Exceptions that Prove the Rule? Women and chiefship in precolonial and early colonial southeast Africa

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Seminar Date
March 10, 2010
In order to position MA research into the experiences of royal women in colonial Natal, this paper reviews the main scholarly arguments about precolonial and early colonial royal women and female chiefs in southeast Africa. The paper starts by unpacking a particular debate: in the late 1980s, Jeff Guy made a case for the basic separateness of male and female worlds of labour, male control of female labour, and male accumulation (through cattle) of the means to appropriate more female labour in a manner essentially repressive along gender lines, using a materialist, Marxist framework that confronted gender divide as class divide. Though his thesis does not emerge from a vacuum, it has been a crucial turning point and has sown debate: consensus (from scholars such as Cherryl Walker) and critique. Responses to this position in recent years have come from Jennifer Weir, Sean Hanretta, and Sifiso Ndlovu via very different arguments and theoretical starting points. These three writers have focussed on excavating women’s relation to structures of political dominance and leadership, in precolonial (and early colonial) southern African societies. For Weir and Ndlovu especially, this has meant telling the story of royal women in this region, emphasising what they see as a crucial omission in Guy's thesis. Their interventions, and also the contribution of this thesis, must be viewed against the backdrop of a bigger and older trend in the writing of African history; one that has focussed, for better or for worse, on “great” women. The paper seeks to address these writers' very different understandings of what women's "power" is and was.
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