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1750-1900 Document 1

Gender Roles in Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa


Source: Stearns, Peter N. Gender in World History. (London and New York; Routledge, 2000.) pp. 9394.
Gender issues did not loom as large in Western contacts in Africa from the mid-nineteenth
century onward as they had in Polynesia. Great power rivalries, frenzied economic development and
attacks on African slavery all seemed more important. European interaction with Africa was also
complicated by divisions between Christian missionaries and colonial officials. The missionaries quickly
developed an agenda in the attempt to inculcate Western-style family ideals in a very different
traditional context. Colonial officials, however, were not eager to risk opposition from Africans
themselves, for their goal was political stability. They were thus slow to regulate behaviors that
missionaries thought clearly needed correction.
While gender conditions varied in different parts of the huge subcontinent south of the Sahara, in
general women had maintained various forms of power before colonial contact. They often worked at
different tasks in agriculture, and assumed significant responsibilities for marketing goods. Some served
as chiefs, since political power was not confined to men; others had religious functions. Women often set
up associations and gained informal political voice; a strong tradition of female participation in protest
existed. Many groups emphasized matrilineality, or descent from mothers, in their family organization.
Little of this made sense according to contemporary West European standards. Colonial officials
and missionaries alike were interested in promoting the work of men, as a source of labor in mines and on
commercial agricultural estates and as a basis for new systems of government taxation. Womens
traditional work roles seemed burdensome, while also distracting them from appropriate attention to the
family. Great pressure was applied to confine women to a smaller number of tasks, usually closely
related to the household, while widening the gap between men and womens economic roles. When
commercial pressures also pressed men to leave their families to provide labor for mines or urban
industry, the gap widened further. African women became more economically dependent, even as
missionaries urged them to be docile homemakers. Numerous programs developed to make women
civilized helpmates or purer wives and better mothers.
Womens political rights were also curtailed. British colonial policies attacked local councils on
which women sat, while protests in which African women participated, for example against new taxes,
were energetically, sometimes brutally repressed. Women should not have political roles, in the colonial
view, and careful restrictions served gender reform and protection of public order alike.