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Women's History


Since 1970 the history of African women has developed into a vital and steadily expanding area of research and study, motivated, as with other areas of women's history, by the development of the international feminist movement. African women's history also paralleled the expansion of African history following World War II, as scholars inside and outside of Africa began to focus on historical transformations on the African continent.

Before the 1970s there was little available research on African women's history per se, though information on women in Africa was found in anthropological and ethnographic studies. This focus has continued in the preponderance of research on African women appearing in development studies. The first publications in the 1970s dealt with women and economic change and with women as political activists. By the mid-1980s there were a number of important extended studies, but only in the 1990s did a substantial number of monographs on specific topics begin to appear, although the bulk of new research is still found in journal and anthology articles.

Earlier historical eras were initially neglected, in part as a result of the difficulty in obtaining historical sources that dealt with women before the nineteenth century. Written materials on earlier eras, especially from an African woman's perspective, were scarce because many African communities were decentralized and nonliterate. Topics that have archival source materials included elite women such as Queen Nzinga, a seventeenth-century ruler in what became Angola, and market women along the West African coast who interacted with European traders. Eva, a seventeenth-century African woman who settled in the early Dutch community on the Cape in South Africa and married a European colonist, is also found in archival documentation. Egypt was exceptionally strong in sources concerning women in earlier centuries.

Source availability influenced the large number of studies on slave women in the nineteenth century, which is an important issue but did not represent the experience of most women. Slaves within Africa were more likely to be women, a reflection of their productive and reproductive contributions to their communities. Scholars have retrieved information on other aspects of the lives of women in the nineteenth century, as exemplified in research that detailed women's work in Lesotho, elite women in Buganda, women's vulnerability in Central Africa, Swahili women's spirit possession cults, Asante queen mothers' political influence, religious Muslim women in West Africa, and numerous other specific areas of women's activity.

Reexamining familiar issues from a woman's perspective has altered African history more generally. For example, many of the initial studies of women's work during the colonial period showed how they had lost power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops and their exclusion from the global marketplace, in contrast to men, who were more likely to benefit from these economic changes. The emphasis on the formal sector of the economy in African labor history eclipsed women's actual economic activity, which centered on agricultural work. Studying women's economic contributions meant paying attention to rural agricultural work as well as the urban efforts of market vendors, both sectors previously neglected in African labor history. Female agricultural innovations were described as essential to community survival. Women's changing position in arenas formerly seen as only male has been shown in research on mining compounds in Zambia, railway communities in Nigeria, and other urban studies.

Research on women's involvement in political activism changed previously accepted ideas of women's passivity in the face of such changes. In some areas, such as southern Nigeria in the 1920s, women drew on precolonial practices to express their displeasure with the colonial powers. New information about the leadership role of illiterate Muslim women in Dar es Salaam in the nationalist movement of the 1950s fundamentally changed the view that the Tanzanian anticolonial movement was led solely by men who were products of Christian mission education. Research on more recent years has found a proliferation of African women's organizations concerned with bringing peace to conflict-ridden areas, ending female genital cutting or mutilation (erroneously called female circumcision), and training women to get involved in national politics. Women's studies programs have been established at most African universities.

Scholars of women and religion have investigated female spiritual power in local religions and the role of women in developing local churches that were often offshoots of larger denominations. Research in the 1990s also included a focus on women and missions, with researchers demonstrating that the introduction of European ideas about marriage and family simultaneously brought new oppressions and new opportunities for women. Research on women and Islam has also grown, with new information on women and Koranic education in West Africa and on Muslim women's involvement in nationalist struggles in North Africa.

The earliest publications tended to be descriptive as scholars worked to prove that African women had made an impact on their societies. More recent studies have provided much more nuanced descriptions of the complexities of women's lives, of the changes over time, and of local and outsider ideologies about women in Africa. Helen Bradford's reanalysis of the role of the adolescent girl Nongqawuse in the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s has demonstrated that taking women's testimony seriously and focusing on women's experience and expression of history can fundamentally change the explanation of an event. She convincingly suggests that issues of changing sexuality and possibly abuse or incest were of central importance in understanding people's motivations, and conventional reliance on broader economic and political reasons for the upheaval is not completely satisfactory.

Among the issues continuing to appear in writings on African women's history are those of representation (who is writing this history and for what audience), sources and methodology, and periodization, as well as the usual areas of productive work, family life, and public activities such as politics and religion. Tiyambe Zeleza has described the enduring marginalization of African women's history, as the information that has been recovered is omitted from textbooks or included in very limited ways. The absence of African women historians is frequently commented on, as there are regrettably few who publish regularly. The history of women in precolonial Africa continues to be a weak point, while the history of the colonial era (from around 1880 to the 1960s for most of the continent) has shifted from examining the impact of colonialism on women (assessed as mostly negative) to investigating African communities and history from their own perspectives. This approach includes an emphasis on African women's agency and efforts to present African women's own voices. A notable effort in this regard is the Women Writing Africa Project sponsored by Feminist Press, which presents extensive materials written and recorded by African women. A single volume on English-speaking southern Africa has been published and the editors, Tuzyline Jita Allan and Abena Busia, plan several more regional collections. New research reexamines territory already covered and opens new topics while incorporating the voices of African women as both subjects and scholars, indicating the direction African women's history will take in the near future.

Kathleen Sheldon

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz Biography