rule. Congress leaders arrested for obstructing war effort.

1942-43: Muslim League gains more power: ministries formed in Sindh, Bengal and North-West Frontier Province and greater influence in the Punjab.

1944: Gandhi released from prison. Unsuccessful Gandhi-Jinnah talks, but Muslims see this as an acknowledgment that Jinnah represents all Indian Muslims.

1945: The new Labour Government in Britain decides India is strategically indefensible and begins to prepare for Indian independence. Direct Action Day riots convince British that Partition is inevitable.

1946: Muslim League participates in Interim Government that is set up according to the Cabinet Mission Plan.

1947: Announcement of Lord Mountbatten’s plan for partition of India, 3 June. Partition of India and Pakistan, 15 August. Radcliffe Award of boundaries of the nations, 16 August.

1971: East Pakistan separates from West Pakistan and Bangladesh is born.

Literature and Film Dealing with the Partition of India

  • Bhalla, Alok, ed. Stories About the Partition of India. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1994.
  • Desai, Anita. Clear Light of Day. New York: Penguin, 1980.
  • Garam Hawa (“Hot Air”). Dir. M.S. Sathyu. Unit 3 MM, 1973.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Kesavan, Mukul. Looking Through Glass. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995.
  • Manto, Sadaat Hassan. Best of Manto. Ed. and Trans. Jai Ratan. Lahore: Vanguard, 1990.
  • Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin, 1991.
  • Sahni, Bhisham. Tamas. New Delhi: Panguin, 1974.
  • Sidhwa, Bapsi. Cracking India. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991.
  • Singh, Khushwant. Train to Pakistan. New York: Grove Press, 1956.

Print Sources

  • Azad, Maulana Abul Kalam. India Wins Freedom. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1960.
  • Hasan, Mushirul, ed. India’s Partition: Process, Strategy, and Mobilization. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
  • Kanitkar, V.P. The Partition of India. East Sussex: Wayland, 1987.
  • Lord Birdwood. India and Pakistan: A Continent Decides. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1954.
  • Philips and Wainwright, eds. The Partition of India: Policies and Perspectives 1935-1947. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1970.
  • Sharma, Kamalesh. Role of Muslims in Indian Politics (1857-1947). New Delhi: Inter India, 1985.

Author: Shirin Keen, Spring 1998
Last edited: July 2012

Museums and Colonial Exhibitions

The tradition of exhibiting people of color in Western societies has existed since the earliest encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations in the New World and in Africa. Indeed, on his return to Spain after his first voyage to the New World in 1492, Columbus brought several Arawaks to Queen Isabella’s court, where one of them remained on display for two years. Exhibiting non-white bodies as a popular practice reached its apogee in the nineteenth century in both Europe and in the United States when freak shows — the exhibition of native peoples for public entertainment in circuses, zoos, and museums — became fairly common. In the United States, in particular, the spectacle of “freaks,” “natives,” and “savages” became a profitable industry at this time, as epitomized in popular traveling shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. World Expositions were also popular for the display of native bodies. During the expositions “natives” performed various ceremonies, rites, dances, and otherwise went about their (supposed) daily routines (even though they were on the exposition grounds). In other words, cultural “others” were employed to perform their “cultural otherness” for an Anglo-American and European audience. Up to the mid-twentieth century displays of this sort continued.

Live exhibitions were not the only forms of human spectacle; often the dissected and embalmed remains of the “native” body, particularly the skulls, and sexual organs, were also publicly exhibited. Trophy heads, body parts, and other skeletal remains still reside in the collections of many Western museums, like The British Museum and La Musée de l’Homme, France. As recently as 1997, a small natural history museum just outside of Barcelona finally removed a stuffed Bushman from its permanent display cases, only after sustained international pressure to do so. The incident strongly suggests that European fascination with exhibiting non-white bodies is not a phenomenon of the distant past.

Saarjite Baartman/ The Hottentot Venus

Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is perhaps the most infamous case of a Khosian body on display. Baartman, who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship’s surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman’s steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her physique, particularly her steatopygic appendage, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman’s public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor.

The spectacle of Baartman’s body, however, continued even after her death at the age of twenty-six. Pseudo-scientists interested in investigating “primitive sexuality” dissected and cast her genitals in wax. Baartman, as far as we know, was the first person of Khosian-descent to be dismembered and displayed in this manner. Anatomist Georges Curvier presented Baartman’s dissected labia before the Academie Royale de Medecine, in order to allow them “to see the nature of the labia” (Gilman 235).  Curvier and his contemporaries concluded that Baartman’s oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women’s “primitive sexual appetite.” Baartman’s genitalia continued to be exhibited at La Musée de l’Homme, the institution to which Curvier belonged, long after her death.

Drawing of Saartje Baartman

Drawing of Saartje Baartman/Public Domain

This introduction to the history of human displays of people of color demonstrates that cultural difference and “otherness” were visually observed on the “native” body, whether in live human exhibitions or in dissected body parts on public display. Both forms of spectacle often served to promote Western colonial domination by configuring non-white cultures as being in need of discipline, civilization, and industry.

Works Cited

  • Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” Race,  Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Chicago, 1986.
  • Hinsley, Curtis. “The World as Marketplace: Commodification of the Exotic at the World’s Colombian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.” Exhibiting Cultures. Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
  • Ugwu, Catherine. Ed. Let’s Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1995.
  • Wallace, Michelle. “Modernism, Postmodern and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Ed. Russell Ferguson. 39-50.

Author: Krista A. Thompson, Spring 1998
Last edited: June 2012

Hodge, Merle


Merle Hodge was born in 1944, in Curepe, Trinidad, the daughter of an immigration officer. She received both her elementary and high school education in Trinidad, and as a student of Bishop Anstey’s High School, she won the Trinidad and Tobago Girls Island Scholarship in 1962. The scholarship allowed her to attend University College, London, where she pursued studies in French. In 1965 she completed her B.A. Hons. and received a Master of Philosophy degree in 1967, the focus of which concerned the poetry of the French Guyanese writer, Leon Damas. Hodge did quite a bit of traveling after obtaining her degree, working as a typist and baby-sitter to make ends meet. She spent much time in France and Denmark but visited many other countries in both Eastern and Western Europe. After returning to Trinidad in the early 1970s, she taught French for a short time at the junior secondary level. She then received a lecturing position in the French Department at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. At UWI she also began the pursuit of a Ph.D. in French Caribbean Literature. In 1979 Maurice Bishop became prime minister of Grenada, and Hodge went there to work with the Bishop regime. She was appointed director of the development of curriculum, and it was her job to develop and install a socialist education program. Hodge had to leave Grenada in 1983 because of the assassination of Bishop and the resulting U.S. invasion. Hodge is currently working in Women and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. She primarily participates in and facilitates creative writing workshops She has retired from lecturing.


Crick Crack, Monkey book cover

Crick Crack, Monkey, 1970

To date, Merle Hodge has written two novels: Crick Crack, Monkey and The Life of Laetitia (1993). The Life of Laetitia is the story of a young Caribbean girl’s first year at school away from home. Crick Crack, Monkey (1970) concerns the conflicts and changes a young girl, Tee, faces as she switches from a rural Trinidadian existence with her Aunt Tantie to an urban, anglicized existence with her Aunt Beatrice. With Tee as narrator, Hodge guides the reader through an intensely personal study of the effects of the colonial imposition of various social and cultural values on the Trinidadian female. Tee recounts the various dilemmas in her life in such a way that it is often difficult to separate the voice of the child, experiencing, from the voice of the woman, reminiscing; in this manner, Hodge broadens the scope of the text considerably. Hodge has also published various essays concerning life in the Caribbean and the life and works of Leon Damas, including a translation of Damas’ collection of poetry, Pigments.

Works by Merle Hodge (including criticism)

  • Hodge, Merle. “Beyond Negritude: The Love Poems.” Critical Perspectives on Leon Gontran Damas, ed. Keith Warner. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1988.
  • —. “Challenges of the Struggle for Sovereignty: Changing the World versus Writing Stories.” Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. 202-08.
  • —. Crick Crack, Monkey. Andre Deutsch, 1970; London: Heinemann, 1981; Paris: Karthala, 1982 (trans. Alice Asselos-Cherdieu).
  • —. “The Folktales of Bernard Dadie.” Black Images: A Critical Quarterly on Black Arts and Culture 3:3 (1974), 57-63.
  • —. For the Life of Laetitia. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.
  • —. “Novels on the French Caribbean Intellectual in France.” Revista Review Interamericana 6 (1976): 211-31.
  • —. “The Shadow of the Whip: A Comment on Male-Female Relations in the Caribbean.” Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods in the Caribbean, ed. Orde Coombs. New York: Anchor Books, 1974, 111-18.
  • —. “Social Conscience or Exoticism? Two Novels from Guadalupe.” Revista Review Interamericana 4 (1974): 391-401.
  • —. “Young Women and the Development of Stable Family Life in the Caribbean.” Savacou 13 (Gemini 1977): 39-44.

Works about Merle Hodge

  • Balutansky, Kathleen. “We are All Activists: An Interview with Merle Hodge.” Callaloo 12:4 (Fall 1989): 651-62.
  • Brown, Wayne. “Growing up in Colonial Trinidad.” Sunday Guardian (Trinidad) (June 28, 1970): 6, 17.
  • Cobham, Rhonda. “Revisioning Our Kumblas: Transforming Feminist and Nationalist Agendas in Three Caribbean Women’s Texts.” Callaloo 16:1 (Winter 1993): 44- 64.
  • Gikandi, Simon. “Narration in the Post-Colonial Moment: Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey.” Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post- Modernism, ed. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, 13-22.
  • Harvey, Elizabeth. Review of Crick Crack Monkey. World Literature Written in English (April 1971): 87.
  • Japtok, Martin.”Two Postcolonial Childhoods: Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey and Simi Bedford’s Yoruba Girl Dancing”. Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 6:1-2 (Fall 2001).
  • Zonana, Joyce. “Tee,’ ‘Cyn-Cyn,’ ‘Cynthia,’ ‘Dou-Dou’: Remembering and Forgetting the ‘True-True Name’ in Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey“.  Middle Passages and the Healing Place of History: Migration and Identity in Black Women’s Literature. Ed. Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP; 2006. pp. 139-54.
  • Kemp, Yakini. “Woman and Womanchild: Bonding and Selfhood in Three West Indian Novels.” SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 2:1 (Spring 1985): 24-27.
  • Lawrence, Leota S. “Three West Indian Heroines: An Analysis.” CLA Journal 21 (December 1977): 238-50.
  • Meehan, Kevin. “Romance and Revolution: Reading Women’s Narratives of Caribbean Decolonization”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 25: 2 (Fall 2006) 291-306.
  • Thomas, Ena V. “Crick Crack Monkey: A Picaresque Perspective.” Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, ed. Selwyn Cudjoe. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990, 209-14.
  • Thorpe, Marjorie. “The Problem of Cultural Identification in Crick Crack Monkey.” Savacou 13 (Gemini 1977): 31-38.

Author: Stefan Pinsky, Fall 1996
Last edited: June 2012

Conway, Jill Ker


Jill Ker Conway Speaking

Image by apgroner/CC Licensed

Jill Ker Conway was born in Hillston, New South Wales, Australia in 1934. She resided in the Australian outback until the death of her father in 1945. At that time, Conway, her mother, and two brothers moved to Sydney, an industrious seaport city. Conway received most of her education in the neighboring private schools and university. She graduated from the University Of Sydney in 1958, after having dropped out for some time due to financial and emotional reasons. In 1960 she moved to the United States and received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1969. Conway taught at the University Of Toronto from 1964 to 1975, serving as Vice President from 1973 to 1975. She became the first woman president of Smith College in Massachusetts in 1975. Following Conway’s ten year administration, she has received sixteen honorary doctorates from numerous other colleges and universities around the nation. Her success and personal definition are shaped by her childhood experiences and are detailed in her autobiography, The Road from Coorain. She is currently a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004 she was designated a Women’s History Month honoree by the National Women’s History Project.

The Road from Coorain

The Road from Coorain is an account of Conway’s journey from the rural Australian outback to the urban metropolis in Australia and then to the United States. Conway describes growing up in a house, named “Coorain”(which is an aboriginal word for “windy place”), with her mother, father, and two older brothers. The family endures several hardships, including the death of her father and one of her brothers. A devastating five-year drought causes the family’s business to fail and forces the remaining members of her family to relocate to Sydney. This misfortune shapes Conway’s character and development because she learns to overcome that adversity.

Road From Coorain book cover

Road From Coorain, 1990

Conway’s autobiography describes her intellectual development and her realization of the ways in which society suppresses women. For instance, Conway describes her experience in applying for a prestigious trainee-ship with the Department of External Affairs (the equivalent of foreign service) while she is at the University Of Sydney; she is denied a position because of her gender. She states, “I could scarcely believe that my refusal was because I was a woman” (191). In addition to gender bias, Conway addresses the irrelevance of the education the British provided during their postcolonial rule of Australia. After she visits Britain, she realizes the true beauty of the Australian landscape and credits it with being a crucial factor in defining who she is. However, she admits that the British-imposed educational system in Australia ultimately fails her when she states, “I had come to an intellectual dead end in Australia”(233). For this reason, and to escape her mother’s attempt to thwart her ambition, Conway decides to pursue her graduate studies at Harvard University in the United States.

Jill Ker Conway stated in an interview for The New York Times, that her purpose in writing is, “to communicate to people very directly about the authenticity of women’s motivation for work, about how a person strives to find some creative expression. The moral of my mother’s life was that while she had challenging work, she was indomitable and when she didn’t, she fell apart. “It’s very much the vogue to talk about women as developing their moral consciousness through a connectedness to mother, but I think that’s misleading. My book is deliberately a story of separation- of independence and breaking away”.

British Influence in Australia

One of the issues that elicits strong emotions in Conway is the British influence in Australia. She is considered a postcolonial writer, which raises other issues concerning the term “postcolonial.” Richard Lever and James Wieland discuss the role of post-colonialism in Australian literature in their bibliography, Postcolonial Literatures in English: “The term ‘post-colonial’–in practice often used synonymously with ‘New Literatures in English’ and ‘Third World Literatures’–emerged in the late seventies as a counter to the hegemonic and universalizing implications of the traditional categories ‘Dominion’ and ‘Commonwealth’ literature, which implicitly privilege the British imperial ‘Center’ and grant authority status to its literary and cultural traditions. Post-colonialism acknowledges, indeed insists upon, the fact that literatures of the nations and territories affected by British imperialism remain engaged with British traditions” (ix).

In Her Own Words

Jill Conway chose the autobiographical format because autobiographies provide the ability to hear “the voice” of the author. In her anthology Written by Herself, Conway states: “Autobiographies by women excite particular interest today, because three important trends in late-twentieth-century culture intersect to heighten the resonance of this form of narrative. The rise of democracy has enlarged the focus of interest in the lives of other people-from monarch, great general, and political leader to the ordinary person -someone like ourselves. And, as feminists have insisted that battles for power, authenticity, moral stature, and survival occur as fiercely within the domestic as in the public arena of life, what was once seen as placidly domestic now offers the reader a world charged with great issues.”

Additional Works by Jill Ker Conway

  • A Woman’s Education. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  2001.
  • “Forward.” Women on Power: Leadership Redefined. Ed. Sue J.M. Freeman, Susan C. Bourque and Christine M. Shelton. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
  • -Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Humanistic Studies of the Environment. Ed. Jill Ker Conway, Kenneth Keniston and Leo Marx. Boston: University of Massachusetts, 1999.
  • -– Conway, Jill Ker, Clare Munnings and Elizabeth Topham Kennan. Overnight Float. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  • -In Her Own Words: Women’s Memoirs from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. New York: Vintage, 1999.
  • -When Memory Speaks. New York: Vintage, 1998.
  • -Modern Feminism: An Intellectual History. New York: Knopf, 1997.
  • —. Written by Herself, Volumes I and II. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. An anthology of the ever-changing statuses of women throughout history. It provides a firsthand account by women from different cultures and time periods (1800-present).
  • —Conway, Jill Ker. True North: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1994. A continuation of The Road from Coorain, this sequel traces Conway’s journey from Harvard, to her marriage, to her assumption of the presidency of Smith College in 1975.
  • —. The Politics of Women’s Education. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. An international collection of works by women, addressing the changes that have occurred in women’s education in many countries throughout the world. The collection deals with issues women face and how they react to them.
  • —. Learning About Women. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1989. A collection of works by several different writers that provide an analysis of the shifting status of women in various parts of the world.
  • —. The First Generation of American Women Graduates. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987. Conway’s published thesis that she presented to the Harvard Department of History to receive her doctorate in American History.
  • —. Utopian Dream or Dystopian Nightmare? Nineteenth Century Feminist Ideas About Equality. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1987.
  • —. The Female Experience in 18th and 19th Century America: A Guide to the History of American Women. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982.
  • —. Women Reformers and American Culture: 1870-1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971-2.
  • —.  “Merchants and Merinos.” Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 46, part 4, 1960, pp 206-223.
  • —. Modern Feminism: An Intellectual History. New York: Knopf , 1977.

Selected Bibliography

  • Conway, Jill. The Road from Coorain. New York: Knopf. 1989.
  • —. Learning About Women. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 1989.
  • Heron, Kim. “Importance of Work for Women.” The New York Times Book Review. May 7, 1989. 3.
  • Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “The Call of the Wind and the Kookaburra.” The New York Times Book Review. May 7, 1989. 3.
  • Lever, Richard, James Wieland, and Scott Findlay. Post Colonial Literatures in English. New York: G.K. Hall & Co. 1996.

Author: Maryann Rose, Fall 1997
Last edited: May 2012

Schreiner, Olive

Biographical Overview

Photo of Schreiner

Image by Paul Venter/Public Domain

On March 24, 1855, Olive Emilie Albertina was born the ninth of twelve children to Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner. Her German father and English mother, both missionaries in South Africa, provided a household grounded in a strict Calvinist tradition. Gottlob Schreiner’s failures in mission work as well as a number of businesses prompted chronic financial insecurity which led to the family’s eventual disunion and, significantly, Schreiner’s separation from her parents at the age of twelve. After studying at her brother’s school in Cradock for three years, Schreiner began working as a governess, an occupation she pursued for eleven years. As a child, she exhibited her precocity, challenging her parents’ deep religious devotion and the family’s deep religious roots. Her intellect was further developed during her tenure as a governess, as she studied the works of a wide array of prominent Victorian intellectuals, wrote a considerable number of her own short stories, and began to develop her own social ideas–ideas that would eventually brand her as a Victorian revolutionist. During this eight-year period as a governess, Schreiner saved enough to buy herself passage to England, where she hoped to study medicine.

In 1881 Schreiner arrived in England, abandoned her initial aspirations of becoming a medical doctor because of her own poor health, and, for the second time, sought publication of her book, The Story of an African Farm. Chapman and Hall’s acceptance of the novel in 1883 marked a landmark in Schreiner’s career as a novelist and later, as a social activist. The novel’s immediate success, which persisted throughout her lifetime, provided her acceptance among a group of revolutionary and, at the time, infamous thinkers. Thereafter, Schreiner began to associate with a distinguished group of intellectuals, not only exposing herself to England’s literary and intellectual élite, but introducing and expounding her own social ideas as well.

She returned to South Africa in 1889 and met her husband, Samuel Cronwright, three years later. After meeting Cronwright and before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, Schreiner suffered the loss of her first child (a tragedy that emerges prominently in her later fiction) and published a considerable number of fictional pieces as well as political essays. Schreiner’s intellectual role escalated to that of an outspoken, often revolutionary political leader. Her political and literary work included tracts opposing Cecil Rhodes‘ colonialist activities in Africa as well as England’s involvement in the Anglo-Boer War. Her political activism in the twentieth century included further polemical writing, her participation in women’s suffrage groups, and a stalwart pacifistic stance against the outbreak of World War I.

Undoubtedly, scholarly treatment of Schreiner’s fiction during the last twenty years has undermined her political writings considerably. Quite simply, Schreiner’s fiction lacks the straightforwardness of her political writing and reveals her own ambivalence towards native South Africans. As a result, criticism of her fiction ranges from sympathy to disdain.Whereas critics such as Joyce Avrech Berkman in The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner provide relatively sympathetic frameworks, emphasizing the revolutionary, anti-imperialist nature of Schreiner’s fiction, critics such as Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather underscore Schreiner’s negative representation of natives as indicative of an inherent contradiction, which blemishes the novelist’s work. Regardless of such critical discourse, Schreiner’s life and writing provide invaluable exposure to both the latter stages of the colonialist movement in South Africa and one vigilant woman’s discourse, however ambivalent, against late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century imperialism, war, and oppression of women.

A Chronology of Olive Schreiner

1855 24 March: born at Wittebergen, Basutoland. Christened Olive Emilie Albertina, the ninth child of Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Schreiner née Lyndall, missionaries first sponsored in South Africa by the London Missionary Society.

1866 Gottlob Schreiner declared insolvent. Family disperses.

1867 Joins older brother Theo and attends his school at Cradock.

1870 Works for cousin at Lily Hope, Avoca, in first position as a governess.

1871 Meets free-thinking Willie Bertram at Hermon mission station. Reads his copy of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles which confirms her agnosticism. Her asthma attacks begin at around this time. Schreiner announces that she is to be called “Olive,” not “Emilie” any more.

1872 Briefly engaged to Julius Gau, a representative of a Swiss insurance company, whom Schreiner met through the Robinsons’ network of free-thinkers. Joins her older brother Theo and older sister Ettie at the diamond-fields at New Rush (later know as Kimberley). Teaches children of local diggers. Starts Undine and short stories.

1874 Purchases Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays.

1875 Undine nearly completed. Reading John Stuart Mill’s Logic. Teaching at the Fouches at Klein Ganna Hoek farm near Cradock.

1876 Father dies. Based at Ratel Hoek near Tarkastad. Reading Goethe and Montaigne.

1879 Works for the Cawoods at Ganna Hoek. Early version of African Farm complete.

1880 Sends manuscript of African Farm to the Browns in England. Publisher turns it down. Works on suggested revisions.

1881 Travels to England. Enrols as a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary but has to give up after several days because of ill-health. Seeks publisher for African Farm.

1883 Chapman and Hall accept African Farm on the recommendation of a reader’s report by the eminent novelist, George Meredith. Published in two volumes in January, the novel proves as immediate success, and a
second edition quickly follows. Fifteen editions will appear in Schreiner’s lifetime.

1884 Meets the sexologist Havelock Ellis and forms very close friendship with him.

1885 Participates in the radical Men and Women’s Club convened by the free-thinking Karl Pearson, to whom Schreiner is strongly drawn. Meets the radical socialist and homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter through the Fellowship of the New Life. George Moore, Irish exponent of naturalism in the novel, proposes to her; Schreiner declines him.

1886 Intellectual relationship with Pearson breaks down. Suffers mental and physical collapse. Leaves England for Europe. Still working on From Man to Man. Bryan Donkin, physician to many radical intellectuals, proposes to her; Schreiner declines him.

1887 Seeks publisher for her collection of allegorical and visionary writings.

1889 Meets the “decadent” and “symbolist” poet and critic Arthur Symons. Returns to South Africa in October.

1890 Begins series of periodical essays on South Africa (collected posthumously in 1923). Meets Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town.

1891 Dreams published.

1892 Meets Samuel “Cron” Cronwright, an ostrich farmer. Working on further allegories, including “The Buddhist Priest’s Wife.”

1893 Visits friends and family in England. Dream Life and Real Life published.

1894 Marries Cronwright. He, unusually, takes her name. Asthma attacks severe during summer months, forcing the newly-weds to leave for the better climate of Kimberley.

1895 Baby dies shortly after birth. No less than six miscarriages will follow.

1896 Publishes (with Cronwright-Schreiner) The Political Situation.

1897 Travels to England to publish fictional attack on Rhodes, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.

1898 Moves to Johannesburg.

1899 Outbreak of second Anglo-Boer War. Publishes her pro-Boer anti-war tract, An English South African’s View of the Situation, causing offence to her brother Will, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

1900 Prominent in the women’s protest movement in the Cape. Living under martial law in Hanover.

1902 Working on Woman and Labour, From Man to Man, and several stories, including “Eighteen -Ninety-Nine.”

1903 Mother, a Roman Catholic convert, dies.

1906 Publishes pamphlet, Letter on the Jew.

1908 Supports South African federation. Letter on women’s suffrage appears in Cape Times.

1909 Publishes Closer Union in London. Supports Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement.

1911 Publishes Woman and Labour in London.

1913 Vice-President of Women’s Enfranchisement League at Kalk Bay. Resigns because the League wants only white women to vote. Sails for England.

1914 Schreiner traveling in Germany at the outbreak of the First World War. Goes to London. Begins work on pacifist tract, The Dawn of Civilisation (fragments published posthumously in Stories, Dreams, and Allegories.

1916 Publishes pacifist propaganda in Labour Leader.

1919 Suffering from depression.

1920 Cronwright-Schreiner travels to England after separation of five years. Returns to South Africa. Olive dies of heart failure on 10 December at Wynberg.

1923 Stories, Dreams, and Allegories and Thoughts on South Africa published.

1924 Cronwright-Schreiner edits The Life of Olive Schreiner and The Letters of Olive Schreiner 1870-1920.

1926 From Man to Man published.

1929 Undine published.


Primary Texts

  • Barash, Carol L., ed. An Olive Schreiner Reader. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1987.
  • Draznin, Yaffa Claire, ed. My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.
  • Krige, Uys, ed. Olive Schreiner: A Selection. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
  • Schreiner, Olive. A Track to the Water’s Edge. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
  • —. Dream Life and Real Life. London: T. F. Unwin, 1893.
  • —. Dreams. Boston: Little, 1910.
  • —. Letters. 5 vols. Ed. Richard Rive. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • —. The Letters of Olive Schreiner. Ed. S. C. Cronwright- Schreiner. Westport: Hyperion Press, 1976.
  • —. From Man to Man. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.
  • —. So Then There Are Dreams. New York: The Roycroft Shop, 1901.
  • —. Thoughts on South Africa. New York: F. A. Stokes, 1923.
  • —. Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897.
  • —. Undine. New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1972.
  • —. Woman and Labor. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1911.

Secondary Materials

  • Albinski, Nan Bowman. “‘The Law of Justice, of Nature, and of Right: ‘Victorian Feminist Utopias.” Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones, et al. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990.
  • Barash, Carol L. “Virile Womanhood: Olive Schreiner’s Narratives ofa Master Race.” Speaking of Gender. Ed. Elain Showalter. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Barsby, Christine. “Olive Schreiner: Towards a Redefinition of Culture.”Pretexts 1.1 (1989): 18-39.
  • Beeton, D. R. Facets of Olive Schreiner. Craighall: Donker, 1987.
  • Berkman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989.
  • Bolin, Bill. “Olive Schreiner and the Status Quo.” Unisa English Studies 31.1 (1993): 4-8.
  • Bradford, Helen. “Olive Schreiner’s Hidden Agony: Fact, Fiction and Teenage Abortion.” Journal of South African Studies 21.4 (1995):623-41.
  • Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner: Hidden Motives. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995.
  • Clayton, Cherry. “Forms of Dependence and Control in Olive Schreiner’s Fiction.” Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern vanWyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Life into Fiction.” English in Africa 12.1 (1985): 29-39.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Paradoxical Pioneer.” Women and Writing in South Africa: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Cherry Clayton. Marshalltown: Heinemann Southern Africa, 1989.
  • —. “Women Writers and the Law of the Father: Race and Gender in the Fiction of Olive Schreiner, Pauline Smith and Sarah Gertrude Millin.” English Academy Review 7 (1990): 99-117.
  • Coetzee, J. M. “Farm Novel and Plaasroman in South Africa.” English in Africa 13.2 (1986): 1-19.
  • Cronwright-Schreiner, S. C. The Life of Olive Schreiner. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1924.
  • Davenport, Rodney. “Olive Schreiner and South African Politics.”Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern van Wyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • Donaldson, Laura E. “(ex)Changing (wo)Man: Towards a Materialist-Feminist Semiotics. Cultural Critique 11 (1988- 89): 5-23.
  • First, Ruth. Olive Schreiner. New York: Schocken Books, 1980.
  • Gorak, Irene E. “Olive Schreiner’s Colonial Allegory: The Story of an African Farm.” Ariel 23.4 (1992): 53-72.
  • Horton, Susan R. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
  • Jacob, Susan. “Sharers in a Common Hell: The Colonial Text in Schreiner, Conrad, and Lessing.” The Literary Criterion 23.4 (1988): 84-92.
  • Lenta, Margaret. “Racism, Sexism, and Olive Schreiner’s Fiction.”Theoria 70 (1987): 15-30.
  • Lerner, Laurence. “Olive Schreiner and the Feminists.” Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern van Wyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • McMurry, Andrew. “Figures in a Ground: An Ecofeminist Study of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.” English Studies in Canada 20.4 (1994): 431-48.
  • Monsman, Gerald. “Olive Schreiner’s Allegorical Vision.” Victorian Review 18.2 (1992): 49-62.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Literature and the Politics of Power.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30.4 (1988): 583- 610.
  • —. Olive Schreiner’s Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.
  • —. “Writing the Self on the Imperial Frontier: Olive Schreiner and the Stories of Africa.” Bucknell Review 37.1 (1993): 134-55.
  • Paxton, Nancy L. “The Story of an African Farm and the Dynamics of Woman-to-Woman Influences.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30.4 (1988): 562-82.
  • Pechey, Graham. “The Story of an African Farm: Colonial History and the Discontinuous Text.” Critical Arts 3.1 (1983): 65- 78.
  • Scherzinger, Karen. “The Problem of the Pure Woman: South African Pastorialism and Female Rites of Passage.” Unisa English Studies 29.2 (1991): 29-35.
  • Steele, Murray. “A Humanist Bible: Gender Roles, Sexuality and Race in Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man.” Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature.Ed. Christopher Parker. Hants: Scolar, 1995.
  • Winkler, Barbara Scott. “Victorian Daughters: The Lives and Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G.R. Hall, 1992.

Author: Daniel Alig, Fall 1996

Last edited: June 2012

Schwarz-Bart, Simone


Simone Schwarz-Bart is an internationally known writer in the company of Guadeloupean novelists Maryse Condé and Myriam Warner-Vieyra. Born in 1938 in the French West Indies to a teacher and military man, Schwarz-Bart studied in Pointe-á-Pitre, Paris and Dakar. Her four novels have each achieved laudatory reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Times, Présence Africaine, Figaro Littéraire, The French Review, Savacou, Nouvelle Revue Française, The New Yorker, and many others in the United States and abroad. Her oeuvre lucidly narrates the harsh realities Caribbean women endure in the clutches of slavery and colonization. Publication of her six-volume work, Hommage à la Femme Noire (In Praise of Women of Color) in 1989, testifies to her lifelong commitment to unearthing the unknown history and culture of black women of the diaspora. In her lifetime, Schwarz-Bart has lived in France, Africa, and Switzerland. She currently resides in both Lausanne, France and Guadeloupe.

The Schwarz-Bart Partnership

Last of the Just, 1960

Last of the Just, 1960

When she was eighteen and a student in Paris, Simone met writer André Schwarz-Bart. They married in 1961 and, two years later, he won the Prix Goncourt for Le Dernier Des Justes (The Last of the Just). A Polish Jew, André Schwarz-Bart lost both of his parents during the Holocaust. The Last of the Just charts the history of one Jewish family since the year 1000. Both deeply politically committed, the couple began a stunning creative collaboration which resulted in two first-class historical novels, Un Plat de Porc aux Bananes Vertes (A Plate of Pork With Green Bananas) and La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Well-received by critics, A Plate of Pork with Green Bananas recounts a Martinican woman’s alienation from French society and her search for her lost Caribbean identity. Elderly and disabled, Mariotte spends her final days in a Paris asylum for the aged as she revisits her past.

In their second collaboration, the couple continue to revisit history from the perspective of a woman of color. Reconstructing the events of one slave woman’s existence in the late eighteenth century, La Mulâtresse Solitude portrays Solitude’s disturbing encounters during colonial slavery in Guadeloupe. Critics often attribute full authorship of this novel to André Schwarz-Bart, not always giving equal credit to Simone. In her essay on La Mulâtresse Solitude, Charlotte Bruner acknowledges this collaboration as she points to the work’s publication history. In its publicity, Simone is mentioned as a collaborator who is part of the couple’s shared purpose of “telling the history of Guadeloupe in a cycle of novels of historic reconstruction.” However, the Seuil edition names only her husband. When it was translated into English the year of its original publication, Simone finally attained credit as co-author. Simone is further attributed credit in Donald Herdeck’s Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographic Critical Encyclopedia. Mention of the joint authorship of Solitude also appears in Le Dernier des Justes, in the list of André Schwarz-Bart’s forthcoming works. The publisher note reads “in collaboration with his wife, Simone, André Schwarz-Bart has embarked on publication of a sequel in the form of a novel” (Bruner 238). To date, no studies exist which consider the Schwarz-Bart partnership in depth.

Major Themes

In her later novels and one-act play, Ton Bon Capitaine (Your Handsome Captain), Schwarz-Bart weaves the multiple locations and languages of her heritage as she constructs a matrilineal narrative of Guadeloupean women’s identities. Publishing widely beyond the two novels she and her husband composed together, her first solo act, when it first appeared in 1972, enjoyed critical acclaim and was later translated into twelve languages. The story of three generations of Guadeloupean women, Pluie et Vent sur Telumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond), is hailed by critics for its lyrical examination of exile as it doubly impacts the lives of West Indian women. Her fourth novel, Ti Jean L’Horizon (Between Two Worlds), fuses magical realism with science fiction in its depiction of a legendary Guadeloupean folk hero. As with all of her fiction, her play Ton Beau Capitaine dramatizes the unyielding trauma of exile and the subtleties of patriarchal domination. Inspired by her grandmother’s wisdom and integrity, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s unforgettable women characters use the power of expression to combat the abuses of racial and sexual domination.


  • Schwarz-Bart, Simone. “An Author’s Perspective on Her Own Creation: Reflections of Simone Schwarz-Bart on Her Novel Pluie et Vent Sur Télumée Miracle.”  BIM 18. 71 (December 1987): 27-35.
  • —. Hommage à la Femme Noire (In Praise of Women of Color). Paris: Éditions Consulaires, 1989.
  • —. La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Paris: Seuil, 1972.
  • —. Pluie et Vent sur Télumée Miracle (The Bridge of Beyond). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1972.
  • —. Ti Jean L’Horizon (Between Two Worlds). Paris: Seuil, 1979.
  • —. Ton Beau Capitaine (Your Handsome Captain). Paris: Seuil, 1987.
  • —. Un Plat de Porc aux Bananes Vertes (A Plate of Pork With Green Bananas). Paris: Seuil, 1967.


  • Bruner, Charlotte. “A Caribbean Madness: Half Slave and Half Free.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 11.2 (1984): 236-48.
  • Busia, Abena P.A. “This Gift of Metaphor: Symbolic Strategies and the Triumph of Survival in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond.” Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Eds. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido.  Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990. 289-301.
  • Black Literature Criticism Supplement. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.
  • Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from “Contemporary Authors.” Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
  • Herdeck, Donald, ed. Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia. Washington: Three Continents Press, 1979.
  • Karamcheti, Indira. “The Geographics of Marginality: Place and Textuality in Simone Schwarz-Bart and Anita Desai.” Feminist Explorations of Literary Space.  Eds. Margaret R. Higonnet and Joan Templeton. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. 125-146.
  • McKinney, Kitzie.  “Memory, Voice, and Metaphor in the Works of Simone Schwarz-Bart.” Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers. Eds. Mary Jean Green, Karen Gould, Micheline Rice-Maximin, Keith L. Walker, and Jack A. Yeager. Minneapolis/ London: University Minnesota Press, 1996. 22-41.
  • Robinson, Lillian. Modern Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1996.

Author: Michelle Hunter, Spring 2000

Last edited: June 2012

Third World and Third World Women

What geographical regions constitute the Third World? Who are Third World women? Who defines and writes about the terms “Third World” and “Third World Women”? The answers to the above questions are important to both postcolonial studies and feminist studies.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak explains that the term “Third World” was initially coined in 1955 by those emerging from the “old” world order:

The initial attempt in the Bandung Conference (1955) to establish a third way — neither with the Eastern nor within the Western bloc — in the world system, in response to the seemingly new world order established after the Second World War, was not accompanied by a commensurate intellectual effort. The only idioms deployed for the nurturing of this nascent Third World in the cultural field belonged then to positions emerging from resistance within the supposedly ‘old’ world order — anti-imperialism, and/or nationalism (270).

Kum Kum Sangari argues that the term “Third World” not only designates specific geographical areas, but imaginary spaces. According to Sangari, “Third World” is “a term that both signifies and blurs the functioning of an economic, political, and imaginary geography able to unite vast and vastly differentiated areas of the world into a single ‘underdeveloped’ terrain” (217). Sangari is critical of the way “Third World” is used by the West to indiscriminately lump together vastly different places.

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism book cover

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1991

Chandra Talpade Mohanty defines the Third World geographically:

The nation-states of Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-east Asia, China, South Africa, and Oceania constitute the parameters of the non-European third world. In addition, black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples in the U.S., Europe, Australia, some of whom have historic links with the geographically defined third worlds, also define themselves as third world peoples (5).

Cheryl Johnson-Odim explains that “the term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to ‘underdeveloped’/over-exploited geopolitical entities, i.e. countries, regions, even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in ‘developed’ First World countries.” Johnson-Odim further identifies problems some Third World women have with First World feminism:

While it may be legitimately argued that there is no one school of thought on feminism among First World feminists — who are not, after all, monolithic — there is still, among Third World women, a widely accepted perception that the feminism emerging from white, middle-class Western women narrowly confines itself to a struggle against gender discrimination. (314, 315)

The use of the term “Third World Women” by Western feminists has been widely critiqued. Mohanty uses the term interchangeably with “women of color” (7). She argues that “what seems to constitute ‘women of color’ or ‘third world women’ as a viable oppositional alliance is a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications. Similarly, it is third world women’s oppositional political relation to sexist, racist, and imperialistic structures that constitutes our political commonality” (7). Although she uses the term “third world women,” Mohanty argues that western feminisms appropriate the production of the”third world woman as a singular monolithic subject,” for a “discursive colonization” (51). Furthermore, western feminisms articulate a discursive colonization through the production of “third world difference”: “that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all of the women in [third world] countries” (53-54). Western feminisms’ use of the category of “third world woman” and “third world difference” ties into a larger, latent cultural and economic colonialism:

In the context of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment in the production and dissemination of texts, and the context of the legitimating imperative of humanistic and scientific discourse, the definition of the ‘third world woman’ as a monolith might well tie into the larger cultural and economic praxis of ‘disinterested’ scientific inquiry and pluralism which are the surface manifestations of a latent economic and cultural colonization of the ‘non-Western’ world (74).

Trinh T. Minh-ha argues that “‘difference’ is essentially ‘division’ in the understanding of many. It is no more than a tool of self-defense and conquest” (14). Trinh’s concern is with the use of the third world woman as the “native” Other in Western anthropology and feminisms. Answering the question, “‘why do we have to be concerned with the question of Third World women? After all, it is only one issue among many others,’” Trinh replies:

Delete the phrase Third World and the sentence immediately unveils its value-loaded cliches. Generally speaking, a similar result is obtained through the substitution of words like racist for sexist, or vice-versa, and the established image of the Third World Woman in the context of (pseudo)-feminism readily merges with that of the Native in the context of (neo-colonialist) anthropology (17).

Self-defined Third World women who inhabit a place within First World feminist academia are also the subject of critique. Diane Brydon writes, “now that the marginal is being revalued as the new voice of authority in discourse, it is tempting to accept the imperial definition of the colonized as marginal”(4). In a direct attack on Mohanty and Trinh as well as bell hooks, Sara Suleri argues that:

Rather than extending an inquiry into the discursive possibilities represented by the intersection of gender and race, feminist intellectuals like hooks misuse their status as minority voices by enacting strategies of belligerence that at this time are more divisive than informative. Such claims to radical revisionism take refuge in the political untouchability that is accorded the category of Third World Woman, and in the process sully the crucial knowledge that such a category has still to offer to the dialogue of feminism today (765).

Suleri also argues:

[The] claim to authenticity — only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture — points to the great difficulty posited by the ‘authenticity’ of female racial voices in the great game which claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want (760).

Similarly, Suleri attacks hooks and Trinh for claiming that “personal narrative is the only salve to the rude abrasions that Western feminist theory has inflicted on the body of ethnicity” (764). Suleri advocates examining how “realism locates its language within the postcolonial condition,” and suggests that “lived experience does not achieve its articulation through autobiography, but through that other third-person narrative known as the law” (766).

As the above arguments indicate, the terms “Third World” and”Third World Women” are by no means stable categories. Rather, these terms are a locus of contention not only between First World feminisms and Third World women, but also between Third World women themselves within the complex field of postcolonial studies.

See also: Gender and Nation, Nawal el Saadawi, Women, Islam, and the Hijab, Chicana Feminism, FGM, Victorian Women Travellers


  • Brydon, Diana. “Commonwealth or Common Poverty?” Kunapipi: Special Issue on Post-Colonial Criticism 11-1 (1989): 1-16.
  • Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Introduction” and “Under Western Eyes.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Russo, Torres. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1991.
  • Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Eds. Abdul Jan Mohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Suleri, Sara. “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1992): 756-769.
  • Trinh, Minh-ha. “Difference: ‘A Special Third World Woman Issue.” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 86-87): 10-37.

Author: Nicola Graves, Spring 1996  Last edited: May 2012