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Saving María, Mitsu, and Mahsa—U.S. Imperial Feminism from the Mexican-American War to the “War on Terror”

Katharina Motyl

Pages 61 - 79



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When the George W. Bush administration maintained that a central goal of military intervention in Afghanistan was to liberate Afghan women from Taliban oppression and the "burqa", it deployed "imperial feminism", invoking women’s rights to justify an imperialist invasion. The United States thereby continued the logic of British colonialism in nineteenth-century Egypt, which referenced Islam’s alleged oppression of women to legitimize its imperial presence, and demanded that veiling be abolished. However, the “War on Terror” is but the latest incident in a long history of U.S. imperial feminism. Contemporaneous discourses framed the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as a chivalrous quest in which U.S. soldiers saved Mexican maidens from exploitation by Mexican men. During the U.S. occupation of Japan (1945-1952), granting Japanese women the franchise and other civil rights was the highest priority of occupation policy. The United States’ emancipation of Japanese women was subsequently showcased to the world to prove the benevolence of the U.S. empire. Historically, imperial feminism has done the most damage to those it avowedly sought to save: “Native” women. When women of societies once subjected to imperial feminism seek to engage in feminist critique, they are frequently accused of continuing the usurpation of their communities that Western imperialism initiated in the name of women’s rights.

Key Words: U.S. Empire; imperial feminism; Mexican-American War; U.S. ­occupation of Japan; “Global War on Terror”

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