African Women: A Modern History

In This Review

African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch
Westview Press, 1997
308 pp. $69.95
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Women's history in Africa is a very new object of study and suffers from a scarcity of reliable and impartial source materials. Add to these difficulties the immense cultural and environmental diversity of the continent and its complex variation of colonial experiences, and it is not surprising that this pathbreaking effort at synthesis comes off as patchy. After looking for broad patterns in pre-colonial gender roles and attitudes, the author, a prominent French historian, traces changes in women's lives resulting from urbanization, the introduction of cash crops, the spread of formal schooling and Christian mores, and the mutually reinforcing African and European notions of female dependence prevailing in the colonial era. Significant advances in women's status and collective consciousness, the author asserts, date only from the early 1980s. Policymakers hoping to find practical recommendations about women's role in development may be disappointed. Analytic depth is traded for breadth backed up by anecdotal evidence that oscillates between the subtle and the slapdash. Nevertheless, as an introductory work in a growing academic field, this welcome book fills a conspicuous gap in African studies.