Contesting the Zenana: The mission to make lady doctors for India, 1874-1885

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Recent work in British studies suggests that the project of historicizing the institutions and cultural practices of British imperialism is crucial to understanding metropolitan society in the nineteenth century. Monographs by Catherine Hall, Thomas C. Holt, and Jenny Sharpe, together with the impressive nineteen-volume series on Studies in Imperial Culture, edited by John Mackenzie-to name just a few examples of scholarly production in this field-have effectively relocated the operations of imperial culture at the heart of the empire itself. By scrutinizing arenas as diverse as the English novel, governmental policy making at the highest levels, and the ephemera of consumer culture, scholars of the Victorian period are in the process of giving historical weight and evidentiary depth to Edward Said's claim that we are at a point in our work when we can no longer ignore empires and the imperial context in our studies. The origins of the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW), its concern for Indian women in the zenana (sex-segregated spaces), and the embeddedness of its institutional development in Victorian imperial mentalities is one discrete example of how ostensibly domestic institutions were bound up with the empire and its projects in nineteenth-century Britain. As this essay will demonstrate, the conviction that Indian women were trapped in the sunless, airless, and allegedly unhygienic Oriental zenana motivated the institutionalization of women's medicine and was crucial to the professionalization of women doctors in Victorian Britain. One need only scratch the surface of the archive of British women's entry into the medical profession to find traces of the colonial concerns that motivated some of its leading lights.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)368-397
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of British Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1996
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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