Johnson-Odim, Cheryl & Strobel, Margaret. Restoring Women to History.

Theories That Explain the Subordinate Status of Women (pg. 4- 24)

Trained to look to the specifics of place and time rather than to the creation of theory, historians have often left to anthropologists the task of theorizing doubt the origins of women's oppression or the factors that account for women's subordinate status. Yet teaching about the history of women in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East raises questions in students' minds about the ultimate cause of the experience that is being described. For this reason, it is useful to review these theories, recognizing that the debate continues to rage.

A basic division runs between biologically oriented and socio-culturally oriented theories. The former finds significance in a relative universality of physical characteristics among humans and of a gender division of labor that assigns men to "public" and women to "private" activities. This commonality is attributed to genetic or physical differences.

The environmentalists stress the equally apparent diversity of humans, physically and culturally, and claim that biology alone cannot cause this diversity. Moreover, they view "natural" features of society as fundamentally culturally and ideologically determined. Even childbirth and lactation, they argue, do not predestine women to stay at home; rather, societies can devise a division of labor that enables such women to be mobile (Africa 4-5).

Embedded in these positions are views about the appropriateness of men's and women's roles. Biologically oriented theories tend to assume that gender differences are best not tampered with. Sociocultural theories tend to see the pattern of women's subordination as subject to change; thus the search for the causes of women's oppression becomes linked to the possibility of creating gender-equal societies.

If the universality of women's subordinate status can be proved untrue, then the possibilities of creating gender-equal societies are strengthened. Hence some scholarship focuses on the search for matriarchies, past or present. While most scholars find evidence lacking, the discussion of matriarchy has raised important questions about the relationship between the actual power of living women in a particular society and a)kinship and residence patterns (e.g., matrilineality and matrilocality) or b) the ideological representations of women in are, ritual, or belief systems.

Another approach to the issue of the causes of women's oppression links women's power or lack of it to economic forces. Research in this area has generated questions about the link between gender inequality and levels of production or technology, class formation, women's and men's control of the products of their labor, etc. furthermore, these theorists dispute the universality of the notions of public and private, arguing that these categories follow historically from the development of more complex societies (Middle East 78).

Feminism challenges both European colonial and indigenous patriarchal ideologies regarding women. The relationship between western and non-western feminist thought has often, however, been adversarial. In part the tension between the two groups results from the explanation given for the oppression of women. Non-western women (even if they identify themselves as feminists, which is often not the case) object to those western feminist theories that posit men as the primary source of oppression. Recently this debate has generated theories that attempt to explain the interrelationship of multiple forms of oppression, such as race, class, imperialism, and gender, without arguing that all oppression derives ultimately from males' oppression of females.

The Inadequacies of the Concepts of Traditional and Modern

The concepts of "traditional" and "modern" are often both a historical and value-laden. It may be legitimate to talk about ways people have done/do things "traditionally" (evolving at some unspecified time in the past) or in the "modern" way (coming into use relatively recently). However, for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, often the term "traditional" describes everything in the long eras before European intervention, and the term "modern" describes those phenomena following European intervention. This establishes a false dichotomy with western civilization as the model and with all things indigenous being "traditional" and all things western being "modern." This usage often implies that the traditional is static and the modern, dynamic; it fails to portray and analyze each regional history within the context of its own internal dynamics, in which encounters with the west prove to be only one element among many. Such a view obscures the fact that most societies were not isolated and had contact with other peoples before western contact, that they are not homogeneous, and that several traditions often CO-exist (to more or less peaceful degrees) within the same society or nation-state.

Sometimes this historicity results from equating "modernization" with higher levels of technology; sometimes it is cultural arrogance and implicitly defined "modern/western" as somehow better. Since colonialist ideology in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East often used indigenous "oppression" of women as justification for intervention in these societies, they promoted the belief that the arrival of western civilization would improve women's lives. For example, in India in the early nineteenth century, one of the central arguments British officials employed to legitimate political control based on the use of military force was that British policies would "improve" the status of Indian women (Asia 17). Thus the colonizers made women central to the politics of colonialism.

The study of the lives of third World women, in fact, challenges the legitimacy of the notion of a strict dichotomy between traditional and modern. Women's lives, especially, show that traditional culture is not static, monolithic, or more misogynist that western culture, and that there is no automatic linear progress made in the quality of women's lives by following a western pattern of development. The regional studies that follow give evidence that often the "traditional" ways of doing things, especially in the political and economic arenas, were far less inimical to women's collective interests that the "modernization" that colonialism purported to export.

The concept of tradition has also sometimes been used as a rallying point in anti-colonial/liberation struggles. That is, by conceptualizing their struggle against European domination in "anti-western culture" terms, various peoples have politicized the return to "tradition" as a liberating strategy. Because this "return to tradition" was often formulated during eras of high colonialism, when the promotion of western culture was inseparable from the colonial presence, women were as central to the vision of "tradition" that emerged as they were to justifications for colonialism. Even once the colonial presence was gone, western culture still symbolized continuing economic dominance. Gandhi claimed that women's superior ability at self-sacrifice made them better practitioners of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance (Asia 25). In response to French cultural imperialism, wearing the veil became a political act of resistance in Algeria (Middle East 81). Similarly, veiling became identified with opposition to western influence and to the Shah in Iran (Middle East 89-90). In the 1970s President Mobutu sese Seko of Zaire constructed his policy of authenticity, a major tenet of which was a return to the "traditional" value of women as mothers and housekeepers who obeyed male relatives (Africa 103). These are but a few examples that show women have often been on the losing end of a return to "tradition." Thus ideologies of colonialism and liberation have both fostered misuses of "tradition."

A view of the traditional as dynamic, as well as a better understanding of women's roles in the pre-European-contact periods, can help demythologize the concept of tradition.


Religion has been a source of power for women, or a source of subordination, or both. Religious authorities have often functioned as politically powerful figures. In Inka society, women played important roles in the religious structure, even though male priests held religious and political power. As virgins, or aqlla, they were dedicated as "wives of the Sun" to prepare an alcoholic beverage for religious rituals and officiate at the same (Latin America 10). Even in less stratified societies of a much smaller scale, indeed perhaps more often in these societies, women acted as religious/political leaders. Nehanda, a female spirit medium, led resistance to British colonialism in late nineteenth-century Southern Rhodesia (Africa 25). In the eighteenth century, the legendary Nanny drew upon her mediating relationship with ancestral spirits in leading her maroon community in Jamaica (Latin America 23). Even where they did not hold religious office, women exercised power through religion: in peasant and nomadic regions of the Middle East, women continued, into the twentieth century, to control popular religious activities and thus to exert influence through their intercession with the supernatural (Middle East 86).

Religious beliefs may point to the equality of women as sacred beings or the importance of female life force. Female clay figurines suggest the worship of female deities in Egypt around 3000 BC, but we can infer little about the lives of women in general (Africa 7). Full-breasted female figurines, presumed to be fertility goddesses, are associated with the Indus Valley in south Asia around 2000 BC. (Asia 2). Aztec religion embodied many goddesses associated with fertility, healing, and agriculture. The presence of such goddesses did not signal a society of gender equality but rather of gender complementarily, as in the Inka case (Latin America 8,10).

On the other hand, religious beliefs may both reflect and reinforce the subordination of women. Women in many religious traditions are seen as polluting, particularly because of those bodily functions surrounding menstruation or childbirth (Asia 67). In West Africa, Akan fear of menstruating women limited even elite women's activities: the asantehemaa, the highest female office, could only be held by a post-menopausal woman from the appropriate lineage (Africa 77). Even though such beliefs may ultimately derive from a sense of women's power as procreators, women's status as polluting persons can restrict their activities and power. Moreover, traditions that stress the importance of male children to carry out ancestral rituals, for example, those in Confucianism, contribute to the negative valuation of female children and women (Asia 67). Other customs repressive and/or unhealthy to women, for example, sati (ritual suicide by widows), are sanctioned by religion (Asia 10-11). Finally, the great Traditions of Hinduism, Confucianism, and Christianity all legitimate male authority, particularly patriarchal familial authority, over women, Hinduism in the Laws of Manu (Asia 8-9), Confucianism in the three obedience's (Asia 69-70), Islam in the Qur'an's injunction regarding wifely obedience (Middle East 30), and Christianity through Biblical exhortation to the same.

However much the Great Traditions carry profound gender inequalities in theology and in office, these same traditions spawn groupings that attract women (and other lower-status people). In India, the Gupta Period, which saw the Laws of Manu increasing restrictions on Indian women, also witnessed the rise of Saktism, a cult derived from pre-Aryan traditions that envision the divine as feminine. In this set of beliefs, the female divinity appears in three major incarnations: Devi, the Mother goddess; Durga, the unmarried and potentially dangerous woman; and Kali, the goddess of destruction (Asia 12). Subsequently, in the Mughal Period in South Asia, in search of help with fertility or other psychological problems, women flocked to devotional Hinduism, becoming followers of bhakti saints, and to Muslim sufi holy men (Asia 15-16). Women in the Middle East (Middle East 71-72) and in Muslim parts of Africa were also attracted to these mystical sufi orders, which stressed direct union with Allah. Among syncretic Christian offshoots in Africa, women play much more central, albeit often expressive, roles (Africa 39).


Most theories about the origins of the oppression of women see control of female sexuality and the reproductive process as central. For this reason, it is useful to examine basic questions, if not patterns, in societies' construction of female sexuality. Just as gender is socially constructed, so, too, is sexuality.


Throughout history, societies have generated ideological systems that link female identity to female sexuality. African women on several occasions utilized sexual symbolism to protest threats to themselves as women. For example, in the Women's War of 1929, Nigerian women challenged the offending officials to impregnate each of them, drawing upon an indigenous technique to humiliate men: they were protesting men's right to interfere in women's economic power and thus women's obligations as wives and mothers (Africa 91-92). In 1922 Kenyan women challenged their male colleagues to behave more "like men," that is, more bravely, by exposing their buttocks at a public protest against colonial officials' actions (Africa 30).

Religions project varied views of female sexuality. Islam affirms women's sexual pleasure, as it does men's while advocating that it be channeled into marriage (Middle East 30). In contrast, the Mahayana Buddhist views female sexuality as a threat to culture. In this religious group, women have been associated with bondage, suffering, and desire; female sexuality, then, is to be controlled by transcendence (or by motherhood) (Asia 73-74).

Often the control of female sexuality and reproduction is linked to concerns about purity. The Aryan notion of purity was reflected throughout Hindu ritual and beliefs, but in particular it provided the impetus for early marriage and for sati (Asia 8-10). Colonial constraints upon Spanish women's behavior in the New World derived from the elites' desire to maintain blood purity (Latin America 26-27, 31)

Expressed through virginity and chastity, in several cultural traditions a woman's purity had implications for her family. A Muslim woman's behavior affected her family's honor, for example, resulting in the ultimate sanction of death for adultery, (Middle East 28, 33-34, 40). Although Islam neither prescribes nor sanctions infibulations (briefly, the sewing together of the labia), and the practice is found in both Muslim and non-Muslim areas, infibulation is commonly associated with virginity and the control of female sexuality. Although virginity was of little consequence in Inka society, adultery on the part of noblewomen was punishable by death (Latin America 11). In seventeenth-century China, chastity was raised to a symbolic level not found in Japan or Korea. The 1646 Manchu rape law required women to resist rape to the point of death or serious injury; otherwise, they were considered to have participated in illicit intercourse (Asia 84-85).

The point here is not to list the multitude of ways in which women have been unfairly treated, but to understand the cultural construction of female sexuality. These examples, all drawn from Great Traditions of the ideological systems of states, highlight the control of female sexuality. But the earlier African examples remind us that sexuality and sexual symbolism, like all cultural phenomena, are a terrain of struggle, to be manipulated by women as well as used against them. In their critique of Japanese society, Bluestockings, a group of literary feminists in the early twentieth century, saw sexual freedom as an integral aspect of women's rights (Asia 96-97).

V.B. Control of Sexual Access

Societies have controlled sexual access to females through a combination of beliefs, law, custom, and coercion. At times men enforced these sexual rules; at other times women policed themselves as individuals or curtailed the activities of other women-peers, younger women, daughters-in-law.

In addition to marriage, concubinage existed in all the regions covered in this survey. Concubinage legitimated sexual access on the part of a man to more than one woman outside of marriage. Although it clearly represented a double standard, concubinage as an institution offered certain protections or benefits to women. In the New World some Amerindian women gained substantial wealth and status as concubines; in addition, slave concubines might be manumitted at their owner's death and their children legitimized (Latin America 19-20, 27). Similarly, Islamic slave owners manumitted some concubines, encouraged by the belief that such action was rewarded by Allah (Middle East 37). The protections offered by the institution of concubinage, albeit within a grossly unequal relationship, were lost with its abolition, and compensating institutions did not always replace concubinage. Hence abolition in parts of Africa left poorer women, former concubines, without the legal rights of wives or concubines but still dependent financially. In contemporary Africa women who in the past might have become concubines because of their economic or social vulnerability might today have multiple male partners, without the previous assurance that their children will be supported financially by the fathers.

Historically, prostitution has occurred under a variety of conditions that reflect different degrees of control of female sexuality. Prostitution may be seen as a strategy for a family's survival: impoverished Chinese families in the nineteenth century sold their daughters to earn money as prostitutes in the cities (Asia 89). Elsewhere in Asia, prostitutes functioned as part of larger institutions, or even imperial expansion. Hindu devidasi, or temple dancers, served as prostitutes tied to temples (Asia 26). During the period of imperial expansion in the 1930s, Japanese prostitutes were sent to service brothels in outposts of the empire, a process described in the film Sandakan 8 [Brothel Number 8] (Asia 107). Under these circumstances, prostitution did not mean increased autonomy for women, whether or not it provided subsistence.

In some places and times, however, prostitution has offered an alternative of increased autonomy. New colonial towns in Africa created spaces for women to escape from abusive or unwanted marriages. There, operating as entrepreneurs rather than under the supervision of pimps or other authorities, they supported themselves and their children by selling sexual and other domestic services to men, who frequently were migrant laborers. In addition, prostitutes were able to keep their children, an option that was not available to women in patrilineal marriages, where offspring belonged to the husband's patrilineage and were lost to a women who divorced or absconded (Africa 23, 26, 85).

Even under these circumstances in which prostitutes had more control over their sexuality and their lives, it is important not to romanticize prostitution. It has been, and remains, a "choice" made by some women within a context of gender and class inequality.

V.C. Control over Reproduction

The production of offspring (especially male offspring in strongly patrilineal societies) is often a measure of a woman's value. In some African societies, this value is represented by bridewealth, the gifts that a groom must give to the bride's family in order to obtain rights to the offspring in a patrilineal society (Africa 15, 19-20). The production of male offspring is essential for some religious rituals, for example, in Confucianism.

We have little historical information about control of reproduction. But even prior to the recent rise of reproductive technology, women found ways to limit birth. For example, in late nineteenth-century Zaire, slave women limited the number of children they had. In the complex conditions created by the internal African slave trade, slave women saw few advantages to producing children who belonged to their owners and who could not be expected to care for their mothers in old age (Africa 84).

More recently, with the advent of population control programs adopted by nation states and promoted by international agencies, control of reproduction has shifted away from individuality initiated (if probably less effective) actions to highly bureaucratized operations. In that shift, the balance has slipped from birth control, which empowers women by giving them options, to population control, which regulates female reproduction in the interests of a nation-state or a donor country. Women may be encouraged or coerced to have babies for the nation, or the revolution, or conversely, they may be manipulated or coerced into limiting childbirth. Stringent population policies were introduced in India, prompting protests by women's groups (Asia 29), and in China, where urban couples recently have been allowed to have only one child (Asia 112). In Puerto Rico one-third of the women of childbearing age were sterilized by the 1960s in one of the early attempts at widespread population control (Latin America 72). The white regime in South Africa promotes birth control among blacks as part of the larger plan of apartheid (Africa 38). In none of these population policies does birth control unambiguously empower women, since the elements of choice and safety have been compromised.

Domestic Relations

Domestic relationships are at the heart of most societies, since families act as the primary unit of culture-bearing. In pre-industrial societies the family is also an important economic unit. Thus the way that families are organized is linked as much to the relations of production as to culture. Factors such as a sedentary, nomadic, or hunting and gathering lifestyles,, or sex ratios, or the availability of land, among others, can affect family organization-but all of these factors also help determine the relations of production and culture. With few exceptions (Japan, for instance), the areas under discussion are still in the process of industrializing. Even while allowing for different levels of industrialization and cultural specificity, we can make some general observations.

In the Third World, historically and presently, domestic relationships have involved far more people than a nuclear family. The concept of the family most often functionally (not just conceptually) encompasses a wide range of relatives, including grandparents, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. Even when these people do not all inhabit the same household or compound, the sense of communal responsibility, obligation, and authority is wide-ranging and strongly felt and encouraged. The importance of the individual, as a general value, is still submerged to that of the collective. Thus, domestic relationships and decision-making even between a husband and wife and their own children are often influenced by a wide variety of individuals and situations. Issues of polygyny, birth control, sexual conduct, education, allocation of economic resources, etc., are often group decisions, with elders frequently carrying more weight than younger members. The authority of a wide group of people to know about and sanction or approve behavior is accepted. Increasingly, however, factors such as class formation, greater mobility, and the proliferation of ideas about greater individual freedom are beginning to disrupt this pattern.

VI A. Marriage

Historically, marriage was an important alliance that could not be viewed as a relationship between individuals, but between two kin groups, because the family was a primary unit for economic production and the concentration of wealth, for the allocation and legitimation of political power, and for conflict resolution. Consequently, marriages were often arranged for both women and men by other family members or by marriage brokers. Among the Aztecs, for instance marriages were arranged by a go-between known as a cihuatlanque. Among the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, however, until 1776 when the Crown enacted new laws requiring parental consent for marriage, as long as a girl was twelve and a boy fourteen they could marry without such consent. Still, marriage was generally seen as an alliance between families by both the Spanish and the Portuguese, especially by those of the upper classes where property was at stake, and marriage between relatives was, in fact, common (Latin America 7, 27-32). In the nineteenth-century Middle East, families exercised close control over marriage arrangements, and first-cousin marriage was frequent as a method for ensuring political alliances and centralizing wealth. Arranged marriages seem to have held less importance for the poor, however (Middle East 72), reflecting less wealth to protect and perhaps even the need to decrease the number of dependent kin. In Africa, also, arranged marriages were a prevalent means of ensuring the continuity of the transfer of resources (Africa 89-90, 99).

VI B. Dowry and Bridewealth

Gifts passed between families and between the bride and groom at the time of marriage. Dowry was brought by a bride to her marital home, and other transfers, for example, bridewealth or brideservice, went from the groom (or his family) to the bride's family. The degree of access to and control over these gifts exercised by a bride varied greatly among the societies discussed here.

The institution of dowry served an important economic as well as social function. The dowry (or dote) was not a requirement for marriage among the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, but it served as a way of both compensating a husband for assuming the economic burden of a wife as well as providing a woman with some economic independence. Though it was administered by a husband, it remained the property of the wife and could not be allocated without her consent. If the husband mismanaged the dowry, a woman could petition in court to control it herself, and in the case of divorce, the dowry had to be repaid. In the case of the wife's death, however, the dowry was either divided among the children or returned to the wife's parents (Latin America 28). In India, dowry encompassed both stridhan, which was usually jewelry and clothing belonging to the bride alone, and a broad array of household goods and other valuables that were a gift to the couple and to the groom's family, with whom they lived (Asia 6).

In various societies, wealth moved in the reverse direction, from the groom and his kin to the bride and hers. The system of bridewealth found in Africa was generally a gift from a man to the parents of his bride and signified both their compensation for her loss as well as his rights to the children of the marriage. (Among matrilineal peoples in Central Africa, a groom had to perform brideservice, that is, labor in the bride's family's fields.) Forms of bridewealth varied (including cloth, beads, cattle, and after the introduction of wage labor during the colonial period, cash) and, in the case of divorce, it frequently had to be returned (Africa 19-20). In some places in Africa, women retained control over a portion of their bridewealth (Africa 13). Some East Asian societies had both dowry and bridewealth. Under Islamic law, women retained rights to the personal ownership of their bridal gift, or mahr (Middle East 30, 50, 62).

VI. C. Polygyny

Polygyny, or the taking of more than one wife, was commonly practiced in a number of places. Sometimes, as noted above, it had an important political function in cementing alliances. In Islamic societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, men could legally wed up to four wives. In non-Islamic areas of Africa and among some early Amerindian societies, such as the Inka in Latin America (Latin America (Latin America 10-11), polygyny also existed, but the number of wives was not limited. Judaism allowed polygyny by A. D. 70 in the Middle East (Middle East 19). The economic obligations entailed by taking more than one wife could operate to curtail the degree to which polygyny was actually practiced; however, since women also produced wealth through trade, agricultural activities, and production of crafts, as well as by the exchange of bridewealth, it was often true that polygyny could be economically advantageous to men. Polygyny could sometimes be economically advantageous to women by allowing them to share household duties and obligations and by affording them more freedom to engage in trade and craft production.

Concubinage (see Section V.B. earlier) or the forging of sexual (and sometimes emotional) extra-marital alliances was common in all four regions. Though concubines were generally in a very vulnerable position, sometimes there were indigenous laws governing their treatment (Africa 61-62) and, because these women often came from poor families, concubinage could represent a way of improving their economic position and even status. For example, Khaizuran, concubine of Caliph al Mahdi during the Abbasid period in Iraq, saw two of her sons succeed their father as caliph, and she intervened in state affairs (Middle East 37-38).

Since one of women's primary responsibilities was considered the production of labor and heirs, infertility could be a devastating circumstance. Many African religious ceremonies were concerned with ensuring women's fertility or with curing infertility. In Sumeria (3000-2000 BC) men could take another wife if their first did not bear children (Middle East 19). Among the Aztecs a sterile woman could be rejected and divorced (Latin America 7).

VI. D. Divorce

Some form of divorce or marital separation was available to women nearly everywhere. Among Zoroastrians, only men could divorce (Middle East 20). Although in general divorce was easier for men than women, there were exceptions to this rule. Extreme physical cruelty and neglect of economic duty were fairly common grounds by which women could petition for divorce. Adultery and a wife's inability to produce children, among a much wider range of other less consequential reasons, were common grounds on which men exercised their right to divorce women. In the early Spanish societies of Latin America, marriages could be annulled due to failure to produce children. Legal separation, known as separation cuerpos (or separation of bodies) was also available on grounds of extreme physical cruelty, adultery, prostitution, or paganism, but such a separation forbade remarriage. From the sixteenth century onward, women were often the initiators of divorce in Spanish Latin America (Latin America 29). In Southeast Asia women easily exercised their right to divorce, a situation some historians speculate was due to their economic autonomy (Asia 35). Prior to the twentieth century, however, divorce initiated by women was much harder in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan. The ease with which divorce could be obtained was sometimes related to class. For instance, the divorce rates among the urban poor in nineteenth-century Egypt was higher than among the upper classes, for whom the economic components of marriage were more complicated (Middle East 72-73). In Africa, because divorce often involved the return of bridewealth, it was sometimes discouraged (Africa 15).

VI. E. Widowhood

The treatment and rights of widows varied widely. During the Mauryan era in India (322-183 BC), widows could remarry, although they lost their rights to any property inherited from their deceased husbands (Asia 6). During the Gupta era (320-540), however, the Laws of Manu severely proscribed women's rights in marriage, including the banning of widow remarriage (Asia 9). Though its origins are unknown, the ritual suicide of widows among the Hindu known as sati is one of the most controversial treatments of widowhood. A complex practice, it appears to have economic as well as socio-religious foundations (Asia 10-11). Among the Aztecs, widows not only retained the right to remarry but were encouraged to do so, especially if they were of childbearing age (Latin America 7). In the colonial period in Spanish America, widows had the rights of single women who, after a certain age, were considered to have attained a legal majority. They could acquire control over their children or remarry (Latin America 30). In parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, widows were sometimes "inherited" by male kin of their deceased husbands. This practice, known as the levirate, could entail conjugal rights, but could also only mean the assumption of economic responsibility for a widow and her children. Women sometimes retained the right to refuse such a marriage. Among the Kikuyu of East Africa, for instance, women could opt instead to take a lover (Africa 17).

In many places women's activity in reform and nationalist movements, especially in the twentieth century, has been characterized by their struggle to liberalize laws governing marriage and family relationships. The Egyptian feminist union, led by Huda Sha rawi, agitated for reform of laws governing divorce and polygyny in the 1920s and 1930s (Middle East 84). Women (and men) of the May Fourth generation struggled in early twentieth-century China to make the reform of marriage and family law and practice central to their revolutionary effort (Asia 98). Even after the success of the Cuban revolution and the passage of a family code that explicitly give women the same rights as men in economic and political arenas as well as in the family, women's organizations, with state support, continue to work to implement equality (Latin America 68-69). In Africa women and men activists in liberation movements such as the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 1970s clearly articulated the need to transform domestic relations as an important tenet of revolutionary ideology (Africa 9)

Women's roles statuses and power within the family have varied both through time within the same society and from one place to another. As reflections of material culture, they tell us more about societies than about women's place in them. For the regional areas under discussion, we can see the common threads, but we can also distinguish the wide variation.

VII. Women's Economic Activity

In virtually all societies, the sexual division of labor among sedentary peoples associates women with family maintenance. Overwhelmingly, gender segregation and domestic subsistence production has characterized the lives of women in the economic sphere. In the Nubian civilization in ancient Africa, for example, there is evidence that women were involved in the production of pottery for household use, while men specialized in producing wheel-turned pottery for trade (Africa 7). At times there were disincentives for women to be economic actors. In medieval Islamic society, men were cautioned not to marry women who engaged in economic activities in the public arena (Middle East 44-45). But such observations should not be construed as an indication of lack of importance and variety in women's roles in agriculture, craft and textile production, the tending of livestock, trade, and other areas.

A. Agriculture

In nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, women historically played and continue to play important role in agricultural production (Africa 17,58). In one of the few areas of sub-Saharan Africa where private property in land pre-dated European arrival, among the Amhara of Northeastern Africa, women could control the entire agricultural productive process. They owned, plowed, planted, and harvested their own fields (Africa 16). Amerindian women were important in agricultural production in Latin America before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese, who then sought to enlist men as agricultural laborers in cash crops (Latin America 3, 11). Although for the early centuries of the slave trade the sex ratio was heavily imbalanced toward males, African women performed important agricultural labor, which was essential to the economies of colonial Latin America and the Caribbean (Latin America 13). Women were cultivators in much of Asia, usually in family-centered production units. Even where women did not cultivate, they often performed other roles associated with agricultural production. In nineteenth-century Egypt, women did not plow land,, but they worked at harvesting and in pest-control activities (Middle East 58).

VII. B. Crafts and Manufacturing

Women undertook various kinds of manufacturing activities. In the Chewa-Malawi area of nineteenth-century East Africa, women were involved in producing salt and in other manufactures (Africa 18). In the eleventh-century Pagan Empire in southeast Asia, women were important in the spinning of yarn and weaving of cloth (Asia 35). In eighteenth and nineteenth-century Egypt, women were important in the textile crafts, though they were squeezed out by industrialization. In the silk industry in Lebanon and the carpet industry in Iran (Middle East 60). Women were important weavers among the Inka, where they also worked in the mines (Latin America 11). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women among the Shona of Southern Africa worked in the gold mines (Africa 15).

VII. C. Trade

Perhaps the most ubiquitous economic variety activity undertaken by women was that of trading. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, women traded agricultural products, cooked food, cloth, beads, handicrafts, and a number of other items. Although women's trading activities were sometimes on a small scale, often referred to as "petty trading," that was not always the case. In Southeast Asia, women in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Burma were engaged in trade that included the large-scale buying and selling of rice and other commodities. They were also identified with the production and trade of a particular foodstuff, betel leaf, for which they made elaborate jeweled containers (Asia 35). Sometimes women engaged in long-distance trade that required their absence from home for periods of time. Among the nineteenth-century Kikuyu of East Africa, women engaged in long-distance trade and retained control over the wealth they accumulated (Africa 18). Even where women engaged in local, small-scale trade, they could be very important to the growth of port towns and urban centers. Such was the case with women traders along the West Coast of Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Africa 62-64).

Residence in a harem and the practice of seclusion placed restraints on women's ability to engage directly in public arena economic activity, thus forcing them to use intermediaries to conduct their business operations. This use of intermediaries, and the higher economic status that seclusion usually implied, meant women sometimes held considerable wealth and became significant economic actors. In the nineteenth century in parts of the Middle East, notably Cairo, Istanbul, Aleppo, and Nablus, upper-class women employed agents to conduct their business transactions in the public arena. They also invested capital as "silent partners" in other ventures and loaned money to men (Middle East 62). Among the Hausa of northern Nigeria, Islamic women who were secluded used pre-pubescent girls to trade for them in public. In some places the strict gender segregation of Islamic societies in fact expanded women's economic alternatives, since only women could perform certain services for other women. In nineteenth-century Egypt women of lower economic status served as entertainers, cosmologists, and midwives to women of higher economic status who were in seclusion (Middle East 61). This practice opened up the professions to women in the late twentieth century, especially in countries where economic resources are plentiful, such as Saudi Arabia.

The absence of male heirs, or the fact of widowhood, could also create economic opportunity for women. Under such circumstances women ran businesses and were important in trades. In sixteenth-century Mexico, Mencia Perez, a mestiza, married a rich merchant. When he died, she took over the business and became one of the wealthiest merchants in the province (Latin America 33). In Syria, the gedik, a license that allowed one to practice a trade, was normally inherited by practicing the trade, they could sell, rent, or bequeath the license (Middle East 61).

Yet women's tremendously varied and important roles in economic activity did not translate into economic, legal, or political equality with men. The more economic autonomy women had, however, the greater their freedoms. Whatever the origins of women's inequality are, the complex processes through which it has been perpetuated will not fall in the face of economic parity alone.

VIII. Political Power

In general histories of the Third World, political access is not normally discussed with gender as a factor of analysis, although frequently class, race, ethnicity, and other factors are considered. Historically, the absence, controlled presence, or active participation of women in the political arena was directly related to gender. And being of a particular class, race, or ethnicity could influence women's power and status as much as gender. Still the type and degree of women's political participation both as individual factors and as a group has gone much underreported, and the present has frequently been mistaken for the past.

VIII. A. Direct Power

One of the most obvious ways women exercised direct power was by ruling. Women assumed power in their own right in the ancient African kingdom of Kush as well as sometimes co-ruling with their sons (Africa 7). There were women who ruled in early Austronesian societies from Polynesia to Madagascar, including the Philippines and Indonesia (Asia 37). In tenth-century Abyssinia in Northeast Africa, Gudit was a powerful Queen of the Agao (Africa 10). Two African queens ruled in the sixteenth century, Queen Aminatu or Amina of Zaria and Queen Nzinga of Matamba (Africa 61, 70). The Mende of West Africa also had a tradition of women as chiefs (Africa 78). Mwana Mwema and Fatuma ruled in Zanzibar in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and Mwana Khadija ruled in Pate on the East African coast in the mid-eighteenth century (Africa 14-15).

What the existence of women rulers has to say about women's power qua women is a complex question. Most women who ruled were members of the elite by birth, but then so were ruling men. However, Queen Nzinga certainly achieved rather than inherited her power, moving from the position of palace slave to that of reigning monarch (Africa 70). Although the existence of women rulers indicates that women were not universally absent from the highest seats of power, having a woman ruler did not necessarily reflect the status of other women or empower them.

Women also exercised direct power within arenas viewed as the female province; these varied based upon material culture. In Africa female networks seem to have arisen from the sexual division of labor, and over many centuries women exercised considerable power and autonomy within society as a whole through all-female organizations. Women leaders of women such as the iyalode among the Yoruba and the omu among the Igbo (Africa 63, 43, 38) are examples of such power. The coya, known as the "queen of women" among the Inka, is another example; she even had the power to rule in the absence of the male ruler (Latin America 11). Women exercised considerable within the royal harem in both Turkey and Iran (Middle East 66).

Women exercised power as members of ad hoc collectives of their own sex organized for particular purposes. The Nigerian institution of "sitting on a man" is found in various African societies. This phrase describes ad hoc political activities of women who gathered as a group to protest policies or protect one of their sisters by confronting a man and ridiculing him or making demands, sometimes even destroying his property as punishment for some act against a woman or women as a whole. Women directed this practice against recalcitrant husbands and colonial officials alike (Africa 91-92). There is also evidence of the existence of this kind of activity in early twentieth-century China, where women forced their husbands who had maltreated their wives to march through town wearing dunce caps (Asia 100).

VIII. B. Indirect Power

Women's indirect and influential power is perhaps best illustrated in the existence of the queen mother, normally the progenitor of a male ruler although sometimes a woman appointed as his "mother." These women had power not only over other women but often over men as well. Their power resulted not only because these women had access to the ruler, serving as his "ear," so to speak, but also because they often commanded formidable financial and personnel resources and/or had specific responsibilities over the governed. Queen mothers existed in ancient Kush (Africa 7-8), India (Asia 14), the Ottoman Empire (Middle East 66), and West, East, and Northeast Africa (Africa 67-68, 12, 13), to name a few places. Some queen mothers, such as Shah Turkan of thirteenth-century Delhi, could be very instrumental in installing their sons on the throne and consequently exercised considerable state power (Asia 14). Others, like Mihrisah, mother of the Ottoman ruler Selim II, who ruled in the early nineteenth century, exercised considerable power through largesse; she built a mosque and medical school (Middle East 66). Yaa Kyaa, mother of the West African Asante ruler Osei Yaw, also exercised considerable state power, even signing a peace treaty between the Asante and the British in the 1830s (Africa 77-78). The magijiya, the title given to the queen mother in several of the Hausa states of the Western Sudan in West Africa, even had the power to depose the ruler, or sarki (Africa 60). The queen mother, however, owed her power to her relationship to a male ruler and not to her relationship to other women, and even though she might be regarded as "queen of the women," she did not necessarily represent women's interests as a whole. Still, these women were often at the center of power, and many displayed formidable political acumen.

We also cannot discount the power and influence of women who were the wives, sisters, daughters, and consorts of powerful men. Precisely because of the intimate context in which such situations occurred, they are admittedly hard to document, but evidence exists. For example, Ines Suarez, who accompanied Captain Pedro de Valdivia as his lover in his campaign to conquer Chile, played an important role as a spy and confidante and eventually took part in the conquest (Latin America 14-16). Wives of emperors in the Byzantine empire wielded considerable political influence (Middle East 18). Nineteenth-century Confucian reformers in China were influenced by increased contact with literate women at court and in elite families (Asia 88). The nineteenth-century Islamic reform movement led by Uthman dan Fodio in West Africa was certainly influenced in its ideas on greater education for women by the women in Fodio's own family, which produced five generations of women intellectuals who left bodies of written work in Fula, Arabic, and Hausa (Africa 72). In the West African kingdom of Dahomey, by the eighteenth century at least, no man could become king without the support of the powerful palace women (Africa 68). Royal women in nineteenth century Iran also exercised considerable power and independence, even from inside the harem (Middle East 66-67). There are many other examples which suggest to us that women's influential role in politics was consequential.

VIII. C. Military Activities

Women's military participation as individuals and as organized corps of women fighters was also widespread. In many places women accompanied male troops, such as in Axum and early Ethiopian kingdoms (Africa 8), in early Arabia (Middle East 31), in Latin America (Latin America 15), and elsewhere. But women were also actual combatants. The African Queen Amina of Zaria led troops into battle (Africa 61), as did the renowned Nguni warrior Nyamazana, of early nineteenth-century Southern Africa (Africa 17), and Indian women in Delhi and Bhopal in the second half of the eighteenth century (Asia 16). In eighteenth-century Jamaica, slave women played important roles as combatants in maroon societies composed of runaway slaves. One woman, Nanny, is still revered as a fighter and ruler of one of the most famous maroon communities, Nanny Town (Latin America 22-23). Actual corps of trained women soldiers also existed, such as those in Java (Asia 36), and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey (Africa 67). In eighteenth-century Egypt, women went into battle against Mamluk and the French (Middle East 67). In the nineteenth century women fought in Japan (Asia 91), in the T'aiping Rebellion in China (Asia 88), and in the Mexican Revolution (Latin America 43). In early twentieth-century China, corps of women fought as the "Women's Suicide Brigade" and the "Women's National Army" (Asia 95). Twentieth-century anti-colonial and liberation struggles are replete with examples of women as combutants, for example in the 1950s "Mau Mau" rebellion in Kenya (Africa 35). The role of woman as soldier has not been scarce.

VIII. D. Nationalist Struggles

In addition to serving in military roles, women organized in other capacities with men an din women's groups against colonial policies that they viewed as inimical to their interests. In India at the turn of the twentieth century, women were active in the swadeshi movement, which sought to encourage the use of indigenously made products as opposed to European imports (Asia 24). In the 1930s Indian women participated in anti-colonial protest marches in Bombay and elsewhere (Asia 25). In 1929 the "Women's War" of the Igo and Ibibio of Eastern Nigeria was a massive uprising of women against the threat of female taxation (Africa 91-92). In 1945 the market women in Lagos, Nigeria, were very instrumental in a general strike against economic and political policies of the British (Africa 92). Women in Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire worked with men in organizations promoting independence from European imperialism by participating in street demonstrations, public speaking, and writing (Middle East 67-68). In the Algerian War of Independence against the French (1954-62), women were couriers of weapons, money, and messages, as well as actual combatants (Middle East 80). Women's participation in general strikes, major protest marches, economic boycotts, and actual armed rebellion was prevalent everywhere there was an anti-colonial struggle.

Despite all of this, and despite the fact that improving women's status has often been a central point of anti-colonial ideology, women have usually not become the political and economic equals of men in newly evolving independent societies. In fact, the development of nationalist movements, at least in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has often operated to subordinate women. In nineteenth-century Japan the growth of nationalism and twentieth centuries, has often operated to subordinate women. In nineteenth-century Japan the growth of nationalism and patriotism tended to subjugate women, requiring that they be good wives and mothers as their first "patriotic" duty (Asia 92). Although initially instituting reforms that served to empower women, within a few years the Kuomintang nationalist movement in early twentieth-century China began to repress a developing feminist movement that had supported its rise to power (Asia 92). Although initially instituting reforms that served to empower women, within a few years the Kuomintang nationalist movement in early twentieth-century China began to repress a developing feminist movement that had supported its rise to power (Asia 101). The 1922 Egyptian constitution denied women the right to vote and barred them from the opening of Parliament, despite the active role they had played in the nationalist movement (Middle East 68). After the success of the Algerian Revolution, women's roles in the war were viewed as validation of their "traditional" roles of wife and mother (Middle East 81). After gaining independence, the Indonesian nationalist movement encouraged women to go back into the home to provide "social stability" (Asia 44). In Nigeria, although the nationalist movements of the mid-twentieth century had courted women and counted them as strong supporters in the independence struggle, women remained generally excluded from political power after independence and especially under military rule (Africa 1010). In many disparate places and cultures, nationalism left women unrewarded after independence was achieved.

There are exceptions, as some national liberation movements have challenged sexist ideologies regarding women. FRELIMO in Mozambique criticized both the traditional initiation rites that included notions of female subordination as well as the colonial exploitation of women's labor (Africa 42-43). This kind of struggle was termed "fighting two colonialisms" by the PAIGC, a comparable liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau (Africa 93). In Cuba the government also seeks to address the issue of women's equality in the post-independence period (Latin America 67-69). The positive difference in these countries, however, seems as related to women's continued organization as women (such as the Organization of Mozambican Women and the Cuban Federation of Women) as to state-supported revolutionary ideology.

VIII. E. Centralization, Bureaucratization, and State Formation

Women's role in centralization, bureaucratization, and state formation poses some challenging questions. In the processes of state formation and centralization, women often have tremendous importance and potential for autonomy and power as marriage partners who centralize wealth, cement alliances, merge cultures, and produce heirs. In the Middle East the practice of first-cousin marriage helped establish the family as a base of centralized wealth and political solidarity (Middle East 72). In the West African kingdom of Dahomey, the king took wives from wealthy and powerful families to cement political alliances (Africa 67). Among both the Hindus and the Muslims in India, marriages reinforced political bonds with the nobility and among rival states (Asia 14-15). In Latin America the Spanish sought unions with elite Amerindian women to legitimize and consolidate their control over indigenous societies (Latin America 19). However, it appears that when the state begins to bureaucratize, making these relationships less important to the state organization, women lose much of their potential for being central to state power. In the Middle East the growth of the state meant that the great family houses that had served as centers of societal organization and power lost much of that role (Middle East 73). Similarly, in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, kinship ties became much less important in power relations as the state solidified and shifted to a merit system based more on service to the king than on lineage connections (Africa 66).

Nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mobilized women nearly everywhere in the Third World. Once the state has been established (or has gained its independence from external conquerors), women so often seem to lose in the process. Particular and comparative research with gender as a central analytical factor can test this hypothesis and may open new windows on studies of state formation and the development of nationalism.

IX. Women's Culture, Networks, and Autonomous Space

In male-dominant societies, women's activities, values, and interactions often form a "muted" subculture: their world view is not dominant and does not generally claim to represent that of the entire society of men and women. This subculture is reinforced by a strong sexual division of labor that results in women and men spending most of their time in same-sex groupings and, occasionally, is augmented by ideological formulations or social rules (e.g., notions of pollution, or purdah).

At times, women demand the separate space or take advantage of it as a refuge from oppressive features of their society. For example, the sisterhoods of silk workers in southern China, who pledged to resist marriage, provided an alternative to the patriarchal family (Asia 88). Buddhism allowed women to pursue the monastic life, albeit as less than equals to male monks. Still, Indian Buddhist nuns taught religion to other women and composed religious poetry. (Jainism accepted nuns as the equals of monks.) (Asia 4-5). Women who joined Buddhist nunneries in China were criticized for ignoring female responsibilities of motherhood, although these nunneries, we might suspect, provided a space less controlled by male authority than the rest of Chinese society (Asia 74). Convents in colonial Latin America housed single women with various motives: some sought to escape marriage, others searched for religious fulfillment, and a few sought access to education. And not all who resided in a convent lived by vows of poverty and chastity (Latin America 33-35).

Whatever its source or structural manifestation, this social space and the resulting female-controlled institutions offered women rich opportunities. Most important was the potential for female solidarity. Various African societies institutionalized female solidarity through activities such as "sitting on a man" (noted earlier) in Nigeria. In Mende society in West Africa, the women's secret society known as Bundu (parallel to a men's secret society) provided a political base for female chiefs (It also perpetuated, as a central initiation ritual, the practice of clitoridectomy.) (Africa 76).

In addition to encouraging female solidarity, the separation of women and men had economic consequences at times. Islamic seclusion provided the impetus for the development of occupations serving the women of the harem or zenana, such as midwives, entertainers, musicians, or cosmologists; for reasons of honor and modesty, these occupations were filled by women (Middle east 61). The same rationale promoted the expansion of professions open to women: medicine, nursing, and teaching (Asia 21; Middle East 77). The physical separation of women contributed to a flowering of artistic, oral, and written culture from the female subculture.

The world's first novel, The tale of the Genji, is only one example of the fine literary work of Japanese women writers in the eleventh century. Unlike men, who were restricted by gender norms to writing rather arid, but higher-status, poetry in Chinese characters, these women composed prose in kana, the language of indigenous expression of sentiment (Asia 77). Even where excluded from education and high culture, women's networks produced a fine and rich tradition of oral expression, as in Bedouin communities in North Africa (Middle East 88-89).

Women's networks and women's subculture, because they often derive from the marginalization of women from the centers of power, have been controversial in the scholarship. Even in extreme forms (perhaps more so there), the segregation of women can provide a source of psychological support and connectedness (Middle East 89), or protection and support (Asia 13). In assessing the actions of women among themselves, the important issues of victimization and agency are played out: on whose initiative are the women grouped? how do women respond to this grouping? how does the clustering of women, apart from men, empower and limit women?

X. Women in Cross-Cultural Contact

Women are important intermediaries for cultural exchange. For several reasons they are likely to end up marrying outside their community of birth. First, patrilineal societies outnumber matrilineal societies, and in patrilineal societies a woman marries into her husband's patrilineage and generally resides with her husband's kin (patrilocality).

Second, women have often been exchanged, as wives and as concubines, to cement alliances. In eighteenth-century Dahomey in West Africa, lineages were required to send their daughters to the king (Africa 67). During the same period in Java, the male ruler gave various women from his court to noblemen as wives (Asia 36). In sixteenth-century Japan, warrior families cemented alliances by the exchange of wives (Asia 83).

Third, in cases of European expansion into the Third World, the sexual division of labor in Europe resulted in most explorers being male, which in turn created particular conditions for indigenous women to link with these men as sexual partners. Perhaps the best-known individual woman in this category was the slave Malinche (or Malintzin,) who became the first Mexican mistress of Cortes. She served as translator in Maya, Nahuatl, and Spanish and apprised Cortes of the inland empire of Moctezuma (Latin America 16-17). In the seventeenth century, the signares along the West African coast became wealthy traders and cultural intermediaries through their relations with European men. Their mulatto children, familiar with two worlds, served as power brokers (Africa 65). Similarly, initially in the seventeenth century, the Dutch administration encouraged the marriage of its junior officers to Indonesian women to provide a form of social order through mestizo culture on the frontiers of Dutch colonization. By the nineteenth century, the status of these mixed-race individuals had declined(Asia 39). The same gender division of labor, in which men were the agents of expansion, is also characteristic of societies outside of Europe. Most conquerors were male, for example in the nineteenth-century Zulu expansion through Southern and East-central Africa and among the Muslims who infiltrated Nubia beginning in the sixteenth century (Africa 10). In East Africa, long-distance trade was conducted by men rather than women.

Women were thus well placed-as socializers of children, farmers, or traders-to transmit new ideas about social practices or mores, technology or techniques, religion, kinship, etc., to their new community. Female African slaves, valued for their horticultural labor and transported far from their natal villages, brought with them ways of planting or cultivating, thus encouraging agricultural innovation. Women, for the same reasons, were well placed to resist the cultural aspects of imperialism by perpetuating indigenous culture and customs. Amerindian women in Latin America, for example, continued indigenous religious practices in the face of Catholic proselytizing, as did African female slaves (Latin America 23).

Women may become empowered by their intermediary position: it may give them pivotal control of information or material resources. On the other hand, as intermediaries they are sometimes marginal within their society of origin. They may lose the protections from their natal group accorded by custom without gaining those granted to indigenous women. As in-marrying strangers, they may suffer isolation. It is important to note, too, that the individuals and cultures resulting from these cross-racial liaisons were not valued everywhere: Anglo-Indians were shunned by both the English and the Indian communities during the Raj. The female intermediary risked being polluted by contact with outsiders and subsequently cast out. And some women who served as intermediaries, for example, Malintzin, or Eva in seventeenth century South Africa (Africa 15-16), have been labeled historically as traitors.

XI. Gender Plus Conquest: Colonialism and Imperialism

XI. A. Non-European Conquest

Contact resulting from conquest held vast implications for women as a group. Customs were transferred from one society to another. New practices that restricted women's physical mobility might be forced upon the indigenous groups or adopted by them in emulation. For example, although the jihad of Uthman dan Fodio improved conditions for Hausa women in numerous ways, it also led to the increased seclusion of elite women and a loss of their religious and political power.

XI. B. European Conquest, Colonialism, and Imperialism

Recent scholarship on women in European colonial societies presents evidence that there was no one colonial experience for all women, even within the same national boundaries. However, the position of most women declined under the segis of colonialism both because of sexist bias and because women were members of politically dominated and economically exploited territories. In general, women were dislocated economically and politically within a weakened indigenous order, and in those spheres at least, women were rarely compensated in the new order. Nevertheless, though women were often the victims of colonialism, they also took initiative both in resisting policies they viewed as harmful to them and in using new situations to their advantage. And sometimes the social fluidity created by the colonial experience allowed for the creation of alternative roles for women. As Berger has suggested, however, studies of gender need to be located as much in the changing relationships of production as in the political and social policies engendered by colonialism (Africa 22). Tucker underscores this point in emphasizing that it was the integration of the Middle East into a global economic system which is the real canvas on which we must paint an analysis of women's changing economic roles (Middle East 58).

Women were members of colonizing as well as colonized societies, and members of the former group eventually accompanied colonizers to conquered territories. For most of the regions under consideration in these packets, these women were a small minority in colonial territories. In the initial phase of conquest, they were nearly absent; then a trickle came to join husbands; then more came, depending on the degree of expatriate settlement that the colonizers encouraged and the needs and size of the colonial bureaucracy.

In Latin America, however, the era of European conquest was marked by the rise of commercial capitalism rather than the industrial capitalism that would fuel the colonialist thrust of the nineteenth century, and it also pre-dated (by several hundreds of years) the colonization of the other regions. After the initial phase of conquest during which few women from the Iberian peninsula were in residence in Latin America, much larger numbers began to immigrate there. The Amerindian population of Latin America was decimated due to European diseases and attempts at their enslavement. Though the population of African slaves grew considerably over the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, European immigration outstripped it. The Latin American continent was effectively colonized centuries before widespread colonial penetration in other regions. Thus by the nineteenth century, when other regions were experiencing colonial conquest, Latin American nations were gaining their independence and the descendants of Europeans in Latin America were the predominant people in the population of the continent. In many regions Latin American culture became an amalgam of African, European, and Amerindian cultures, shaped on the anvil of a centuries-old slave mode of production. Therefore, the following discussion of women under European colonialism does not apply to Latin America after the early decades of the conquest.

Imperialist and colonial expansion had economic, social, and cultural consequences for women. The greater development (or in some places the introduction ) of wage labor that accompanied colonialism predominantly involved men, whom it drew away from work on the land, increasing women's subsistence agricultural labor. Among the Tonga of Zambia the absence of male laborers had a particularly deleterious effect on the agricultural labor of older women, who were no longer able to depend upon help from sons and sons-in-law (Africa 22). This situation was also common in West and West Central Africa (Africa 34). Sometimes, however, women left alone on the land exercised greater power in the economic decision-making process. An example is late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century western Kenya where Luo women were able to experiment with new crops and agricultural techniques that improved their economic position (Africa 22).

In some places the existence of widespread wage labor among men eroded the importance of the family economy and women's role in it. In forcing male migration to wage labor in mining and other work among the Aztecs, Inkas, Mayas, and Arawaks, the Spanish eroded the significant role women performed in the pre-Columbian family economy (Latin America 11). In Morocco during the French colonial era, women were only seasonal wage laborers but were still dislocated in the family economy (Middle East 76).

The development of the cash crop system created greater interest in establishing private property in areas where it had not previously existed. This change to private property often distorted land tenure arrangements and usufruct (usage) rights and seems to have operated overall against women's interests. In Morocco the French, pursuing a policy of consolidating landholdings, helped destroy a family-based economy in which women played an important agricultural role (Middle East 76). The Swynnerton Plan, begun by the British in 1954 in Kenya, was a policy of consolidating and privatizing landholdings that severely disadvantaged women and set the stage for their loss of rights to land after independence (Africa 32). In West and West Central Africa women also lost out in the privatization of land occasioned by the growth of wage labor and cash crops (Africa 85-86). In a few instances women were able to resist erosion in their economic viability. An example is women in the cotton-producing areas of Malawi in the 1920s-1940s who were able to utilize cash cropping to their advantage. There, remaining collectively organized, women delayed the privatization of land, participated in cotton production, and maintained their precolonial agricultural autonomy (Africa 27-28)

European import competition often displaced women occupationally and marginalized them from areas of the economy where they were formerly quite important. For instance, in the Middle East and North Africa, European cloth exports in the nineteenth century devastated local textile production in which women had been heavily involved (Middle East 60). Among the Baule of the Ivory Coast, French monopolization of local cloth production, and its alienation to factories, displaced women's former predominance in producing cloth and related items, such as thread (Africa 88). Sometimes the colonial economy created jobs for women, and though they were often overworked and underpaid, this independent income still provided women with some autonomy (Middle east 60-61; Africa 23-24). Often it was the situations fostered by the colonial economy, especially in the urban areas, that created room for women to establish their own occupations (Middle East 61; Africa 24; Latin America 22-23). Although sometimes these occupations were marginal, such as beer-brewing and selling cooked food, or even dangerous and possibly degrading, such as prostitution, women seized whatever opportunity was available to stabilize themselves (and often their children) economically and to gain independence from men and other adult family members.

The colonial need to control the economy also marginalized women who had often exercised control over the production, pricing, and distribution of agricultural, textile, and household goods, In Southwestern Nigeria, for instance, the British were constantly in disputes with Yoruba market women over the location of markets, their internal control, and the setting of prices for staple commodities-all areas women had formerly controlled and which the colonial state sought to regulate (Africa 92).

A small number of women in some places were able to benefit economically from an increase in market scale that accompanied European contact and colonial rule, such as Omu Okwei of Nigeria (Africa 86-87). As with Okwei, this benefit came mostly to individuals and often at the expense of other women, since women's economic power had historically emanated from their operation in collectives.

The subsequent arrival of political independence in many countries did not eliminate economic dependence on former colonial powers and was often followed in the post-World War II period by the arrival of multinational corporations. Since colonialism had situated women overall as an easily exploitable class of labor, this situation had profound economic implications for women. On the one hand, a number of multinational industries, especially electronics and textiles, have shown a marked preference for female labor. This has meant women have been drawn into the formal wage-labor force and therefore had independent income. On the other hand, it has also meant the severe exploitation of their labor at depressed wages in unskilled and low-skilled jobs with little stability or possibility of promotion, and under unhealthy conditions (Latin America 72; Asia 46).

Yet colonialism was not merely an economic and political relationship; it was a social relationship as well. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European colonizers hailed from societies that had rejected prominent and public political roles for women and that empowered men to represent women's interests. Alternative colonialist definitions of femaleness reflected a European gender division of labor and sexist bias. Women's education was viewed as a vehicle for making them better wives and mothers, since women's role was to be domestic and dependent. The schools of colonial Latin America (Latin America 29, 48-53) shared with those of colonial Africa (Africa 28), the Middle East (Middle East 65), and India (Asia 19-20) an emphasis on education for domestic roles. The provision of suitable wives for the male Christian elite and the importance of mothers as socializers of their children dominated the colonial agenda, as articulated by both the colonizers and indigenous male elite. Colonialism sought to impose not only political dominance and economic control but also Western culture.

Seeking to legitimate their presence, and basing their opinions upon European views of women in society and their own notions of the value of human life, some colonizers and missionaries criticized polygyny and such indigenous practices toward women as clitoridectomy, sati, foot-binding, and seclusion. Similarly, in the area of family law, especially those practices relating to marriage and inheritance, Europeans did sometimes seek to provide women with increased individual rights. Among the indigenous Christianized elite in Nigeria, for instance, Christian marriage was initially popular with women for these very reasons; but because it also promoted women's economic dependence and re-enforced a pre-existing sexual double standard without the historical protections provided by the extended family, women soon began to chafe under its restrictions (Africa 80). The arbitrariness with which European family law was often administered and its confinement primarily to urban centers combined with other factors to leave a number of states with more than one legal code-European, customary, Islamic, etc.-a situation still in the process of being reconciled in many places. As with any major societal upheaval resulting in challenges to existing authority, colonialism both created opportunities for and oppressed women. In the final analysis, however, the vast majority of women have opted to work for the independence of their societies and to pursue the issue of gender equality in the context of an independent and autonomous state.


Women, by definition, are all the same sex. Biology, therefore, renders a certain sameness: women everywhere bear children, menstruate, go through menopause, and are otherwise physiologically more similar than they are different. However, gender-the roles, perceptions, ideologies, and rituals associated with sex-is constructed by society. Just as settled societies have broad experiences in common (everywhere people construct shelter, trade, procure food, resolve conflict, etc.), they approach these tasks in vastly different ways. Similarly, with women, writ large, there is much that is the same in the construction of gender; writ small, there is much that is different.

Even accounting for the cultural and historical context, the commonalities in the construction of gender point to women as generally less privileged human beings than men. Women's sexuality has been generally more regulated than that of men. Women, at least from the appearance of sedentary societies, have been far more associated with household labor than have men. Women have been less likely to rise to the highest positions of political and/or religious power. Women as a group have exercised less control over wealth than men as a group. Even within the same space and time, gender has been constructed differently for certain women depending on class, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Thus we must view constructions of gender related not only to sex, but to a number of to other factors-mode of production, culture, religion, to name a few-that can sometimes operate to bond women and at other times operate to separate them. The fundamental construction of gender everywhere, however, has been to separate women from men, in role, status, privilege, access, and other ways. In these histories we seek to chronicle women's activities and experiences to detail their lives and to help us understand gender as a social construct.

These packets are by no means definitive, and perhaps they will be as important for the questions they generate as for the ones they answer. They strive to give historical dimension to the construction of gender. The historical approach, because it is specific to time and place, provides us with longitudinal data that we can use to both construct and test theory. It can also give us a basis for comparison through both time and space. An historical view easily exposes gaps in our knowledge and at the same time encourages us to view data as both process and event. Comparison with the historiography of the study of women in the United States and Europe reveals interesting questions that are little explored in these materials: childrearing, women's efforts to control male sexuality, the empowerment of women through their roles as midwives or healers, or, finally, the cultural context of body image/beauty.

Since women are half (or more) of the human race, and since they have always figured prominently in the development of society, recovering women's history is central to having as complete and accurate a historical record as possible. We hope and believe these packets will contribute to making women more visible in the historical record and will encourage further research of both a specific and a comparative nature.