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Writing Empires II:
Writing Histories and Theories

2007 MLA Convention
27-30 December 2008
Chicago, Illinois


Meg Wesling
University of California, San Diego

Writing Empire:
Literary Study and the Domestic Entanglements of U.S. Empire


Do not cite without permission of the author.

In the late morning of July 23, 1901, crowds of people gathered at Pier 12 of the San Francisco wharf to bid farewell to the U.S. transport ship the Thomas, which was leaving for the month-long sail to Manila.  While such departures were not unusual in the early days of the 20th century, there was a particular fanfare that accompanied the Thomas’s departure.  Unlike earlier transports, which had carried soldiers and munitions as backup to U.S. soldiers occupying the Philippines since the Spanish-American War, the Thomas was making its way to the the United States’ newly acquired territory with reinforcements of a different kind: 540 American teachers on their way to the archipelago, recruited to work in the fledgling public school system instituted during the U.S. occupation of the islands.1  

Significantly, this was not the Thomas’s first trip on the imperial route between the U.S. and the Philippines. Originally a British ship of war, the Thomas was purchased in 1898, on the eve of the United States’ “splendid little war” with Spain, and it had first served to carry soldiers and horses between the U.S. and its new possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  Thus passed down from an old imperial power to a new one, the Thomas was already well-initiated in the global routes of empire.  This trip, however, was its first with civilian cargo, a corps of teachers organized into what one teacher aboard called a “great army of instruction.”  Setting out toward the new territory, “her deck,” it was reported, “thronged with young men and women actuated by the highest of ideals,” the crowds attending the Thomas’s departure participated in the optimism in the expansion of U.S. empire, heralding this voyage as the first Pacific extension of Anglo-Saxon civilization and the actualization of President McKinley’s promise to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize them.”

I begin with the departure of the Thomas because I want to talk about the particular role of that “army of instruction” on board, and about the strategic and ideological import of this shift it represented, a shift from soldier to teacher as representative of the colonial project.  On the one hand, the arrival of the Thomasites, as they came to be called, signaled a significant change in the strategy of colonial domination. The timing was not coincidental; barely three weeks before, William Howard Taft had been sworn in as the civil governor of the Philippines, thus marking the declared end of the military occupation of the islands and the beginning of Filipino collaboration with U.S. sovereignty. This “army of instruction” thus represented a new phase in U.S.-Philippine relations, one in which the civilian project of uplift would be complexly intertwined with the violent submission of Filipino resistance.  At the same time, however, the teaching force of American instructors was understood to be crucial to the ideological project of U.S. dominance, as American educators were at the forefront of the colonial policy, acting as evidence of the colonial government’s generous and civilized intentions.2   Armed with progressive theories of educational reform, U.S. legislators spoke of the role of education in the moral and practical maintenance of the colony, asserting that “Undoubtedly a well-directed system of education will prove one of the most forceful agencies for elevating the Filipinos, materially, socially, and morally, and preparing them for a large participation in the affairs of government.”3 American journalists at home, as well, were quick to remind readers that three centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the islands had failed to establish universal, free public education, and constructed for their reading public images of illiterate or “savage” Filipino masses. Juxtaposed with the images of decadent Spanish rulers, American teachers were figured as an efficient army of democratizing and civilizing agents, armed with the scientific and moral superiority to uplift their new charges.

The broader scope of my research traces how the curriculum of instruction in American literature proved a crucial point in the strategy of American imperial domination – or how, in other words, the humanistic functions of literature came to be considered essential for the development of character and moral guidance for the United States’ new colonial subjects.  In this talk, however, I want to delve more deeply into the function of these teachers as representatives of the colonial state, into their deployment as a performative gesture of benevolent domination, and into their participation in what Ann Stoler has called the “intimate frontiers of empire.”  I’m particularly interested in the symbolic and iconographic function of white middle-class femininity as it came to represent the benevolent character of American imperialism.  I’ll begin, then, with a series of political cartoons that illustrated the central importance of the white woman teacher in the representational strategies of empire.  I move, then, to a memoir, Mary Fee’s A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, published in 1910, which I take to be a paradigmatic text in a genre of women’s imperial writing that introduced the very notion of colonial tutelage as America’s hemispheric imperative, texts whose explicit function was to demystify the imperial project to readers at home, enlisting American audiences as willing participants in the project of extraterritorial colonial expansion.  For the arrival of white American women at the forefront of the colonial project produced a highly gendered representational shift; the move from military occupation to peaceful collaboration was signified by the iconographic shift from white male soldier to white woman teacher.  The “army of instruction” was thus understood to be a highly feminized one, and white women approached the islands as “bearers of benevolence,” bringing what Laura Wexler has called “the resources of their gender” to resolve the vexed question of American imperialism.4   By considering the specificity of how the white woman teacher functioned as a representative of benevolent colonial rule, I want to bring together the domestic and the foreign, to think about the intimate as a crucial site of knowledge production about empire.  In so doing, I will argue, first, that far from estranged from the political matters of imperial management, these narratives demonstrated how the “intimate domains of sex, sentiment, and domestic management figure into the making of racial categories and the management of imperial rule.”5   As such, they demonstrate how “racial discrimination and social reform were not opposed” but mutually imbricated political impulses.  With this, I look to complement the extensive body of work that has focused on the masculine drive fueling U.S. expansion; the ideals of “rugged masculinity,” to be sure, had much to do with the search for new terrains upon which white American men could play “cowboys and Indians,” and it is no coincidence that many of the generals at the head of the U.S. military administration in the Philippines had begun their careers in the so-called “Indian Wars” of the late nineteenth century.  It is too easily overlooked, however, that it was the mobilization of white middle-class womanhood that was used, time and again, to safeguard America’s exceptionalist status by distinguishing the “great experiment in the Philippines” from the despotic character of European colonialism.  This was a crucial linking of femininity and patriotism, during a period in which women in the U.S. were struggling for legislative recognition of their own status as citizens of the Republic.  And in this light, I will argue, too, that the iconographic status of white womanhood was premised upon an articulation between white femininity and Americanness that was unthinkable within the domestic space of the nation; this was a romantic patriotism fashioned to facilitate the strategic forgetting of the seemingly “masculine” excesses of imperial expansion by constructing war as peace, domination as uplift.  This configuration of imperial femininity, as I will show, has lasting consequences for the literary construction of white American womanhood as well.

I. The Gendered Politics of U.S. Expansion

It is worth reviewing, for a brief moment, the circumstances through which the U.S. came to acquire the Philippine Islands.  U.S. naval forces arrived in Manila in 1898, under the premise of aiding the Cuban and Philippine struggle against Spanish colonialism; with the surrender of Spanish forces just months later, U.S. officials declined to recognize the emergent Philippine Republic but instead continued to occupy the islands, an occupation with continued until the middle of the twentieth century.6   Despite the strong institutional infrastructure taking shape toward in independent Philippine Republic, U.S. President William McKinley insisted that to withdraw American troops from the Philippines would be to abandon them to a chaos worse, even, than the despotism of Spanish rule.  Rather, he proposed a program of “benevolent assimilation,” in which he assured Filipinos abroad and anti-imperialist critics at home that the U.S. would establish its rule “not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights.”7

In the months after Spain ceded its colonial holdings to the U.S., it became clear to the Filipino Revolutionary fighters that the Americans had no intention of leaving, or of recognizing the Philippine Republic.  The Philippine-American War began in February 1899, when tensions between an occupying U.S. army and the revolutionary Filipino Army erupted after an American sentry fired upon a Filipino soldier in Manila; it lasted more than ten years (until roughly 1913), claiming the lives of roughly 4,000 American soldiers and an estimated 600,000 Filipinos.8
The project of establishing a U.S.-run public school system was of paramount importance to the colonial administration, for it was within the paradigm of education – of colonial dominance as a necessary form of domestic tutelage—that the legitimacy of the U.S. colonial project was anchored.  To demonstrate this, we need only trace the evolving iconography of the Philippine-American war, which illuminates the complex and dynamic interactions between domestic racial formations as they were transported, and adapted to imperial context.  Earliest depictions of Filipinos in their liberation struggle against Spain had featured Filipinos as revolutionary heroes.  Journalists, looking to enlist popular support for the U.S. intervention against Spain, made frequent comparisons between Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo and foundational figures like George Washington, heralding both as noble leaders in the cause of liberation.  Revolutionary camaraderie faded to race war as the U.S. became desirous of maintaining the islands as a Pacific stronghold; cartoons circulating in major presses increasingly featured Filipinos as armed and aggressive on the one hand, and backwards or childlike on the other.  Here, depictions drew liberally from the racialized iconography of relations between African Americans and whites in the U.S.  That the conflict in the Philippines had evolved from a liberation mission to a race war was quickly established by the soldiers themselves, who refashioned the terms of racial conflict in the U.S. to fit the circumstances of fighting in the Philippines; as one soldier wrote home, “we commenced to chase niggers” and another reported that his division had “put the black rascals over the hills.”9  

With the declared cessation of hostilities, however, the metaphorics of representing the colonial project shifted.  Once vilified in racialized terms as “a savage and barbarous race,” the Filipino subjects now became, in the words of William Howard Taft, “America’s little brown brothers.”10   That is, though fighting continued in 25% of the islands, the representational strategies of colonial power changed, so that violence against and subjugation of America’s colonial subjects could be rescripted within the tutelary logic of uplift.  And in the representative strategies of this new colonial order, no figure was as important or as omnipresent as the white American woman teacher. 11

[Figure 1: sons in battle, daughters in peace—see image]

One telling image from Puck magazine in January 1900 features a proud and erect Uncle Sam watching a group of white women, schoolbooks in hand, approaching eager, curious Filipinos while lines of white, armed male soldiers retreat in the background.  The image features Uncle Sam offering proudly: “You have seen what my sons can do in battle;-- now see what my daughters can do in peace.” (fig. 1).12   The cartoon thus renders the distinction between military and civil dominance as legible through the axis of gender, making visible through gender the transition between force and education as guiding principles of colonial rule.

The gender politics here are telling, because white women were, at all times, a significant minority on the island.  According to the 1905 Census of the islands, whites composed only 1/5 of 1 percent of the total population of the islands; of this number, fourteen percent were women. This means that American men in the islands outnumbered women by a ratio of 7 to 1.  Even among teachers, women were the distinct minority; there were more than double the number of male teachers than female.  Nevertheless, the image of the white woman teacher became synonymous with colonial tutelage, in a racialized logic of colonial domesticity that idealized white women as mothers to Filipino citizens, figured as “unruly” children in need of the guidance of the white family.  This relation drew upon and reinforced a racialized teleology which placed Filipinos on a developmental path far behind Anglo Saxon civilization; presenting Filipino subjects as mischievous children, moreover, “rendered juvenile the acts and aspirations” of the Filipino people “while also erasing the serious, meditated nature of their resistance.”13  

In relying upon the symbolic force of white women as mothers to the colony, the imperial project in the Philippines was imagined as the drama of the colonial family, essentially making moot all questions as to whether or not to liberate the colonies or to incorporate them by extending the constitution there, since as children they were fit neither for independence nor for participation in the Republic.  At the same time, images such as this one betray the menace implicit in this reconfiguration.  The visual arrangement of the image makes explicit the alignment of male soldiers and female teachers; both are assembled in military formation, one bearing rifles, the other schoolbooks, at once undermining the very distinction between force and suasion even while it attempts to impose such a distinction through the visual signifiers of gender difference and the seemingly natural distinctions thus embedded.  At best, then, such images bear witness to the fraught distinction between two arms of colonial power, particularly as they worked in tandem in the American colonial project, pointing instead to the potential, though less visible, violences involved in the “education” of “natives” and the strategies of uplift.  Making visible, then, the militaristic qualities of this “army of instruction,” such images reveal the coercive dominance and destructive pretensions of uplift/tutelage.

[Figure 2: it’s up to them]

The tenuous distinction between resistance and consenting submission is illustrated again, here in a political cartoon that appeared in Puck in November 1901, just three months after the arrival of the Thomasites in the Philippines.  Facing a small crowd of Filipinos, a looming Uncle Sam holds out each hand, on one resting a white soldier holding a rifle, on the other a white woman teacher with three schoolbooks  (Fig 2).14   Holding his hands like a scale, Uncle Sam seems to be weighing the balance between them; importantly, teacher and soldier measure up equally.  While the caption, which reads “Uncle Sam (to Filipinos) – You can take your choice; -- I have plenty of both!” addresses the Filipinos directly, the title of the image, “It’s ‘Up To’ Them” clearly interpellates the reader to identify with Uncle Sam in offering the choice, asking the reader to believe in the distinction between forced submission and coerced collaboration.  Working as both assurance and threat, Uncle Sam’s claim to have “plenty of both” suggested a limitless force behind the American mission to “educate, civilize, and uplift,” whether by force or by consent.  And again, the choice is a distinctly gendered one; that is, while male teachers outnumbered women by a ratio of two to one among the American population, the vision of conquest is divided into a gendered spectacle of domination, with force and tutelage offered male and female roles.  The spectacle, then, comes to look much like a vision of an extended colonial family, with the disciplining father and instructive mother literally watching over their newly adopted charges.  In this sense, the caption “it’s up to them” reiterates the certainty of success, naturalizing the relation of domination and subjection through the gendered axes of empire.

II         Old Maid Schoolteachers and National Mothers
The white woman teacher, then, was an essential figure in the representations of U.S. rule, and her importance is reflected in the popularity of memoirs written and published by women who had taught in the islands.  The text I’ll discuss today, Mary Fee’s A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, was originally published in 1910, and reprinted two years later.  Fee’s narrative was composed upon her return to the U.S., and, like others of its genre, it demonstrates an active interest in participating in the knowledge production of empire.  Narratives such as Fee’s by no means disrupt the fantasy of colonial uplift through tutelage and public education.  Rather, women teaching in the Philippines and writing for an American audience had much at stake in upholding the paradigm of colonial tutelage, having come, as Fee put it, in the “somnambulance of philanthropy” to do “the work of building a nation in a strange land and out of a reluctant people.”15  

Complementary to but generically distinct from the letters of American soldiers in the Philippines, these women’s memoirs bore the ideological weight of the colonial order, working to make clear to American audiences the purpose and practicality of the imperial project.  As such, these are particularly dialogic and didactic narratives, in which the minutiae of daily life on the islands are depicted with great descriptive flair.  Serving as representatives of white, middle-class American womanhood to their Filipino charges, they were meant to embody the very virtues that rendered the imperial expansion a noble civilizing mission. 

As paragons of respectability, moreover, white women teachers stood as significant counterpoints to American soldiers in a very literal sense.  As the first decade of the 20th century wore on, Americans at home began to see more clearly the human cost of the continued conflict, as well as its moral and ideological complications. The particular brutality of the “reconcentration” policy, instituted between 1901-1902, marked the violent means through which the United States was determined to secure the “pacification” of its colonial subjects.  Once the success of the Filipino resistance in guerilla warfare proved difficult for U.S. military strategists, U.S. forces began a campaign of deliberate destruction of the rural economy, the forced relocation of civilians into “reconcentration camps,” the burning of villages and crops, and the killing of all remaining living people and animals.16   The devastation caused by such policies made unconvincing William Howard Taft’s assertions that “there never was a war conducted, whether against inferior races or not, in which there was more compassion and more restraint and more generosity….”17   Soldiers’ letters, too, told a brutal story.  Correspondence sent home and published in collections circulated by the Anti-Imperialist League described in detail the murder of civilians, the burning of whole villages, and, most famously, the wide use of the “water cure,” in which water was forced down the throat of a captive Filipino until he confessed or drowned.18   In the face of such testimony, the façade of benevolence seemed an insufficient antidote for the contradictions between the language of benevolent intervention and the practice of violent subjection in securing the colonial order.19

 [Figure 3: “Good Moros”
20 ]
As correspondents with women at home, American women teachers held a heavily weighted representational role for American readers, offering counter-narratives of the just and benevolent rule, bringing a sense of respectability to the colonial project and assuring them that the effort was indeed a noble and just one. Tellingly, it was by drawing upon the sentimental arrangements of white, middle-class domesticity that these women used their experiences as participants in the colonial project to construct war as peace, rewriting the violence of colonial domination as a matter of household management.  The narratives they composed were thus primary documents of empire, participating in the consolidation of colonial dominance through the production of knowledge in and about the new colonial subjects. 

Fee’s text starts off typically like a travel narrative, detailing her departure from the port of San Francisco, the trip to Honolulu, and her eventual arrival in Manila.  Her opening speech sets the tone of adventure; mounting the gangway, she describes:

To me the occasion was momentous.  I was going to see the world, and I was one of an army of enthusiasts enlisted to instruct our little brown brother, and to pass the torch of Occidental knowledge several degrees east of the international date line. (12)

Accompanying Fee to aid in “passing the torch of Occidental knowledge” are a host of other teachers, comprised mostly of middle-aged, middle-class women who fit the type Fee herself describes as “old maid” (30), with the exception of two young women from Radcliffe, whose youth merits from Fee only scorn and scrutiny.  But Fee’s own role is equally curious: though traveling as a teacher herself, from the start, her narrative enacts a story of her own education; the opening scene describes the size and decoration of the ship, whose signifying decorations she claims she “was not at that time sufficiently educated enough to read” (11).   

Such moments are common in the text, in which Fee describes her transformation from a position of naiveté to worldliness in her encounters with new people, climate, food, and custom.  As such, much of the book is dedicated to describing these details, in short, anecdotally-arranged chapters titled “weddings,” “funerals,” “children’s games,” and “holiday rituals,” to name just a few.  Ever the energetic ethnographer, Fee relates the character of each encounter with an attention to detail that indicates a seriousness to her endeavor, despite her frequent dismissal of her own authority on such matters.  That is to say, Fee mobilizes a gendered narrative style, at once disclaiming her authority, even as she claims the right to see, record, and describe in relation to the new experiences of her travels.  This is a tense and tenuous fault line between knower and known, one which continues to trouble Fee’s text, indicating the “double identity” of white women in the imperial order where, as both subaltern and privileged, they understood themselves to be perfectly poised to comment with authenticity and objectivity on the daily qualities of native life.21   This is a balance Fee negotiates by calling upon women’s “natural” resourcefulness as homemakers.  In Fee’s text and the others of its genre, “it becomes a common place that woman’s practical agency gives her both interest and expertise in engaging the political public sphere as mothers of the race, and managers of civic and moral leadership.”22 This marks off a territory properly hers, offering Fee an avenue of legitimacy as writer and representative of the nation.  Here, the practicality, determination, and resourcefulness endowed to women in their “natural” role as homemakers and mothers make up for and even surpass the skills of more sophisticated or specialized training.  Dismissing those younger, Radcliffe-educated teachers as women of “evil genius,” Fee’s anecdotal, colloquial style looks to communicate a quotidian quality to her voyage and her work in the Philippines, as if to render the adventures of the “Orient” transparent to audiences at home, not so far from the average middle-class American household after all.

If Fee’s narrative style betrays, in its mode of address, some ambivalence about her role as expert in relation to her middle-class American readers, she demonstrates no such uncertainty about her relation to her Filipino students or servants.  Full chapters are dedicated to topics like “An Analysis of Filipino Character” and “Filipino Youths and Maidens,” in which Fee describes the alarming deficiencies of the Filipino populace, burdened as they are, in her view, with the unfortunate combination of being both docile and obstinate, ignorant and opinionated, imitative and superstitious.   Such qualities she attributes to the “natural backwardness” of the population and their stagnation under Spanish colonialism.  Bad colonial rule is thus the very core of the problem, which Fee is poised to ameliorate with what she calls “a mother’s kind but forceful touch.”
Explicitly positioning herself as a mother raising young, willful children, Fee doles out advice with what might pass as good-natured humor about the trials of this new adventure in domestic life, touching on an endless array of subjects, like why not to try to convert Filipinos to her own religion of Protestantism (advice: it’s too abstract); how to treat Filipino servants (advice: be stern), and whether literature is an appropriate field of study for Filipino children (advice: no, as it inspires too much of what she calls “unrealistic thinking”). 

My point is not to mock Fee’s racial prejudices as much as to mine them for the indications they hold about early twentieth-century understandings of woman’s place in a highly racialized domestic sphere, a realm which must only be understood as a very public endeavor.  Women teachers, as I have argued, were a staple in the iconography of the Philippine-American contact, this despite the fact that there were more than double the number of male teachers than female, though many of these men were given administrative duties rather than instructional ones.  Nevertheless, the large number of male teachers who worked in the Philippines are nowhere given representation, in Fee’s narrative or elsewhere.  The role of schoolteacher is thus overwhelmingly coded as a feminine one, and it’s a very particular feminine subject imagined in this role, as indicated by Fee’s repeated references to her kind as the “old maid schoolteacher.”  Somewhat defensive on this count, she relates an exchange between a group of teachers and a “shrewd, gray-haired Yankee” who leads them on a sightseeing trip in Honolulu:

He did not say anything about old maids, but the air was surcharged with his unexpressed convictions, so that all of our cohort who were over thirty-five were reduced to a kind of abject contrition for having been born, and for having continued to live after it was assured that we were destined to remain incomplete. (30)

Far from “incomplete,” however, Fee regards her unmarried status from a position of smug selflessness; “in the absence of children,” Fee “sets out to discipline the ‘natives’” in her classroom and in her village – “and we are repeatedly assured that Filipinos are no more than children requiring discipline.”  With her home and her classroom as her domain, Fee presents it as the American woman’s “challenge and duty to keep this strange and unmanageable” population under control.23   
It is precisely as the head of her own household, then, that Fee is free to adopt the whole of her Filipino charges as her children, becoming both surrogate mother and motherland for America’s newly incorporated subjects.  Discussing the matter of self-government for the Philippines, Fee writes:

The Filipino is like an orphan baby, not allowed to have his cramps and colic and cut his teeth in the decent retirement of the parental nursery, but dragged out instead to distressing publicity, told that his wails …, his digestive habits …, [and] his milk teeth [are] more unsatisfactory, than the wails or the digestive habits or the milk teeth of any other baby that ever went through the developing process.  Naturally he is self-conscious, and – let us be truthful – not having been a very promising baby from the beginning, both he and his nurses have had a hard time. (96)

In this passage, Fee adapts the call for independence and self-government on the part of Filipino statesmen and populace to a misguided childish ambition.  Within this developmental narrative, progress toward self-government is deferred to some future time, and the difficulties of nation-building (as she understood her role in the Philippines) become a mother’s difficulties with a “not very promising baby.”  For Fee, the distressing fact is the matter of publicity; not able to “raise themselves,” so to speak, the infantilized Filipino population is dragged out to the limelight too early, exposed to the harsh judgment of its critics rather than cared for in the protected space of the “parental nursery.”  Further proof of Filipinos’ incapacity for self-government is reflected in what she judges as their incapacity to manage their own households or manage the duties of parenthood.  Commenting upon the practice among Filipino peasants of hiring children out to work as servants in other families, she offers that “Parents especially are satisfied, because thus do they evade the duties and responsibilities of parenthood” (238).  Not knowing how to be parents themselves, they cannot know how to be self-governing citizens, as the unit of domestic family life serves as Fee’s prime indicator and preferred metaphor for the nation.

Making equivalences between nation-building and household management, Fee’s account of her own household carries special weight in the text, as her example at the helm of her own domestic sphere is displayed for the admiration of readers who might wonder about the respectability of a middle-class woman setting up house so far from home.  She writes:

The Philippines are no place for women or men who cannot thrive and be happy on plain food, plenty of work, and isolation….  Married women … break down under it very quickly; they lose appetite and flesh and grow fretful or melancholy.  But to a woman who loves her home and is employed, provincial life here is a boon.   Remember that for an expenditure of forty or fifty dollars a month the single woman can maintain an establishment of her own – a genuine home – where after a day’s toil she can find order and peace and idleness waiting for her.  Filipino servants are not ideal, but any woman with a capacity for organization can soon train them into keeping her house in the outward semblance at least of order and cleanliness. (246)

Through the dislocations of empire, Fee thus finds her own independence in the Philippines, an independence offered through the availability of her own domestic haven, a place of “order, peace and idleness” entirely under her care. This passage stands in stark contrast to an earlier episode, in which Fee laments her own domestic situation in the U.S. as an “interloper” in her married sister’s house, and describes her life in Chicago as one of “constant terror” at the lurking threat of theft, violence, or insolence facing the unaccompanied woman.  It stands in stark contrast, as well, to the brutal terror inflicted upon Filipino civilians during the very period in which Fee was so enjoying the “boon” of provincial life.  Not more than a day’s journey from Fee’s post, only a few short months after her arrival, a surprise attack on the U.S. Ninth Infantry resulted in the deaths of forty-five U.S. soldiers.  In retaliation, General Jake Smith issued the orders for the company to “kill and burn, kill and burn,” aiming to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness.” No such fear clouds her recollections of the Philippines, where, despite the very proximate brutality, Fee writes that her situation was “very peaceful and quiet,” adding, “I was never afraid over there, and never gave my safety a moment’s concern.”24

Importantly, then, the condition of Fee’s own independence in the Philippines is the denial of Philippine independence, on both the individual and national scale.  Her pursuit of domestic “peace and idleness” is predicated upon the un-freedom of others, and the “clean and orderly” household she so enjoys depends upon the unpaid or underpaid labor of Filipino servants, whose condition of poverty, she assures us, does not render them unhappy because “[they have] not developed enough to achieve either self-pity or self-analysis” (236).  In celebrating the “peace and idleness” of her own domestic sphere, then, Fee secures her own independence by ignoring the violent disruptions of empire, willfully “forgetting” the scenes of brutality against Filipino civilians that were so horrifically commonplace during the Philippine-American War.  Imagining her own work as a domestic drama of nation-building, Fee demonstrates a telling disavowal of the violence of the colonial project that is at the heart of the organization of the domestic.

III        Writing White Womanhood as ‘America’

I promised, at the start of my talk, that I would address the literary as it is entangled in the formations of domesticity and empire I’ve outlined here.  To do so, I want to close with a passage from the 1946 novel America Is in the Heart, written by Filipino-American writer, poet, and activist Carlos Bulosan. The text is generically troubling, calling itself a “personal history” and reading as a sort of collective autobiography of the early Filipino immigrant experience in the U.S.  Despite its great complexity, however, it is a foundational text, one that is standard reading in seminars of American Literature and Asian American Studies.

America Is in the Heart
is, in essence, a coming of age story, tracing the growth of young Carlos, a Filipino boy, through his youth in the Philippines, his voyage to the U.S., and his self-actualization as a writer through his experiences of racism, poverty, and discrimination in the U.S.  There is a particularly moving passage, two-thirds of the way through the book, which resonates with the very connections I have discussed above.  We find Carlos describing the circumstances of his training in American literature, an education that comes in the Los Angeles County hospital, where he is undergoing treatment for tuberculosis and passing the lonely hours of recovery by reading.  The books are furnished by his friend, Eileen, a white woman who visits him in the hospital, and under her direction begins his introduction to the study of Literature.  Looking back on this time with Eileen, Carlos writes: 

I yearned for her and the world she represented…. We found intimate conversations in the books she gave me.  When I became restless, I wrote to her.  …. I can say that writing fumbling, vehement letters to Eileen was actually my course in English…. [Eileen] was undeniably the America I had wanted to find in those frantic days of fear and flight, in those acute hours of hunger and loneliness.  This America was human, good, and real. (235)

Now, this is a book I’ve read and taught many times, and each time, students respond with a sense of incredulity.  Here is a man whose entire experience of the U.S. has been characterized by brutality, deprivation, and racial hostility.  His narrative is replete with encounters of forced migration, open hostility, exploitation, and violence, and yet it is punctuated, on more than one occasion, with episodes like that described in this passage, in which Carlos insists upon the promise of an ideal America, “human, good, and real,” and finds the realization of that promise in the benevolent care of a white woman.  Responding in frustration, perhaps disbelief, my students react by saying, simply, “this doesn’t make sense.” 

I want to argue, however, that the text is perfectly in keeping with the logic of imperial femininity I’ve described above.  That is, the passage fails to make sense only through our own strategic forgetting of the entanglements of empire, domesticity, and white womanhood—connections to which Bulosan alludes but which are not fully explicated in the novel.  To decipher the complexity of this seemingly contradictory passage, this jarring moment in which the tenacity of “America” as a gendered and racialized ideal is revealed, we need only look back at the voyage of the Thomas, and the visions of benevolent guidance it represented. I have argued above that the representational conventions of white womanhood made available the very formation of colonial tutelage as a “civilized” and “benevolent” intervention, marking education as what we might rightfully call the “white woman’s burden” in the imperial program.  But Carlos’s longing serves as an uncanny reminder of the failures of that promise, that ideal of a benevolent America that was the promise of the colonial state.  In his longing, then, I read as well a register of the loss more profound, comprised of the accumulated violations of the Philippine-American War and its forgotten place in the history of the U.S.  It is, as well, the history of our literature.


1. This number, which includes 368 men and 141 women, is taken from the data recorded in the ship’s log.  Many historical accounts give the number as 540, which more likely reflects the total number of passengers on board, including not just the teachers, but 14 children, 4 American nurses, and accompanying spouses. See Ronald P. Gleason, ed. The Log of the “Thomas,” July 23- August 21, 1901.  1901.

2. This quote is attributed to a speech McKinley gave before a delegation of Methodist leaders on November 21, 1899.  General James Rushling, “Interview with President McKinley” The Christian Advocate New York, January 22, 1903.  Quoted in The Forbidden Book, 65.

3. U.S. Philippine Commission, Report of the U.S. Philippine Commission, 1900, p. 107.  [incomplete info – need pub and location] Quoted in Glenn Anthony May, Social Engineering in the Philippines: The Aims, Execution, and Impact of American Colonial Policy, 1900-1913.

4. Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism, 9.

5. Ann Laura Stoler, “Tense and Tender Ties” in Haunted by Empire, 22.

6. The Tydings-McDuffie Act was signed into law on March 24, 1934.  It established a ten-year “transitional period” before Philippine independence, during which time the U.S. would maintain military forces in the Philippines and the U.S. president would retain the power to call upon the service of all military forces of the Philippine Government.   The act also changed the status of Filipinos in the U.S. to aliens ineligible for citizenship, and set a quote of 50 immigrants per year.  With the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1941, Philippine Independence was delayed until July 4, 1946.

7. William McKinley, “Proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation,” December 21, 1898.

8. U.S. forces concentrated on quelling resistance from Christian Filipinos (in northern and eastern Mindanao) in 1900 and 1901.  Focus on Moros began in March 1902 – the final battle against Moro forces was the Battle of Bud Bagsak on June 15, 1913.  When thousands of Muslims refused to surrender to the U.S., General John d. Pershing led an attack that killed 500 Moro fighters.  Armed conflict continued in 1914.  On March 22, 1915, the Sultan of Sulu surrendered, abdicating political power and accepting U.S. sovereignty.  From The Forbidden Book, 99.

9. Andrew Wadsworth, in a letter to aunt Jennie Wadsworth, March 8, 1899, Folder 173, Hussey-Wadsworth Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan; and Earl Pearsall Diary, Folder : “Pearsal, Earl, 1898-W-1521, 1st Neb. Vol. Inf., Diary for 1899,” Box 97: Nebraska Infantry, 1st Regiment, SAWS, February 24, 1899.   Quoted in Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government, 125.

10. Taft told President McKinley that "our little brown brothers" would need "fifty or one hundred years" of close supervision "to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills."  S Doc. 331, 57th Congress., 1st session., part 1, p.65-68.

11. The 1905 Census of the Philippine Islands (4 vols [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1905]), whites composed only 1/5 of 1 percent of the total population of the islands, or 8,135 people out of a total population of 7.6 million.  Of this number, fourteen percent were women, with 1,215 were females, 6,920 were males.  A small percentage of other whites included 3,888 Spanish, 677 English, and a small amount of French and Germans.  Census, 2:14-15, 44.  Quoted from Vicente Rafael, White Love, 239, ftn. 9.

12. Puck, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York, January 31, 1900 [artist: Samuel Ehrhart].  In The Forbidden Book, 69.

13. Rosemary Marangoly George, “Homes in the Empire, Empires in the Home” Burning Down the House: Recycling Domesticity.  Rosemary Marangoly George, ed.  Westview Press, 1998, 61.

14. The Forbidden Book, 67.

15. Fee, 115, 43.

16. Cited in Adjutant General of the Army, Correspondence Relating to the War with Spain. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902), 2:1352-53. (Quoted from Rafael, White Love, 20)

17. Cited in Adjutant General of the Army, Correspondence Relating to the War with Spain. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902), 2:1352-53. (Quoted from Rafael, White Love, 20)

18. The “water cure” was a practice in which water was forced down the throat of a captive Filipino, until the captive individual confessed or drowned. “Soldiers’ Letters: Being Materials for the History of a War of Criminal Aggression” (Chicago: Anti-Imperialist League, 1898) in Zwick, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935.

19. “Soldiers’ Letters: Being Materials for the History of a War of Criminal Aggression” (Chicago: Anti-Imperialist League, 1898) in Zwick, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935.

20. Moro was originally a derogatory term for Filipino Muslims, derived from the Spanish word Moor.  Moro Rebellion comprised 2nd phase of Philippine-American War, lasted until 1915. non-Christian ethnic group in the Philippines – Muslim.  Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes, headed by David Barrows, who was later Director of Philippine Bureau of Education.

21. Rafael, 53-54.

22. Lauren Berlant, “Uncle Sam Needs a Wife: Citizenship and Denegation” in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics.  Eds. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson.  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 153.

23. George, 57.

24. Mary Cole to J. E. Scott, 26 January 1902, Harry N. Cole Papers, Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.  Cited in Alidio, p. 109.

25. According to the Dillingham Commission set up by Congress in 1907 to study United States immigration, “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia, comprised of largely unskilled, transient, urban male workers, increased steadily from 1883 onward.  See Maldwyn Allen Jones for a classic account of immigration in this era; see Rogers M. Smith for an excellent description of the era’s citizenship laws in response to immigration. 

26. See Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart (265-66) for concise background on the activities of these progressive “new women.” 

27. Gail Bederman, for instance, explores white women’s role in building American civilization during this era.  Ann Ruggles Gere focuses on women’s clubs, citizenship, and literacy – predominantly understood as reading – during this period.  I am more interested here in English language education broadly conceived, encompassing not only reading, but also speaking and writing.

28. Addams reflects that “Hull-House, in spite of itself, does a good deal of legal work.  We have secured support for deserted women, insurance for bewildered widows, damages for injured operators, furniture from the clutches of the instalment store.  One function of the Settlement to its neighborhood somewhat resembles that of the big brother whose mere presence on the play ground protects the little one from bullies” (“Objective” 43). 

  29. Indeed, we could say that this potential sociopolitical reformation of women’s traditional roles eventually led J. Edgar Hoover, the Founding Director of the FBI, to call Addams “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” and the FBI to state in a report dated March 20, 1928, that Jane Addams “is directly responsible for the growth of the radical movement among women in America” for her support of women’s right to vote at the Progressive Party Convention of 1912 (Jane Addams Hull-House Museum).   

30. Apt here is Amy Kaplan’s attention to the double meaning of domestic as opposed not only to the politicalbut also to the foreign.  In “Manifest Domesticity,” Kaplan shows how the discourses of domesticity, nationalism, and imperialism overlap, as the development of domestic discourse, alongside the discourse of Manifest Destiny, had an “imperial reach,” particularly in antebellum women’s novels (“Manifest Domesticity” 584). 




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