Les Femmes Savantes”: Women’s Education, Modern Domesticity, and Revolutionary Family Dynamics in Cameroon, 1950–60

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Charlotte Walker-Said, Webster University
My proposed paper explores the politics of women’s education in the nationalist era in French-administered Cameroon. The development of girls’ primary schools, convent schools, and women’s colleges in the Cameroon territory in the 20th century instigated widespread debate on the “place” of the African woman in society. Education for women in late colonial Cameroon was predominantly oriented towards preparing women for what European and African educators termed “essentially feminine” professions, including motherhood, midwifery, nursing, and social work. Cultural and political elites openly debated the “use” of women’s education and the “dangers” of the subjects taught to young women, including modern techniques of hygiene, child rearing, and social development. Many African secular and religious leaders argued that modern education threatened the “traditional” woman’s morality and caused her to be independent, obstinate, and unable to relate to children or perform duties for their extended families. While some politicians defended women’s schooling, they did so by appealing to notions of conjugal “balance,” arguing that without education, a woman could not be a proper spouse to an educated man.

My paper examines the emergence of critiques and counter-critiques of women’s education in late colonial Cameroon, as girls’ schools and the women who attended them were forced to defend themselves against attacks that their education was undermining their values, and thereby society’s and the nation’s. The defenses launched by African women for their education engaged the Cameroonian populace using the rhetoric of domestic harmony, increased fertility, and social and political security for what would be an essentially modern African society. The paper will document the politics of persuasion used by women to defend the expansion of women’s education in the midst of rhetorical battles that incited fear about social and moral collapse that were attendant with anxieties about decolonization and the struggle for independent nationhood.

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