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  • When We Discovered Gender:A Retrospective on Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society
  • Lorelle Semley (bio)

When two exciting works about gender burst onto the scene in 1987, neither the two authors nor their respective audiences appeared to know each other very well.1 One publication was anthropologist Ifi Amadiume's groundbreaking book, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. The other piece was historian Joan Scott's famous article, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," published in the December 1986 issue of American Historical Review, before it became the heart of her 1988 book, Gender and the Politics of History.2 Both texts make strident theoretical arguments about the distinction between sex and gender. However, given the timing, the authors did not and could not have referenced once another. Some three decades later, both writers are celebrated very differently, and not only because they fall into different disciplines of anthropology and history or subfields of Africa and Europe. Today, many self-identified feminist scholars and academics, in general, are aware of Amadiume's and Scott's work. However, Scott is often seen as a foundational figure in the field of gender studies, whereas Amadiume's work is often presented as an interesting case study, worthy of a tantalizing sentence or a footnote about "female husbands."

The treatment of Amadiume's scholarship exposes several fault lines in academic disciplines and among scholars of women, gender, and sexuality. Americanist and Europeanist feminist scholars often cite Amadiume as an example [End Page 117] from "other" societies and cultures. Yet Africanists working on different regions of the continent also only acknowledge her curious Igbo case of "male daughters" and "female husbands," without going much further. Some feminist and Africanist scholars focus on the politics of Amadiume's work at the time it was published. In her preface, Amadiume is unapologetic in her criticisms of anthropologists, white Western feminists, and even black feminist lesbian scholars drawn to the idea of a space for marriage between two women.3 Indeed, Amadiume's book is deliciously polemical. However, many lose sight of the profound theoretical intervention that she was making thirty years ago, when she declared "gender [a] construct distinct from biological sex" and set out to reveal this historical phenomenon in an African society to boot.4 Thus, Amadiume confronts conventional scholarship as an author and as a student of women in Nnobi who made history; she fundamentally challenges several ways of thinking about African women as thinking, activist, and visible subjects of study.

Looking back at the impact on Amadiume's work on current ways of conceptualizing and writing about gender, the radical theoretical framing of Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands follows three major lines of inquiry: the distinction between sex and gender, flexibility in gender roles, and the process of change in gender dynamics. Amadiume addresses these themes through the content and format of the book. To make her foundational claim about the distinction between sex and gender, she highlights examples of biological women who were able to occupy gender identities as men by acting as figurative sons and husbands in their own extended families. By revealing how women historically transgressed gender norms to acquire wealth and prestige, she demonstrates how social and cultural ideologies and practices had built-in possibilities for change. Finally, in covering the period before, during, and after formal British colonial rule, Amadiume shows how and why gender ideologies adapted to reflect Igbo, Christian, and Western ideologies over time. Perhaps most important, the lessons of Amadiume's work should push us to look for more complexity in societies and communities far beyond the Nnobi towns of northern Igboland in modern-day Nigeria.

To appreciate the extent of Amadiume's contribution to the study of gender in African studies, I would like to suggest that her attention to flexibility or the "socio-cultural dynamism of gender" also can have an impact on the study of gender more broadly.5 Through the theme of flexibility, Amadiume explores the mutability and nuance in relationships between women and men and among women over time, in symbolic and practical ways...


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pp. 117-123
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