- Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labor, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos by Abosede A. George
A rich scholarship on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa covers a broad range of the political, social, economic, and cultural effects of colonialism on African women. However, little has been said about African girls, who were seldom mentioned in colonial reports. Making Modern Girls, while acknowledging this problem of scanty archival sources, also offers a rich [End Page 234] critical examination of the impact of colonialism on girls. By profiling the experiences of working-class girls—namely girl hawkers and “those who set out to save them in nineteenth-century colonial Lagos” (6)—Abosede A. George emphasizes children as colonial subjects and discusses how an examination of their interactions with the colonial state adds a new perspective to our understanding of European rule, citizenship building, and knowledge production in Africa. The most pressing intellectual argument of the study concerns African children as powerful social actors. Criticizing what might be called a biased history, George places children in the center of both her analysis and the history of colonialism. “Before the trade unionist, the wageworker, or the nationalist politician,” she asserts, “the child was the first category of native to emerge as a universal subject in Africa …” (6).
By focusing on hawking—the selling of petty goods on the streets—the author is able to examine the dynamics of girlhood and the multiple issues associated with the practice. Both colonial social workers and elite women in colonial Lagos took a paternalistic approach to saving girls from work that was associated with “ideas of immorality” (53) and challenged the model of good modern citizenship. This construction of the girl hawker linked hawking to prostitution and was grounded in the European movement of “save the child” and the rhetoric of “moral danger.” But despite their common interests, colonial social workers and Lagosian women reformers held somewhat contradictory visions on how to “save” working-class girls. For elite women, she writes, “the transformation of girlhood was conceptualized as an indigenous modernization effort for the preservation and popularization of ‘modern womanhood’ in the nation” (7). For colonial officials, “the transformation of girlhood was conceptualized as a social development scheme that was vital for the salvation of Yoruba girls while being potentially redemptive for a crumbling colonial enterprise” (8). George indicates that these opposing salvationist views, a reflection of two overlapping projects of social reform and development work, produced contested ideas of girlhood in colonial Lagos. The girl hawker was constructed as both a poor girl from the countryside who was at risk of falling into delinquency and a “universal child who would respond to the same principles and methods of juvenile reforms that were applied to children in Europe” (101).
In this way, George’s discussion of the intervention of colonial welfare workers into the lives of girl hawkers in Lagos also has a great deal to say about the production of power and the social construction of knowledge. While the field of social work was “enlisted to construct and correct the maladjusted child in Lagos” (97), women reformers interfered in the colonial state’s development project and consequently “challenged the power–knowledge hierarchies that underlay the colonial social order” (11). While a rich scholarship has explored the alliance between Europeans and African men to control and contain African women, Making Modern Girls shows how interactions between educated women and colonial social workers affected the nature of colonial rule in colonial Lagos. She stresses that women [End Page 235] reformers, “the daughters of the Black Victorians[,] sought fulfillment and recognition as public social actors” with a marked goal of uplifting endangered working-class girls into “urban and modern girls” (60). In the process they were also concerned with the “transformation of mainstream girlhood, African womanhood, and Lagosian society” (50), although in this sense their efforts may have been counterproductive or fallen...