Mary Kingsley: reluctantly remembered as a feminist

Mary Kingsley was a travel writer, her most prominent work being Travels in West Africa (1897)[1], she was infamous for her unreserved account of her travels and interaction with tribes and her criticism of government intervention in West Africa.  She was also critical of missionaries in Africa who she felt were interfering in a culture they did not understand, while praising the traders who she considered to have better understandings and relationships with the indigenous people [2]. Feminist readings however dominate discussion of Mary Kingsley’s work and travels. Her writing and opinions provide incredible insight into ideas about empire and British identity, and significantly how the female voice conforms into these discussions that were constructed as and considered masculine pursuits.

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Mary Kingsley, despite the overwhelming reading of her as such, denied the label of a feminist. Analogies of female travel writing market such writings as feminist writing with little understanding of the engagement of the author with feminist and imperial thinking, There has been a resurgence of interest in Kingsley’s writing but this is not accompanied by an in depth understanding of the discussions she engaged with. As noted by Sara Mills “frequently critics will pass over imperialist knowledge in women’s travel writings when they are trying to position the travel writer as a feminist precursor.”[3]. The priority to deem female travel writers as proto-feminists does not mean that these assumptions are accurate. Kingsley participated in a traditionally un-feminine endeavour but she denied association with feminist ideas and campaigning. This assertion is based on the superficial assumption that she automatically rebelled against patriarchal ideals, her interaction with the constraints of gender ideals in her writing was in fact much more complex. There is a tone throughout Kinsley’s writing in which she exaggerates her femininity, her most famous quote about the ‘blessings of a thick skirt’ [4] illustrates herself as the eccentric spinster. There is irony to the character of the eccentric spinster and her authoritative and unreserved commentary on her experiences in West Africa. Kingsley engaged with, and was self-aware of, her voice as a woman and as an imperialist. Understanding the writing of Mary Kingsley is useful because “the geographies of women’s travels and writings were inseparable from their own and other’s perceptions of their identity” [5], this gives an insight into the contemporary discussions of gender difference and emerging feminist discourses and the interaction with issues of imperialism.

Historians have noted the relationship between gender and imperialism, and the gendered nature of the empire itself in constructing identities, and the feminist writings that emerged at this time [6]. It is interesting to see how Mary Kingsley, who did not describe herself as a feminist, subscribed to ideals of gender, and even more so, in an imperial context. It is essential to understand the women that commented on imperial matters as agents of empire in the same way we would men. Historians should consider the multifaceted character of the female voice, but not redeem them to such.

 

[1] Kingsley, M. Travels in West Africa, (London: Macmillan, 1897).

[2] Mills. S, ‘Knowledge, Gender and Empire’ in Writing Women’s Space: Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies (eds)., Blunt. A, Rose. G, (New York: Guilford Publications, 1994), p.40.

[3] Blunt, A. and Rose, G., (eds)., Writing women and space: Colonial and Postcolonial geographies (New York: Guilford Publications, 1994), p.140.

[4] Kingsley, M. Travels in West Africa, (London: Virago Press, 1982), p.270.

[5] Blunt, A, Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa (New York: Guilford Publications, 1994), p.160.

[6] Rendall, J, ‘The condition of women, women’s writing and Empire in nineteenth century Britain’, in At home with the empire: Metropolitan culture and the imperial world, ed. by Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.102.

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One thought on “Mary Kingsley: reluctantly remembered as a feminist

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. It raises that thorny question – can a woman who did not identify as a feminist (unlikely in Kingsley’s case, given the term only came into popular use right at the end of the 19th century) or probably more importantly with any explicit belief in gender equality be described as one? I thought your observations on how Kingsley must be read but in terms of gender and imperialism was spot on. That said, I am not sure in exploring the latter topic you really came to any conclusions about the first question. What do you think, I wonder?

    Well done for choosing an appropriately focused topic this time. I wondered if there might have been scope to hear a little more of MK’s own voice – the “thick skirt” quote was nice, although I felt it has been rather extensively used elsewhere already.

    Generally, this is a nice looking blog: it is “clean” and easy to navigate. Your choice of images is good. It would nice to see some other interaction, comments from others on your blogs. Or perhaps, you ‘d like to spend a few minutes responding to one of my comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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