Oceans of Opportunity: Women’s Mobility in the Early 20th-Century Pacific World

AHA Session 147
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Frances Steel, University of Wollongong
Paul Kramer, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

Transnational and trans-oceanic history was long focused upon the Atlantic world, but in the past decade historians have increasingly turned to the Pacific. Scholars such as Ian Tyrrell and Matt Matsuda have pioneered a new focus upon the movement of people, ideas and goods across and within the world’s largest ocean, bringing new perspectives to bear on American and world history. A wave of recent research has highlighted that the nineteenth and twentieth century Pacific was criss-crossed by shipping routes and telegraph cables, and became an important theatre of imperial expansion, trade and tourism. As Pacific networks developed, missionaries, businessmen, pleasure-seekers, indigenous labourers and many others could be found sailing between ports such as San Francisco, Sydney, Suva, Manila and Shanghai.

This panel, which features historians from a range of career stages, builds upon the burgeoning scholarship on trans-Pacific mobility by bringing together three papers which examine white women’s travels across the Pacific during the early decades of the twentieth century. Sarah Steinbock-Pratt examines the imperial experiences of Mary Helen Fee, an American woman who taught in the Philippines from 1901. By adopting a micro-historical approach, Steinbock-Pratt uses Fee’s life to explore white women’s colonial authority over Filipinos and demonstrates how America’s Pacific empire facilitated the mobility and careers of single women. Anne Rees also explores the professional opportunities afforded by women’s trans-Pacific travel, but focuses instead upon Australian women who pursued study and careers in the United States. Looking at the period between 1920 and 1960, her paper scrutinizes these travellers’ encounters with American gender relations, making the argument that the United States offered far greater educational and professional opportunities for women. Susann Liebich continues this antipodean focus, exploring representations of women’s travel eastwards and northwards across the Pacific within two fashionable interwar Australian magazines. Her analysis elucidates the multiple meanings of middle-class women’s travel during this era, which ranged from asserting independence and seeking adventure, to expressions of modernity, glamour and social prestige.

Collectively these papers highlight the range and extent of white women’s mobility across the early twentieth century Pacific, and reveal that these oceanic crossings were often represented and experienced as emancipatory. The combination of American and Australian perspectives, meanwhile, opens up fruitful comparisons between women’s lives in these two English-speaking nations, and suggests that the link between Sydney and San Francisco was a significant but under-recognised conduit of transnational relations. Although newly federated Australia remained ensconced within the British Empire, and the United States continued to orient itself towards the Atlantic, both nations were also increasingly engaged with each other and the broader Pacific world. By exploring intersections between gendered mobility and questions of empire, race and modernity, this panel also seeks more broadly to enhance our understanding of the complexities of ‘global migrations’ at the dawn of the age of mass tourism. The papers will therefore appeal to historians interested in mobility, transnationalism, the Pacific world, and the professional work of women in the twentieth century.

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