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‘Exporting’ Women: Writing on French and German Women’s Colonial Settlement Movements

Historical ReflectionsThis is the third in a series of posts dedicated to celebrating the 40th volume of our journal Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques.


The latest issue of Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques is devoted to the special topic of “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany.” This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between the issue’s Guest Editor, Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, and one of the six contributors, Krista Molly O’Donnell.


Pedersen: What drew you to the study of French and German women’s colonial settlement programs?


O’Donnell: These campaigns for recruiting women as potential brides for the African and Asian colonies were so controversial in their day and seem even more incomprehensible now. Their language describing “transporting” or “exporting” white women overseas like a commodity to prevent racial degeneration seems so obviously exploitative and demeaning. Although these programs reflect ideas about women and race that now appear distant and antiquated, these schemes were also harbingers of the Nazis and other modern states’ much more successful interventions to regulate race and reproduction. It still puzzles me how and why some colonial thinkers invested so much thought and energy only to be disappointed when the end result of assisting hundreds of women and children to migrate to the colonies did little to shore up the white racial and moral order of settler societies. The female colonists themselves are also a source of endless fascination for me. German maids in Southwest Africa were complicit in contributing to the everyday racial violence in the colony and yet their scandalous behavior was often at odds with the mores of other white settlers. The French Society for the Emigration of Women’s efforts to promote Frenchwomen’s settlement in Asia had no more rewarding outcomes for its organizers.


Pedersen: What aspect of writing this work did you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?


O’Donnell: The most challenging aspect of the research was balancing the lack of known sources about public reaction in France to colonial women’s settlement programs with the depth of the archival material available on the public’s reception to German women’s sponsored emigration to Southwest Africa. Other scholars have identified key writings by the proponents of the French and German women’s colonization, including Joseph Chailley-Bert and Marie Pégard, but locating sufficient French newspaper editorials and other popular writing reacting to their ideas depended on the recent advances in digital research tools–particularly the searchable newspaper holdings of the French National Library.


The most rewarding aspect was collaborating with such a diverse and talented group of scholars on this project. Their ideas and encouragement really pushed me to develop my ideas about Germany by introducing a comparison with French history which highlights the national differences and contrasts, despite the apparent similarities of their ideas about European women and colonization.


Pedersen: To what extent do you think the article will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?


O’Donnell: The comparative element to our volume offers an opportunity to present a more complex view of both French and German societies. The various pieces highlight significant points of comparison of the radical nationalism of the German Empire with the French Empire, rather than assuming German exceptionalism as a foregone conclusion. The volume as a whole also highlights the plurality and contentiousness of German politics, particularly strains of enduring popular opposition to extremist politics and racial propaganda through the 1920s, which also parallels the French Republic.




Look for more posts devoted to this volume of Historical Reflections in the coming weeks, as well as the forthcoming issue of the journal (to be published in the summer of 2014)!