- A Philosopher with a Plan:Reflections on Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters, Female Husbands
Male Daughters, Female Husbands, the major scholarly work by sociologist turned writer Ifi Amadiume, was an ode to her hometown of Nnobi and a manifesto on the practice of African feminist scholarship. Male Daughters, Female Husbands was a groundbreaking work on many levels—it was the first full-length study of an African society written by an African feminist scholar, it was the first full-length sociological study to address an African social world, and it was one of the first monographs in African studies to disentangle the form of the female body from its social meaning, thus allowing the possibility of the category of woman to be gendered in a range of ways, including through exercising hegemonic masculine status.
Male Daughters, Female Husbands was particularly pioneering from a disciplinary standpoint. Amadiume's training was in sociology and the study of social organizations, not anthropology, the more frequently traveled route of scholars who focused on Africa. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, sociology did not generate many Africa scholars; it was a science that did not seem relevant to an Africa made up of cultures, not societies, where one encountered cultural practices but not social theory and fixed traditions, not change over time. Amadiume's crucial positioning within sociology thus becomes even more important for thinking about openings and closings in what could be considered viable as scholarship in African Studies.
Taking Nnobi, Eastern Nigeria, as her case study, Amadiume traced the constriction of women's political, economic, and gender possibilities from the precolonial period [End Page 124] to the postcolonial period in one Igbo society. The book's first chapter addresses the nineteenth century, which is interesting to reflect on because Amadiume was trained in the analysis of contemporary social organizations. Her decision to open with the nineteenth century certainly speaks to the centrality of this period within our analyses of the origins of gender ideologies and practices that are prevalent in Africa today. But more important, Amadiume's decision to open with the nineteenth century, and later examine deeper religious temporalities in her analysis of changes in female gender possibilities, also reflects the importance that she attached to the explanatory function of historical contexts. This marked a key difference from many of her fellow feminist theorists. Even though she was working in a social science field that was concerned with the present, Amadiume deemed history and the practice of historicization to be essential to any critical practice of theorizing African realities and tracing the logics of social difference in African societies.
Male Daughters, Female Husbands is best known for its arguments about the possibility that women in some African societies were able to access masculine social status and operate economically, politically, and socially, as privileged men did. Daughters could inherit land as social sons, and women could form their own lineages as social husbands. In exploring the complex social, spiritual, and economic foundations of gender ideology in Nnobi society, Amadiume was able to decouple the sexed body, particularly the female-sexed body, from a widely presumed subordinate status relative to male-sexed bodies. In short, Amadiume's study demonstrated that the apparent correlation among femaleness, and political, economic, and social subordination that obtained in late twentieth-century societies in Africa and across the world, was socially constructed and not inevitable; it was sociological and historical, not innate to African societies or timeless.
Studies on the performativity of gender identity have drawn our attention to the wide variation in how hegemonic male and female identities are displayed and how they behave across societies. Scholarship has also addressed the dense overlaps between the seemingly binary categories of male and female and the ways those overlaps can provoke intense anxieties, which require the policing and exaggeration of gender difference. From the performativist standpoint, gender identities are assemblages of costume, gesture, tone, wealth, and a variety of other tools that can be combined and recombined to call forth a range of gender personas and fulfill a range of social roles. Amadiume's analysis of the economics of masculinity and femininity in Nnobi social...