Erin L. Murphy: Women's Anti-Imperialism, 'The White Man's Burden,' and the Philippine-American War

Roundup: Talking About History

[Erin L. Murphy, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of the "'Prelude to Imperialism': Whiteness and Chinese Exclusion in the Reimagining of the United States." Journal of Historical Sociology (2005), 18:457-490, and "Women's Anti-Imperialism, 'The White Man's Burden,' and the Philippine-American War: Theorizing Masculinist Ambivalence in Protest." Gender & Society (2009), 23:244-270. She can be contacted at]

At the Chicago Liberty Meeting in April 1899, organized to protest U.S. imperialist advances in the Philippines, Jane Addams was the only woman of eight plenary speakers. There she stated, “To ‘protect the weak’ has always been the excuse of the ruler and tax-gatherer, the chief, the king, the baron; and now, at last, of ‘the white man’” (Addams 1899). A few months earlier, in late 1898, the United States purchased the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris despite a preexisting revolutionary movement for independence. Subsequently, the Philippine-American War broke out, with Filipinos continuing to seek an end to colonial rule, be it the rule of Spain or the United States. President Roosevelt officially announced the war to be over on July 4, 1902, although fighting continued in some provinces through 1913.

With the U.S. military mobilized in the Philippines, U.S. citizens mobilized an opposition movement in the metropole. The Anti-Imperialist League (AIL), the vanguard of the movement, organized around the Constitutional contradictions of imperialism and democracy. Those eventually identifying as "anti-imperialists" included men and women, people of various “races,”1 conservatives and progressives, elites and laborers, Boston Brahmins and rural populists. The initial goal of the movement was to stop the U.S. from taking the Philippines as a colony. After the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in the Senate, the AIL endorsed William Jennings Bryan as an anti-imperialist candidate for President in the 1900 election, which yielded another defeat. It then appeared to many anti-imperialists that the U.S. was on an imperialist course that could no longer be stopped, so they dropped out of the movement. Those left focused on the news of the U.S. military committing egregious violence in the Philippines and became determined to expose such "atrocities" to the public. Women made material and symbolic contributions to this movement at home and abroad. However, their contributions have been previously disregarded.

Anti-Imperialism and the White Man's Burden

White men from privileged or well-known backgrounds represented the public face of the anti-imperialist movement, men such as: steel-magnate Andrew Carnegie, labor leader Samuel Gompers, satirist Mark Twain, lawyer-activist Moorfield Storey, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (grandson of John Quincy Adams), Harvard philosopher William James, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, and reformers known for their connections to abolitionism, like William Lloyd Garrison, Jr. However, rank and file anti-imperialists included many working-class whites, Black and white women, as well as Black men, all of whom disagreed with the path the United States was taking in the Philippines.

For example, in February 1899, McClure’s magazine published Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” In the midst of debates over the United States’ involvement in the Philippines, the poem spread quickly. In it, Kipling advised the United States to take its place alongside Great Britain and make the sacrifices necessary for the civilization of those “half devil and half child.” However, it was also the inspiration for many anti-imperialist counter-poems, serving as a phrase for anti-imperialist ridicule because of contradictions between violence and civilization.

While anti-imperialists were carving out the organization and its agenda, pro-imperialists were there to oppose them at every turn. In her work, Fighting for American Manhood (1998), Kristin Hoganson notes "imperialists derided the antis' manliness" (p. 175). Supporters of imperialism did this through depicting anti-imperialist men in cartoons as the "aunties," feminizing their opposition to the Philippine-American War. Feminizing anti-imperialists was meant to delegitimate their public influence on imperialist policies (Hoganson 1998). Hoganson (1998) states, "depicting men as women was the most effective way of showing they lacked the manly character necessary for political authority" (p. 176-177). But even for pro-imperialists, Anglo-Saxon men's supposed "adaptability," previously seen as so advantageous for progress, now needed to be reconsidered in light of colonial contact with "savage" Filipinos (Newman 1999). Therefore, during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, martial masculinity hegemonically redefined the relationship between gender, race, and nation (Hoganson 1998), emphasizing white men's independence. This put the masculinities of other white men, like anti-imperialists promoting cautiousness, in question with regard to their claims to patriotism and citizenship. Targeting governmental policies for change meant that the AIL’s main audience would be enfranchised citizens (i.e. in 1899, mainly white men), and pro-imperialists appealed to the same audience. Though formulations of it were contested, "the white man's burden" was inescapable.

The intersectionality of anti-imperialists' race, class, and gender informed their views (Collins 2000). Therefore, there was no single coherent anti-imperialism. Rather, there were multiple anti-imperialisms. For example, in the context of "the white man's burden" debates, anti-imperialist leaders had an ambivalent take on gender and on women’s roles as anti-imperialists. They spent little time discussing women, gender, or themselves as "emasculated" men in their correspondence to each other-- a function of their gendered privilege (Kimmel 2006). Their anti-imperialism came from a particular conception of their role as responsible citizens, carrying out their obligations to keep the nation true to its democratic legacy. While they espoused freedom, liberty, and self-determination, they practiced patriarchal control of the resistance. While they tried to prevent the nation from committing violence against racialized imperialist subjects, they kept Black men and women at the margins....

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