Recap: “British Women in the Italian Risorgimento: An Orientalist Civilizing Mission?”

Corey Cherrington
April 25, 2019

On Thursday, April 25, the final session of the Italian and Mediterranean Colloquium took place with a presentation by Diana Moore from The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Moore’s presentation covered important questions about orientalism, transnational networks, and 19th C. liberalism in the context of three British women who lived in Italy during the Risorgimento.   Along with Moore, Konstantina Zanou (Columbia University) acted both as respondent to the talk and as the event’s moderator.

Moore narrated the lives of three British-born women who lived in Italy during the Risorgimento (Italian Unification): Jessie White Mario (1832-1906), Julia Salis Schwabe (1819-1896), and Mary Chambers (c. 1823-1881).  Tracing the lives of these women, Moore argued, can help scholars find new perspectives on relationships between citizens of the British Empire and the Italian movement for unification. In many cases, stories of middle class British women in Italy during this period are ignored, as many believe that the fact that these women wrote with elitist and/or orientalist undertones in their correspondences makes them unworthy of study.  Therefore, their stories are frequently discredited and/or overlooked. However, Moore cracks open a primarily closed case to tell her audience that White Mario, Schwabe, and Chambers were not as orientalist as they may seem.

Instead, Moore states that White Mario, Schwabe, and Chambers expressed sentiments common to a transnational middle class network in Europe in the 19th Century.  To summarize Moore’s telling of the story, when these three British women relocated to Italy from their homeland, their biases against Italy’s poor people and Catholics were mainly directed towards Southern Italy.  These attitudes were reflected not only by White Mario, Schwabe, and Chambers’ respective groups of friends in Northern Italy, but also by local governments in the same region. This leads to Moore’s main conclusion that, as opposed to the commonly-held opinion that British people living in Italy were on an orientalist civilizing mission, there were instead transnational biases against the poor and Catholics that had roots in Italy itself. According to Moore, this “internal orientalism” reinforced outsiders’ notions about Italy’s South, therefore allowing for transnationally-accepted stereotypes of Southern Italians.

Along with this main argument, Moore made an interesting conclusion about the feminism of the three women she centered upon in her study.  On this topic, Moore provided evidence from her archival research that White Mario, Schwabe, and Chambers were unique for their time. Indeed, all three women were very involved in critical projects of the Risorgimento, even to the point where they engaged with famous figures such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini (both major players in Italy’s Unification).  Also important to note is the fact these three women differed greatly from other British women of their time, as this particular group did not shy away from publishing controversial written works, making bold strides in the field of education for the poor in Italy, and becoming influencers in Italian politics. This facet of the conversation allowed Moore to share a history that often receives less attention--that of transnational, liberal, feminist citizens of the British Empire.  Moore emphasized that these perspectives receive less attention because the scholarly community tends to avoid studying figures who initially appear to be orientalists. There is more to the story, Moore says, and investigation into the lives of individuals such as White Mario, Schwabe, and Chambers could continue to reveal the nuances of how complicated empires really were.

Konstantina Zanou likewise spoke on this point in the comments she gave on Moore’s presentation, saying that the voluntary, transnational movement of women in this era of empires does not receive nearly as much attention in scholarship as it should.

With that, Zanou stressed that the transnational qualities of the three women discussed by Moore could be highlighted effectively in the context of the British Empire to tell a more nuanced story about empire.  This can be achieved, said Zanou, by studying the fragmented nature of empires and by viewing them as complex international networks of individuals, rather than looking at them as homogenous groups of people who all think the same.

The April 25, 2019 session of the Italian and Mediterranean Colloquium was sponsored by the Department of Italian and the European Institute. More details about the colloquium, along with future events, can be found on the Italian and Mediterranean Colloquium page.

Recap: “British Women in the Italian Risorgimento: An Orientalist Civilizing Mission?”
Recap: “British Women in the Italian Risorgimento: An Orientalist Civilizing Mission?”