Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, ‘Yoruba Women, Work and Social Change’ (Indiana University Press, 2009)

Marjorie Keniston McIntosh’s new(ish) book,  Yoruba Women, Work and Social Change’ has been on my shelf to read for longer than it should have been. McIntosh’s introduction promises a study ‘of adaptability and syncretism, not of simple continuity or abrupt change’, (12) much needed in the context of gender history in West Africa.

The book’s structure seeks to gradually introduce women’s lives in the 19th and 20thC, providing contextual history for an envisaged reader who knows little about Nigerian or African histories.   This introductory survey includes colonialism, and the ‘domestic context’ of women’s lives including marriage.  She then moves to consider economic roles, and then other fields of women’s participation  such as religious belief, culture and public authority.

There are some fantastic vignettes in the book demonstrating the richness of Nigerian source material.  Subuola repetitioned a colonial court in 1945, (it had previously refused her a divorce).  Subuola’s words are an appeal to ‘British’ justice:

‘I am not an unmarried girl but a woman who have spent over ten years with my husband [sic]. I believe you will be good enough to consider me as one of the British Subjects put in your care’.

Yoruba Women

It would be wonderful to know more about Subuola Okuku (103), not least if she was representative of the period or of Oshun Division.

McIntosh concludes the book by addressing three key themes important in considering the lives of women in Yorubaland over this period: gender definitions and the extent and nature of patriarchy, women’s place in interactions between ‘traditional’ Yoruba patterns and the new ideas and institutions brought by colonialism, and women’s agency.

So does it achieve its goals? Does it fill the gap in the field? The book claims to be the first to focus upon Yoruba women’s history across the 19th century, to Independence, and that it is based on primary source material.  I appreciate the pressure from publishers to claim originality, but would point to  Nina Mba’s groundbreaking book.  Whilst there are problems with using a colonial border to define the territory of study, nonetheless Mba used a comparative approach to demonstrate how different political experiences of colonialism affected gendered relationships.  McIntosh’s choice of three loosely defined areas within ‘Yorubaland’ fails to achieve this.   This is a shame given that given McIntosh’s unusually diverse historical background, she was perfectly placed to deliver a  ‘globally informed’ history.[i]

A point well made by McIntosh is the historic dominance of urban histories, making understanding of rural women’s experience difficult to incorporate with balance.  Regionalism is also significant (as McIntosh notes), with some areas better covered than others. Hopefully this will stimulate new research in these fields.

Given the anticipated target audience, that McIntosh considers sources merit separate discussion early in the book makes sense. Yet, there are opportunities missed here.   The book includes beautiful images from 19C printed missionary sources but they are not considered in the discussion of source material.[ii]   In contrast, readers need to (at minimum) think about these pictures in the context of missionaries’ marketing strategies in the 19C.

I think that there are problems with arguing that Yoruba women were less affected than other African women by the impact of colonial authority ‘due to the ongoing strength of traditional attitudes and practices’ (60). Not least because it seems to contradict McIntosh’s own acknowledgement of the malleability and dynamism of  ‘tradition’ in the introduction.  McIntosh appears to see as irrelevant at this point both the examples of other communities in which women acted in different ways to the way colonial incomers anticipated, but also those which were treated in different ways to the Yoruba communities because of colonial (pre)conceptions about these groupings.  Extending the boundary of her study might have helped here: Lorraine Semley’s discussion of the experience in French Benin highlights how French encounters with Yoruba speaking women did not lead to identical understandings and approaches to gender as their British counterparts.[iii]

Ultimately the book reifies ‘Yorubaland’ as within British colonial Africa, rather than using the insights of studies of Yoruba diasporic communities and French West Africa in order to explore interaction with different colonial administrations by women.  Unfortunately, as Stoler commented on the field in 2010:

‘how to track decoupled, severed histories [has] often proved harder than asserting an analytic commitment to pursue their convergence and relationality.’ [iv]

Further reading:

Andrea Cornwall Readings in Gender in Africa

[i] Research that has led to publications including Working Women in English Society, 1300-1620 (2005); Controlling Misbehavior [sic] in England, 1998; and with Grace Bantebya Kyomuhendo, Women, Work and Domestic Virtue in Uganda, 1900-2003.

[ii] For example describing the missionary’s letter that was quoted to accompany the text p.128-9.

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