- Understanding African Marriage and Family Relations from South Africa to the United States
My scholarship focuses on South African history from the 1960s through the 1980s, so some may wonder why I would contribute to a special issue on Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands. Despite my Southern African focus, Amadiume's work has been foundational for me in two main ways: one having to do with my current research on the marriages of Xhosa professional nurses, and the other having nothing to do with late twentieth-century South Africa but early twenty-first-century Salt Lake City, Utah. The impact Amadiume's work has had on my understanding of African gender and family roles has extended to my research and teaching, but more practically to those involved in new cross-cultural interactions with central African refugees in Utah. To me, this is a testament of the enduring contributions of Male Daughters, Female Husbands, contributions that few other scholars have made in African Studies.
I first read Male Daughters, Female Husbands in a graduate student seminar on women in African history. An article by Paul Lovejoy on concubinage in the Sokoto Caliphate sparked my interest in the dynamics of free marriage (nonslave marriage) between men and women.1 As I explored the historiography of African marriage I came across Amadiume's work. As a new graduate student, I found Male Daughters, Female Husbands refreshing and exciting. I had been reading works written by Europeans and Americans about the impact of European colonialism on African marriage. It was refreshing to read something from an African [End Page 102] perspective—a Nnobi woman's perspective to be precise. I found Amadiume's work exciting because it opened my mind to understanding marriage and family relations in a very different way. In her examination of gendered family roles, Amadiume laid bare the construction of gender and family relationships in a way that showed me how fluid and variable those categories can be. By offering logical explanations from a Nnobi perspective Amadiume uncovered the creation of gender roles as something all societies do in different ways. This helped me examine the construction of gender and family relations in general, including those of my own culture.
Although anthropologists had studied African marriage arrangements and institutions and concepts of gender since the European expansion into Africa, historians only really started to focus on changes over time in African marriage after the 1970s.2 Amadiume published Male Daughters, Female Husbands at a crucial time in the development of the historical literature on African marriage. For me, her work was a powerful response to racist anthropological work and Western feminism, which had a monolithic view of African women that did not take into account African ideas of gender and power relationships. In offering this local social history from her own Nnobi, female perspective, she also demonstrated the agency and power that Nnobi or Igbo women had that countered stereotypes of oppressed African women.
I was most interested in how Amadiume treated precolonial Nnobi marriage. Marriage featured in her work as a societal institution, but also a familial relationship between wives and husbands who had specific rights and roles in the family that were not always confined to a person's physical sex. Amadiume saw woman-to-woman marriage (or female husbands) as part of Nnobi power systems and gender ideology. The Nnobi had a gendered division of labor and gendered familial roles, but allowed for people not of the sex assigned to those roles to take on those functions and responsibilities. Male daughters had the same inheritance rights as sons. Female husbands had wives who were linked to a woman in the way that a wife was linked to her husband: the wife owed her reproductive and productive work to her husband. The fulfilling of these roles was not a form of homosexuality or transgender transformation, but an avenue to gain economic, political, or social power linked to these relationships.
Reading this in Male Daughters, Female Husbands opened a new realm of thinking for me about gender and African female power. Unlike Western societies, gender was not tied to sex, but flexible. Although...