By Frances Harding (School of Oriental & African Studies)
African Women: A Modern History. By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Oxford: Westview Press, 1997, pp. xvii + 308 [no price shown].
Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Paris-7, is today the leading French historian of Africa. The author of scholarly volumes of distinction, she also, unusually among academic historians, publishes general works written to present findings of narrow scholarship to a wider field, and has published on urbanisation. In this volume she presents an historical and sociological survey of the hitherto inadequately studied field of African women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the history, as she puts it, ‘of the whys and wherefores of society from the women’s point of view’.
Rather than indulge in the customary superficial generalisations about ‘the African woman’, she has grounded her work on an impressively wide selection of case studies covering the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. They reveal the wide variations as well as the similarities in the ways women have reacted to change. Her samples from the pre-colonial period cover women of every status – slaves, traders, queens and chiefs, as well as the overwhelming majority, tied to heavy routines of agricultural and domestic labour which burdened them with workloads far heavier than men’s. Under colonial rule she finds that women’s fate worsened. Everywhere the colonial governments used taxation policies to force men into the wage economy, leaving women with the full burden of subsistence farming – at its worst in South Africa and in the other white British settler territories where they were turned into migrants and employed in locations where women were forbidden to live. Change came slowly, political independence bringing little difference to women’s status. Not until the 1980s does she detect a significant change. This is partly through the gradual spread of women’s education. But a more sudden and dramatic change has been brought about through the steady immiseration of the countrysides which drives women into the cities to escape from a village life which can no longer support them. Today more women migrate to the cities than men, and in some cities (Brazzaville, for instance) they already outnumber men. But the livelihood they find there is precarious, chiefly so-called ‘informal’ street trading or some form of prostitution. And with increasing male unemployment, their meagre earnings may be the only family income. Professor Coquery-Vidrovitch also considers women’s political activities, ranging from the 1925 “Women’s War” in Eastern Nigeria to their still marginal political role in contemporary Africa. She concludes with a chapter on “Sexuality and Emancipation”, examining the ways in which the legacies of past practices have survived and changed – though frankly admitting that the concept of “Emancipation”, which has developed in Europe, may not necessarily have the same resonance in African contexts. She considers upbringing practices which still tend to favour boys over girls, genital mutilation, to which so many women still remain disconcertingly attached, the persistence of polygamy, and finally contraception, on which there is virtually no serious evidence available. Altogether she has produced a most stimulating and informative book which will be of importance to all those concerned with Women’s Studies and with African Studies.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 62 (1997), pp. 67-68.]