Learned Respectability: Domesticity, Gender, and Social “Improvement” in Colonial Africa

AHA Session 86
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Philippa Levine, University of Texas at Austin
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel will examine the ways in which the European imperial political objectives of “civilizing” “modernizing”, and controlling the diverse indigenous populations of colonial Africa were implemented through gender relations and within the domestic setting. By exploring the political implications of seemingly apolitical acts within the private domestic settings of individual households, marriages, and among family members, our panel examines the effects of imperial control on the individual and the “traditional” cultures of indigenous societies in Cameroon, Sudan, and the Cape Colony.  These papers draw from a diverse source base of European imperial and colonial African sources to examine how the private is publicized, politicized, and scrutinized and why forming domestic lives became such self-conscious work in these imperial settings. Our panel will discuss the role of the domestic and the private in affecting broader conceptions of indigenous culture, gender, social class, and political identity.

Charlotte Walker-Said will examine 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 welfare 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.

Matthew Schauer will focus on the exportation of British middle-class ideals of domesticity and imperial conceptions of civilization to Sudan during Samuel and Florence Baker’s expedition to the region from 1869-1873.  The paper examines the ways in which ideas of British middle-class domesticity, particularly in terms of gender divisions, class status, and conceptions of modernity, were present in the Bakers’ “civilizing impulses” towards the people of Sudan. These “impulses” included the expedition’s primary goal of ending slavery in the region, and Florence Baker’s attempts to “improve” the indigenous population by providing instruction in Western forms of “proper” domestic practices within her idealized Victorian household.

Charles V. Reed will explore how the politics of gender informed the conceptions of citizenship of Western-educated men of color, or respectables, between the “birth” of the non-racial franchise in the Cape Colony, the 1853 constitution, and its symbolic betrayal with the Union of South Africa (1910).  The paper will aim to understand the influence of so-called “traditional” African conceptions of gender, which are often conceived by scholars to be more egalitarian than European norms, and the ideal of domesticity and “separate spheres” introduced by European missionaries.  By exploring the ways in which these cosmopolitan activists and intellectuals made sense of their worlds through a complex constellation of ideas and practices, it will highlight the role of African respectables in the making of a (gendered) British-imperial culture.

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