Alice in Legal Wonderland: A Cross-Examination of Gender, Race, and Empire in Victorian Law and Literature

35 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2002 Last revised: 17 Feb 2008

See all articles by Kristin Kalsem

Kristin Kalsem

University of Cincinnati - College of Law


Lewis Carroll's 1865 scene of a recalcitrant Alice in the courtroom, defying the court's authority as she grows (literally) into a large and threatening presence, dramatizes what was becoming an increasingly common Victorian spectacle: a woman questioning and critiquing the law and claiming a place for herself within its institutions. Women have played a significant (but much overlooked) role in legal history and, in this paper, I argue for the importance of examining various narratives of the past (including literary accounts) that explored women's relationship to the law.

Against the backdrop of several legal cases in which women sought entry into law and politics, I focus on representations of two surprising nineteenth-century characters - female judges, one fictional and one real: She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Ayesha, from Rider Haggard's 1887 novel She; and the real-life missionary Mary Slessor, who was the first woman appointed as a magistrate in the British Empire. Employing a theoretical approach I term cross-examination, I analyze representations of these women in sources of direct testimony, including fictional descriptions of Ayesha in her capacity as judge and written accounts of Slessor's courtroom persona by the Chief Magistrate of Calabar. These texts, like the legal cases, reveal cultural anxieties about women in the public and powerful realm of law. In my analysis, I discuss the negotiations at the level of narrative to keep these nineteenth-century Portias within their proper womanly roles. Also, both Ayesha and Slessor exercised legal power in Africa, a place where, in the context of Empire, traditional ideas about gender were complicated and disrupted by racial politics. In reading these texts that cross continents, I explore intersections of gender and race, illuminating the differences in the perceptions of women and power when those women were white women judging indigenous people in Africa.

Keywords: Gender, race

JEL Classification: J7, K00

Suggested Citation

Kalsem, Kristin, Alice in Legal Wonderland: A Cross-Examination of Gender, Race, and Empire in Victorian Law and Literature. Harvard Women's Law Journal, Vol. 24, p. 221, 2001; U of Cincinnati Public Law Research Paper No. 02-01. Available at SSRN:

Kristin Kalsem (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Clifton Avenue and Calhoun Street
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-0866 (Phone)
513-556-0163 (Fax)

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