- Women,Work and Domestic Virtue in Uganda, 1900–2003
Since the 1980s, women have been critically important to scholars, politicians, and activists who work in Uganda.1 In this study, sociologist Kyomuhendo and historian McIntosh draw on sources—from archives to life history and survey data—that have both provoked and emerged from Ugandan women's decades of political activism. They do this to write not a general history of Ugandan women, though readers may use the book as such, but a study that uses a central concept to explore changes and continuity.
The study sees women's lives in Uganda as shaped by a hegemonic moral ideal of women's purpose that emerged from the new intersection of British and Ugandan ideals around 1900: "domestic virtue". This hybrid ideal distinguished sharply between what could be expected of women, as opposed to men. Women "were valued for their contributions within the family" and expected to be "submissive and deferential to all men."(2) Yet in practice, this ideal offered flexibility in a time of change. Since women's goodness in this model was a function of their motives (building and preserving family) not of their specific activities, women could innovate in how they pursued their goals. Nor was the model applicable only to the elite who could afford the education and consumer goods of British-style domesticity. Instead, Kyomuhendo and McIntosh argue that women up and down the social hierarchy pursued domestic virtue in a changing Uganda. For rural women, this could mean expanding their agricultural role to grow not just family food, but cash crops such as cotton. For the more prosperous, it involved education that would enable literate women to be more healthful mothers. For an elite it meant professional service work such as midwifery and teaching that both offered wages for family support and helped others' families. With the opportunities and challenges of the post-independence world, the model flexed further: brewers of alcohol, sellers of car parts, police drivers, guerilla soldiers, lawyers, and other women whose work saved their families and changed the country could all justify their innovations as domestic virtue without challenging local understandings of women as different from and subordinate [End Page 201] to men, without individual rights. Drawing on surveys, life histories, news stories and a range of development oriented materials on women in the 1980s and after, the study ends by both celebrating the creativity women used to meet the challenges of the bad years and prosper in the years since the NRM took over in 1986, and by noting a recent backlash against women's prominence. Women can fit the model of domestic virtue in a startling variety of ways, but the model offers little protection to women surrounded by men who (sometimes violently) lack their domestic commitment. It offers no rights for women as individuals, and few resources for women's cooperation across lines of class, ethnicity, religion or region, whether in development projects or a women's movement.
This book's strength is in pulling together a tremendous amount of material into a useful and coherent package without homogenizing the diversity of women's experiences. A book about Uganda's women, rather than simply about women of a specific region, ethnicity or status, it portrays women across the country and social spectrum, connecting its big arguments down to the level of individual lives through short life histories with details that mark out the century's challenges. This study rejects the tendency of scholars of African women to begin with "wicked women" central to colonial and post-colonial sources, who left marriages, pursued individual aims, or simply rejected cultural basics.2 Instead of emphasizing such dissidence, this study marks continuities. In another innovation, this study rejects both language of "tradition" and "rights". Ugandan activists have used "tradition" to defend polygyny and insist on patrilineal inheritance and control over land that can leave wives and widows destitute. Ugandan feminists have, conversely, sometimes tried to...