Encountering Suzanne Karpelès: Multiple Femininities, Buddhism and the French “Civilising Mission” draws on published material, correspondence and visual sources to discuss diverse configurations of femininities and their relation to a range of educative contexts in which Suzanne Karpelès engaged internationally during the 1930s as the only French woman to attain her degree of status in the French protectorate of Indochina as director of the Royal Library (1925-41) and of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (1930-41) and as chief publications officer for the École Supérieure de Pāli (1925-41).
The paper begins by exploring intersections of religion and femininities as Karpelès negotiated her authority with male colonial administrators for whom she was a “woman out of place” as the sole female amongst monks at the Buddhist Institute. Here the Buddhist monks and Karpelès (a self-described feminist) choreographed particular performances of femininities to accommodate the monks’ view that women were impure and to ensure that when travelling by car, canoe, horseback or on foot to visit pagodas and pagoda schools that Western tenets of feminine propriety were maintained. The second section examines intersections of femininities and colonialism as Karpelès drew on the French “civilising mission” to situate herself differently in terms of class from other French women in Indochina. In France she departed from more usual colonial narratives of indigenous femininities through her detailed knowledge of native women, while in Indochina she shaped Western and native relations of femininity in ways that both demonstrated and contested colonial power. The final section considers Karpelès’ performance of feminine expertise when presenting accounts of the work of the Buddhist Institute at the Congress of Orientalists at Leiden and to the League of Nations Committee of Major International Associations in Paris. It also touches on the conference at the International Institute of Educational Cinematography in Rome (which acted as a spur to her educational cinematography initiatives in Indochina) where Karpelès encountered configurations of fascist femininities.
The paper concludes by raising questions about configurations of femininities as Western technologies of self alongside notions of “no-self” in the Buddhist cosmologies Karpelès embraced.
Goodman, Joyce. “Encountering Suzanne Karpelès: Multiple Femininities, Buddhism and the French “Civilising Mission, presented at the ISCHE Pre-Conference Workshop “Shifting the Frame on ‘Femininity’: Fluidity in the History of Women’s Education”, Humboldt University Berlin, 28 August 2018, 2018.
The paper is part of my developing thinking around the project Educational Cinematography, Empire and Internationalism