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  • Introduction
  • Emmanuelle Saada (bio)

This collection of articles enriches the literature on transnational feminism in the Francophone world that has emerged in the past 20 years.1 Following the path opened by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, they show how women can be "written back into transnational, twentieth century movements such as negritude, anti-imperialism, and decolonialism" (Boittin).

They do so from a very specific vantage point: the three articles focus on the impact of World War II on debates and practices at the intersection of critiques of gender discrimination, racism, and colonialism. They treat 1938 to 1946 as a pivotal point in the genealogy of a Black Francophone feminism: the fight against fascism and Nazism in the Caribbean and West Africa transformed the stakes and terms of a gendered race consciousness that had emerged in the interwar period. The war also put new pressures on the management of power relations within the French empire, and this opened new possibilities for the affirmation [End Page 89] of women's political agency. The articles also bring together discourses and practices to consider feminism as, indistinguishably, a "political movement, intellectual thought, mode of analysis, and praxis" (Joseph-Gabriel).

Within this framework, the articles raise two fundamental questions. First, they ask what the historical analysis of the intersectionality of discriminations tells us about the history of "feminism." Second, via their investigation of the impact of World War II on gendered race consciousness, they contribute to the ongoing historiographical debate on the influence of the war on the contestation and demise of the French empire.

Obviously, this short introduction cannot provide an adequate historiographic overview of the debates on gender and colonialism in the French empires over the past 30 years. Yet, some contextualization is useful to grasp the importance of this collection of articles.

For the larger part of the twentieth century, colonial history as a discipline focused on the process of conquest and government of the colonies. It was dominated by questions pertaining to the fields of military, diplomatic, and political history. In other words, it largely registered male activities. Women were excluded from the understanding of the process of colonization, except, in passing, as stakes and justifications of the colonial enterprise. In the French context, the legitimation of colonization as a project to free native women from native male domination emerged in the last third of the nineteenth century, alongside the supposed motive of the suppression of African slavery. As we all know, the trope that white men are saving the brown women from brown men has remained a central figure of colonial and postcolonial discourses.2 In an inversion of this image, even critical observers of colonization, such as Jacques Berque, considered women to be passive objects over which native male autonomy could affirm itself.3

The anti-colonial historiography that accompanied and followed independence did not do much better: its focus on liberation movements privileged male figures and activism as if the military and political struggles only co-opted women at their margins. Yet some astute observers, such as Frantz Fanon, in however ambiguous terms, recorded the active contributions of women in the resistance to colonialism.4

This blindness began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, as economic historians and anthropologists, largely inspired by Marxism, attempted to understand the longue durée of extractive colonial practices, especially in West Africa. They [End Page 90] revealed how imperial domination displaced precolonial women's economic and even political agencies through the modernization of agricultural work.5

In the 1980s, the questions raised in the growing field of women's history expanded to imperial spaces. The role of Western women in fostering or resisting imperial orders was explored alongside the agency of colonized women. Authors underlined—and sometimes exaggerated—native women's economic autonomy during the colonial era, especially their role in commerce and their capacity to instrumentalize colonial administration and law to their benefit.6 Important research was done on the role of women in the contestation of colonialism, in the French context mostly through their participation in the wars of national liberation.7

The cultural and anthropological turn in the 1990s greatly transformed the questions raised by historians of colonization...


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