Contemplating Women’s Imperial Service: Mabel Bent as Photographer, Travel Writer, and Collector
Keywords:empire, knowledge production, women travelers, travel writing, photography
Despite a growing body of literature on women’s roles within the British Empire as settlers, teachers, nurses, missionaries, activists, and ‘adventuresses,’ their contribution to Victorian knowledge production remains underexamined. In particular, the labor of married women has often been subsumed under their husband’s work and, as a result, has largely gone unrecognized. Treating them as emblematic of a shadow archive of married women’s cultural production in the late 19th century, I interrogate Mabel Bent’s diaries, photographs, and ethnographic collecting strategies to show that she exercised epistemic power through the imperial practices of representation and appropriation. I locate her productive and reproductive work within a complex web of service relationships between herself, the British Empire, and her husband, and show that while Bent related ambiguously to her service, she exploited it to defy gender conventions without risking her reputation.
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