Women and Colonialism
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 February 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0067
- LAST REVIEWED: 10 February 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0067
Europeans began arriving in Africa in the 15th century, most frequently settling in coastal enclaves while they pursued trade in goods such as ivory and gold, as well as in slaves. Although some areas came under European sway from those early years, it was not until the late 19th century that the European nations of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal met in a famous conference in Berlin in 1884–1885 and divided areas of influence among themselves. The years of most intense colonialism then followed, with increased warfare when the Europeans attempted, and in most areas succeeded, in enforcing their own political control over African communities. Africans resisted these incursions from the beginning, and the first nationalist movements arose in the early 20th century, culminating in successful transfers to independent status for most African nations in the 1950s and early 1960s. Women were involved in these activities in a variety of ways. Studies of women’s work during the colonial period often show that they lost power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops and women’s exclusion from the global marketplace. Even further, men and international commerce benefited because they were able to rely to some extent on women’s unremunerated labor. The dynamic varied from place to place. In some areas, the introduction of cash crops led to changes in women’s agricultural work and in men’s and women’s control over land. In other areas, women typically continued their work growing food for their family’s consumption while men earned wages by working on tea and cotton plantations or, in central and southern Africa, by going to work in gold, diamond, and copper mines. Some women moved to the newly developing urban communities in search of new opportunities, though the majority remained in the rural areas. Analysis of the development of legal systems under colonialism suggests that women were at a disadvantage, as “customary” laws were established based on male testimony that gave men, especially elite men, advantages over women in issues of marriage and divorce. Women’s precolonial political activity was generally disregarded by the colonial authorities, who turned exclusively to men when they established local political offices. In many parts of West Africa, women had were members of associations run by and for women, and which gave women the final say in disputes over markets or agriculture. The colonial agents, nearly always men, ignored that reality.
The sources listed in this section offer general overviews of the impact of colonialism on African women. Berger 2003 is a concise summary, while articles found in Allman, et al. 2002 and Hodgson and McCurdy 2001 provide a range of research on the colonial era. Hunter 1933 is an early publication that looks at the impact of South African colonialism on Pondo women. Walker 1990 provides a selection of articles on South Africa, while Bradford 1996, also on South Africa, offers insight into how including women in history can alter interpretations of events beyond simply adding women. In monographs on specific areas or societies, researchers have analyzed the changes in women’s personal lives as wives and mothers and their more public work in the economy and politics; Kanogo 2005, on women in Kenya, and Schmidt 1992, on Shona women in Zimbabwe, use a focus on one place to address a wide range of issues.
Allman, Jean, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi, eds. Women in African Colonial Histories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
This collection of thirteen essays provides an excellent entry point into studies of women under colonialism. Articles address encounters with colonial representatives, how women were perceived, and women’s political power by looking at missionaries and royal women in Zimbabwe, marriage in northern Ghana, and education in the Belgian Congo, among other intriguing histories.
Berger, Iris. “African Women’s History: Themes and Perspectives.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 4.1 (2003).
A concise overview of research on African women’s history, with the growing body of work that places women’s experiences at the center, so that marriage and reproductive concerns, women’s work, and political activism are the starting point of understanding social change under colonialism.
Bradford, Helen. “Women, Gender and Colonialism: Rethinking the History of the British Cape Colony and Its Frontier Zones, c. 1806–70.” Journal of African History 37.3 (1996): 351–370.
An important study that urges a new appraisal of key events, including the well-known story of Nonquawuse and the Xhosa of 1856–1857. Bradford demonstrates how a more complete assessment of women’s perspective brings new understanding to history in general.
Hodgson, Dorothy L., and Sheryl A. McCurdy, eds. “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
A collection of fifteen articles, the majority on colonial history and women’s disruptive behavior, including contributions on marriage in Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania, fertility in Tanzania, and colonial constructions of women as “bad” in Uganda and Zambia.
Hunter, Monica. “The Effects of Contact with Europeans on the Status of Pondo Women.” Africa 6.3 (1933): 259–276.
After providing details on marriage practices and women’s rural labor among the South African Pondo, Hunter describes how European culture disrupted economic activities and altered social organization. Among the earliest scholarly reports based on extensive observation, Hunter concludes that women lost ground economically but gained some freedom due to loosening kin control.
Kanogo, Tabitha. African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, 1900–50. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.
This study centers women in the colonial experience by investigating colonial law, sexuality, marriage, bridewealth, female genital cutting, and mission education as ways of understanding changing ideas about female identity and womanhood in Kenya.
Schmidt, Elizabeth. Peasants, Traders, and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, 1870–1939. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.
Analyzes the changes that colonialism brought to Shona women, including chapters on women’s agricultural work and engagement in market activities, missionary education and domesticity, and women’s domestic work in European households. Schmidt demonstrates how the attempts of African and colonial men to control female sexuality were “central to the shaping of the Southern Rhodesian political economy” (p. 7).
Walker, Cherryl, ed. Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945. London: James Currey, 1990.
A collection of thirteen articles, all on South Africa with one on Lesotho, and covering a range of topics including religion, education, domestic service and domesticity, and politics.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Sao Tomé and Príncipe
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey