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  • Teaching the Research in Akan Gender History
  • Kate Skinner (bio)
Stefano Boni , "Twentieth-Century Transformations in Notions of Gender, Parenthood, and Marriage in Southern Ghana: a Critique of the Hypothesis of 'Retrograde Steps' for Akan Women," History in Africa 28 (2001), 15-41,

In my advanced undergraduate course on colonial Ghana, I set students the following essay question: "Did cash-cropping and colonialism conspire to reduce the autonomy and status of Akan women?" In order to answer this question, students must develop a working understanding of: 1. the spread of cash-cropping in the Gold Coast and Asante, and the particular inputs of land and labor that are required for the production of cocoa; 2. Akan social and political organisation, including the concepts of matrilinearity and rights-in-persons, and the role of stools and lineages in determining access to usufruct on different types of land; and 3. the nature of indirect rule and the potential for male chiefs and elders to increase the control of senior men over women and junior men. Those students who can see the connections between this essay and other segments of the course (particularly those which address missionary Christianity and formal schooling), tend to produce more sophisticated answers. Across the range of marks, however, students almost invariably conclude that the answer to the question is "yes," and this is consistent with the position of most of the authors who feature on my reading list (e.g. Jean Allman, Victoria Tashjian, [End Page s31] Gwendolyn Mikell, Beverly Grier, Takyiwaa Manuh, and, to some extent, Gareth Austin).

In this article, however, Stefano Boni argues that the thesis of "retrograde steps" for Akan women in the twentieth century "rests on an assumed, unproven past,"1 and that continuity is more important than change in understanding gender relations. Using evidence from colonial ethnography and from courts in Sefwi, Boni counters two core elements of the wider "retrograde steps" thesis: firstly, that the onset of cocoa cash-cropping resulted in a much more intensive exploitation of women's labor and therefore narrowed their scope for independent economic activity; and secondly that fathers gradually asserted greater rights over their children at the expense of mothers and the matrilineage.

On the first point, Boni argues that marriage had long entailed the right of the husband to benefit from the labor of his wife, and that wives (or their matrikin) had long recognised "fluid" unions, in which they refused to accept monetary payment from the husband, as a means of mitigating his demands and expectations. Boni concludes that male efforts to assert their rights over their wives' labor predated the impact of cocoa cash-cropping in Sefwi, and that evidence from elsewhere in the Akan region points to a similar pattern: "[M]en used their wives' unpaid labor, alongside unfree labor, in precolonial profit-making activities (...) . Husbands' demands for wives' work on cocoa farms was an exploitative adaptation of existing marital norms."2

Secondly, although the matrilineal "model" would have rights over children residing in their mother's brother, Boni points to examples from early twentieth-century Sefwi in which biological fathers made successful claims to the custody and labor of their children and played a role in negotiating the marriages of their daughters. He concludes that fathers' rights were already well-established before the effect of either cocoa or colonial rule was fully felt, and that "Rights over youngsters were rather negotiated dynamically between different agents, the father certainly being one of them. Whoever catered for the child (...) was often recognized as having privileged rights over the youngster."3 Men were therefore "willing, at least officially, to comply with their paternal duties"4 because this was a key justification for their subordination of women and children. Conflict lay not in the ideal of household head as provider, but in whether the degree to which a man fulfilled his duties to his dependants justified the extent of his demands upon them. [End Page s32]

I have chosen this article not because I think that Boni is "right," for there are specific elements of the "retrograde steps" thesis (particularly the impact of migration and formal schooling...


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