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  • African Women’s History: Themes and Perspectives*
  • Iris Berger

I realized that African women’s history had entered a new stage of popular awareness in the United States and Europe as I prepared my response to a set of papers on women in the Sudan for the 2001 meeting of the African Studies Association. At the time, I also was reading John Le Carre’s latest novel on corrupt pharmaceutical companies in East Africa and came across a fictional passage that very closely represented the underlying message of the essays. When the book’s main character ventured into the Sudan in search of his wife’s murderers, the chief suspect—now in humanitarian guise—expressed his opinion about the country, and indeed the continent: “The women make the homes, the men make the wars. The whole of Africa, that’s one big gender fight, man. Only the women do God’s work around here.”1

While this message applies to only a few current situations in Africa, and is not necessarily connected to all of African women’s history, it made me wonder whether three decades of scholarly writing on women and gender might have had a wider impact than is usually suspected. Rather than attempting to trace that impact, however, this essay will outline the dominant themes of African women’s history during the past three decades and suggest some emerging trends likely to shape future work.

African Women’s History: An Overview

African women’s history developed in a different context than the history of women and gender in Europe and the United States. Relatively new as an accepted academic field, African history grew rapidly in the late 1950s and early 1960s as former colonies discarded the bonds of over a half century of foreign rule. Like all national entities, these emerging countries tied their legitimacy in part to a reimagined past, both precolonial and colonial. With a natural tendency to build an identity around ideas of unity, nationalist historical writings rarely entertained the idea of “women” as a social category, ignoring the abundant evidence of African women’s activist and organizational strength in many parts of the continent.

An interest in women as historical actors developed only in the early 1970s from the cross-fertilization of feminism, the general development of women’s history as a field of scholarly inquiry, and a growing interest in women and development sparked by Ester Boserup’s pathbreaking 1970 study, Woman’s Role in Economic Development.2 In response to Boserup’s bold hypotheses, many researchers designed local and regional studies to investigate her ideas more closely. Most important for Africa were two core themes: that colonialism and imperialism had led to a decline in women’s status and that, in most societies, women farmers played central economic roles. At a time when feminists in Europe and the United States were grappling with the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres that had siphoned women out of public life and into the household, an understanding of Africa’s different legacy (and how it changed under colonial rule) helped to mold a new era of historical research.

Three major themes have shaped African women’s history since the mid–1970s, although new trends are emerging at present. While it is possible to pinpoint the periods when certain ideas have been preeminent, there is considerable overlap and synthesis among them. Like syncretic African religious movements, women’s historians have forged eclectic connections between one stage and the next. Nonetheless, broad topics of interest can be identified: in the 1970s, an interest in women as “forgotten heroines,” in the 1980s and early 90s as “underclass actors,” and from the 1990s as “gendered subjects.”3

Like many other early second-wave feminist scholars, African historians focused especially on prominent women then neglected in historical literature—queen mothers, merchant princesses, spirit mediums, and participants in resistance and nationalist movements and in revolutionary struggles. A key argument implicit and explicit in much of this writing, which echoed one of Boserup’s main points, was that colonial rule had undermined precolonial institutions and ideologies that had underpinned key political and economic roles for women. A classic article of this...