- Male Daughters, Female Husbands at Thirty
Rereading Ifi Amadiume's brilliant Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society is a bit like looking at a thirty-year-old photo. So much is recognizable and appealing, but it's obvious that things were different then. I first encountered the book as a graduate student within a few years of its 1987 publication, and as I began teaching African history sometime later it made regular appearances on my syllabi. Fresh and bold, Male Daughters, Female Husbands offered revelations about gender and African women's history to both Africanist scholars and Western feminists. These days, as some of those insights have become almost commonplace, it is worth celebrating their emergence and noting their lasting influence. At the same time, it's also hard not to see Male Daughters, Female Husbands as a product of its era, a time when feminist gender analysis burst forth with all its promise and, from today's vantage point, limitations.
Grounded in the history and contemporary positions of women in Amadiume's hometown of Nnobi in southeastern Nigeria, Male Daughters, Female Husbands appealed to me most for its insistent distinction between sex and gender. Though precolonial Nnobi society was starkly divided by sex, its gender system was more flexible, allowing wealthy women to acquire wives and therefore become "husbands" and some daughters to be conceptualized as male in order to inherit the position of household head from their fathers. "The fact that biological sex did not always correspond to ideological gender meant that women could play roles [End Page 93] usually monopolized by men, or be classified as 'males' in terms of power and authority over others," Amadiume wrote. "As such roles were not rigidly masculinized or feminized, no stigma was attached to breaking gender rules."1 This gender flexibility was reflected in the Igbo language, which makes few gender distinctions, even in words for "husband" and "wife."2
All of this gave me ammunition for discussions with my historian colleagues about why non-Africanists should be interested in African history. Male Daughters, Female Husbands was published just after Joan Wallach Scott's article, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," but a year before her book Gender and the Politics of History splashed onto the Euro-American historical scene.3 Conventional as it may seem now, gender was then a radical new tool for analyzing societies and history. Scott's definition of the term was meant to set the agenda for a new way of understanding history: "gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power."4 Writing for audiences in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, Amadiume did not engage with the academic conversations Scott was then pushing in the United States. Yet they shared similar concerns and insights: that gender was distinct from biological sex; that it is constituted in large measure through language; and that gender norms, discourses, and practices are historical and contingent.
Three years after Male Daughters, Female Husbands appeared, the American philosopher Judith Butler published Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.5 Butler's book took the distinction between sex and gender as its premise, arguing further that gender identities were created, perpetuated, and sometimes subverted through performance—that is, through words and actions in their social context. "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender," Butler wrote. "That identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results."6 She also shared Scott's and Amadiume's presumption that language reflected and reinforced views about gender. Butler went further, though, arguing that because experience and perception are always understood through language, there is no objective sex separate from gender—or there is no way to know if there is, which is essentially the same thing. Moreover, there is no necessary reason that society recognizes only two genders. Butler's book celebrated drag queens and other cross dressers because they exposed the performative nature of gender and subverted any notion that male and female were the only two...