In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Colonialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Slavery
  • Law
  • Education
  • Domesticity
  • Labor
  • Agriculture and Rural Life
  • Health
  • Sexuality
  • Biography
  • Literature
  • European and American Women

African Studies Women and Colonialism
Kathleen Sheldon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • 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 were members of associations run by and for women, which gave women the final say in disputes over markets or agriculture. The colonial agents, nearly always men, ignored that reality.

General Overviews

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 in Allman, et al. 2002 and Hodgson and McCurdy 2001 provide a range of research on the colonial era. Sheldon 2017 includes several chapters on the colonial era in a text that covers a broader range of history. 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).

    DOI: 10.1353/cch.2003.0005

    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.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700035519

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/1155677

    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).

  • Sheldon, Kathleen. African Women: Early History to the 21st Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt2005v2z

    Sheldon provides a chronological overview of African women’s contributions and involvement in sub-Saharan African history. Five chapters focus on the colonial era, beginning with European contact in the 17th and 18th centuries, religion and slavery in the 19th century, the impact of colonialism on work and family, women’s resistance before and after World War II, and continuing liberation struggles in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • 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.

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