White Colonialism and Black Women's Labor

Anne McClintock forcefully argues that a large part of colonial expressions of distaste for African treatment of women and consequent reformist zeal arose in the fact that women's work effectively removed African men from the control of colonial power, ideology, and economic pressures:

Missionaries and colonists voiced their repugnance for polygyny in moral tones, placing it firmly within the discourse of racial degeneration. The practice of polygyny was seen to mark African men, as Haggard had marked King Twala, as wallowing in the depths of sexual abandon: the "African sin." Yet colonial documents readily reveal that the assault on polygyny was an assault on African habits of labor that withheld from the resentful farmers the work of black men and women. The excess labor that a black man controlled through his wives was seen as a direct and deadly threat to the profits of the settlers. As Governor Pine complained: "How can an Englishman with one pair of hands compete with a native with five to twenty slave wives?" . . .

The fundamental unit of Zulu society was the homestead (urmuzi, imizi), in which a single male (umnumanzana) held authority over his wife or wives, their children, livestock, gardens and grazing lands. Each homestead was more or less independent, with women growing food on land held in trust for the chief of the clan. Each wife worked her own fields, living with her children in a separate house that took its name from her. A strict gendered division of labor prevailed, as women did most of the agricultural and domestic work hoeing, planting, gathering and tending the crops, building and tending the houses, making implements and clothes, taking care of the daily cooking and the houses, as well as the bearing and raising of the children. [Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context, N. Y.: Routledge, 1995, 254.]

As McClintock sums up her argument, "Black women in Natal became the ground over which white men fought black men for control of their land and labor." Since she argues from one part of South Africa (Natal) and one of its peoples (the Zulu), can one extrapolate this aspect of her argument about the relations of gender and colonialism to other African colonies and to India as well? What kind of evidence could support the application of her argument to other tribes (or peoples) and other colonies? To what extent, for example, does Soyinka's presentation of both women's work and the successful women's strike of the 1920s in Ake confirm or contradict her generalizations? Finally, what kind of light does Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl cast on her argument, and to what extent do other European, colonial, and postcolonial objections to treatments of women in British colonies -- say, clitorectormy in Africa and Sati in India -- support her connections of economics, gender, and extensions of colonial power? To what extent to they suggest other matters are involved?

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last modified: 8 April, 2002