Undesirables: Stories and Archives of Unruly Women in the French Empire
Jennifer Anne Boittin, Professor of French and Francophone Studies, History, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
This talk tells some of the stories of over 500 women deemed “undesirable” by the French colonial police. These women were Southeast Asian, West African, or European. They were traveling alone, poor or ill, or deemed unruly for their choice of intimate partners. They wrote passionate letters to the police advocating for themselves and pleading for the ability to move freely throughout the French empire. Boittin shows how these letter writers rejected patriarchal or racialized evaluations of themselves as “bad” and “out of place” and summoned intimate details to move beyond, contest, or confound surveillance efforts. They brought to life a practice she terms “passionate mobility.” Taken together, they challenged the empire, added momentum to movements for decolonization, and illuminate today’s issues of migration and violence.