In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women, Gender, and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Women in Africa from 1893 to 1983
  • Gender as Analytical Category
  • Social and Political Organization of Gender
  • Marriage, Kinship, and Family
  • Motherhood and Reproduction
  • Gender as Metaphoric Resource
  • Sexualities
  • Gender-Based Violence, Witchcraft, and Trafficking
  • Law and Human Rights
  • Plural Legal Systems
  • Women, Authority, and Power in Indigenous Societies
  • European Contact, Women, and Colonialism
  • Women’s Political Action
  • Gender and Performance
  • Gender, Language, and Literature
  • Traditional Religion, Islam, Christianity
  • Women, Production, and Economics
  • Dress, Cloth, Fashion, and Beauty
  • Urbanization and Land Use
  • International

African Studies Women, Gender, and the Study of Africa
Beverly Stoeltje
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0162


The multiplicity and diversity of African societies is reflected in the broad literature devoted to the study of women and gender in Africa, which encompasses several thousand ethnolinguistic groups and fifty-five sovereign states. This body of work has burgeoned since the late 20th century when female scholars focused attention on women in a concerted effort to redress a longstanding gender bias in Africanist research. The wide differences in women’s experience challenge generalization, but certain features in the organization of African societies can be identified as determining influences on women’s lives. Equally relevant are the changes introduced by external forces in the 19th and 20th centuries: colonization and Christianity, the spread of Islam, and the processes of modernization, decolonization, and independence. Together these interactions affected women with both gains and losses. In hierarchical African societies, for example, elite women may hold positions of leadership, but their authority was reduced under colonization. Generally women fare better in matrilineal societies than patrilineal ones, but Christianity, Islam, and modernity have promoted the shift to patrilineal societies. In contemporary matrilineal societies, however, husbands dominate in marriage, and males exercise more authority than females. Multiple forms of Christianity and Islam are powerful influences on women’s lives, but traditional forms of religion and belief continue to be practiced; the effect on women varies in every situation. Marriage and reproduction are given a high value in African societies, placing women in an ambivalent position: highly regarded for their reproductive potential but the target of male control for the same reason. Polygyny continues to be widely practiced though it is declining somewhat due to changing economic systems and the high value placed on education. Although women’s authority and prestige declined under colonialism, in some cultures women gained legal rights, especially in marriage. Unlike in the West, women have been and continue to be the farmers, important because agriculture has been the source of food for families. However, as land in Africa has become a commodity on the international market (“food neocolonialism”), women are faced with limited access to land for farms. As traders women supply families with foodstuffs and manufactured goods, but as they are positioned in the informal economy, at times they attract negative attention from the state. The pandemic of HIV/AIDS, the violence of war, and the spread of neoliberal practices have placed a heavy burden on women, especially as they are responsible for the welfare of children. Yet, the number of female politicians, scholars, lawyers, and activists is increasing throughout Africa.

General Overviews

Covering the period from 1960 until 2014, these overviews reveal significant changes in scholarly approaches when viewed chronologically; equally important, each one represents a different perspective. The term women was used for research in the 1970s, and historians continue to use it. Gender was introduced in 1980 and has become the conceptual basis for interdisciplinary as well as anthropological studies. Paulme 1963 represents the initial comprehensive overview, a watershed moment in scholarship on women. Each of the six essays and the introduction, authored by female anthropologists, demonstrates the value of research focused on women but contextualized in their very different societies. Hafkin and Bay 1976, one of the first interdisciplinary collections, is focused on women of East and West Africa and includes works by two African scholars and two male scholars. The work is notable for its critique of early male scholars and several essays that have become required reading; the topics exhibit a wide reach, ranging from spirit mediums to economic change. Potash 1989 critically reviews the existing literature on gender in the chapter written by the author. Especially valuable is the argument that integrating gender studies into the analysis of social processes (economy, marriage, religion,) enriches the understanding of those essential dynamics. Building on the considerable body of data available by 1990, Coquery-Vidrovitch 1997 concentrates on women in “modern history” but incorporates a forward looking framework that includes sexuality, prostitution, AIDS, and beauty. Transitioning into the 21st century, scholars ventured into new domains. Hodgson and McCurdy 2001 departs from previous studies to identify women who have disrupted the web of social relationships and reconfigured the gendered order in the process. Cole, et al. 2007 is an ambitious volume that aims to move the discourse on gender in Africa beyond dichotomies and polarizing identity politics. In particular, the article by Tamale argues that homosexuality challenges masculine power within sexual relations and, therefore, disrupts the core of the heterosexist social order. Essays by Boris and Ebron both provide rich theoretical considerations. An attempt to cover the wide range of issues relevant to gender in the 21st century, Falola and Amponsah 2013 encompasses female sexuality, motherhood, homosexuality, and more, capturing multiple approaches to gender. In Kevane 2014, the author has considered the role of gender relations in the dynamics of land tenure, health care, marriage, and other contexts; it is a welcome study representing a model that integrates gender into the mainstream.

  • Cole, Catherine M., Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan F. Miescher, eds. Africa after Gender? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

    NNNAn interdisciplinary group of scholars explores gender issues relevant to the 21st century across the African continent: sexuality, activism, masculinity, misogyny, and seniority as expressed through writing, organizations, theater, and theory.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Cathérine. African Women: A Modern History. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.

    NNNThe author discusses the wide range of women’s positions (slavery, peasant, chief) in Africa’s diverse societies throughout the continent, noting that African women’s lives differed from those of Western women. Organized by sections: “Nineteenth Century,” “Colonization to Independence,” and “Modern Life,” selected topics include prostitution, politics, and sexuality. Originally published in French as Les africaines: Histoire des femmes d’Afrique noire du XIX au XX siècle (Paris: Éditions Desjonquères, 1994), then reissued as Les africaines: Histoire des femmes d’Afrique subsaharienne du XIXe au XXe siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2012).

  • Falola, Toyin, and Nana Akua Amponsah, eds. Women, Gender, and Sexualities in Africa. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2013.

    NNNThis comprehensive collection addresses women’s bodies, homosexuality, dress, motherhood, HIV/AIDS and other topics. Of particular interest is Naminata Diabate’s essay on Jean Pierre Bekolo’s film, Les Saignantes and the Mevoungou, that references a female ritual of power, utilizing it to make a symbolic statement about the state.

  • Hafkin, Nancy J., and Edna G. Bay, eds. Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.

    NNNAn early interdisciplinary collection, several essays included have become a part of the canon on African women: Okonjo on the dual-sex political system and van Allen on the “Women’s War,” both of which are on Nigeria, and Strobel and Steady on women’s associations (in Kenya and Sierra Leone, respectively.)

  • Hodgson, Dorothy, and Sheryl McCurdy, eds. “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.

    NNN“Wickedness” refers to a discourse of masculine power in some chapters of this collection, and in others it refers to a manifestation of feminine power as women challenge social and cultural constraints, disrupting the web of social relationships and crossing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, reconfiguring the gendered order in the process.

  • Kevane, Michael. Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014.

    NNNAddresses a broad sweep of the gendered realities women encounter, including rights to land tenure, marriage, the home, health care, education, economics, political representation, and social movements for and against gender equality.

  • Paulme, Denise, ed. Women of Tropical Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

    NNNPaulme introduces this classic collection of six essays on women in different African societies plus an extensive bibliography with discussion of the distinctions between Western and African societies. LeBeuf’s article surveying women’s political leadership in a wide range of African societies (based on published accounts) remains a rich source of data. Originally published in French, Femmes d’Afrique noir (Paris: Mouton, 1960).

  • Potash, Betty. “Gender Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa.” In Gender and Anthropology. Edited by Sandra Morgen, 189–227. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 1989.

    NNNA comprehensive review of anthropological theories shaping research on women and gender through the mid-1980s, followed by discussion of literature under specific topics: economics, social organization (kinship, marriage, property), political organization, religion, and cultural constructs of gender (includes homosexuality, female husbands, boy wives). Excellent foundational source for graduates and undergraduates.

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