Talk by Jennifer Anne Boittin (Paris IAS fellow) within the framework of the American Historical Association 131st Annual Meeting.
Using cases studies drawn from archives in Senegal, Cambodia and France, I propose to explore one of French colonial administrators’ supposedly greatest fears, that of the French woman who made a spectacle of herself in the empire. In French West Africa, a European woman settled into her lounge chair in a wooded area of the AOF, surrounded by her trunks and bags, and refused to get back up again. The ensuing administrative file includes her letters of protest when local administrators tried to make her move again, and the administration’s concern for her mental stability. In Cambodia Madame Donnadieu, the well-known author Marguerite Duras’s mother, wrote letter after letter demanding more and better service from administrators (who were clearly also suspicious of her mental state) if she was to continue to exploit land that was flooded by sea water every year. In France, a young Franco-Vietnamese woman angrily demanded to be allowed to remain there rather than being forced by administrators who thought they knew best to board a ship that would return her to her arbitrarily constructed motherland of Indochina. She might not quite look it, she vociferously argued, but she was French.
These three exchanges between individual women and French imperial administrators represent hundreds of similar ones located in archival dossiers. I argue in this paper that these microhistories, precisely because they were generated from across very different geopolitical terrains within one empire, allow us to think about the manner in which the empire’s bureaucracy handled the sometimes very intimate problems of individual women. In turn, leaping from the smallest human scale to the broadest geospatial scale allows me to consider how administrators handled (or not) the problem, in a space defined by these categories, of women whose race and gender made their every unexpected move a spectacle.