Women's History: Asia

views updated May 11 2018

Women's History: Asia

The prominent roles occupied by women in the legends and myths of that complex and diverse part of the world called Asia suggest that "histories" of women in Asia have existed for a very long time. That these legends have been shaped, written, and sometimes performed by men operating in androcentric cultural contexts does not negate the impression of power and consequence their narratives convey. From Japan's sun goddess, the original ancestress of the imperial line, to Korean shamans, to the powerful and transgressive women of South and Southeast Asian myth, or China's Hua Mulan, the stories of these legendary women suggest that women in early Asian societies did "make history." Perhaps only in China does the written record present, dynasty after dynasty, legendary women whose experience is embedded in the historicity of China's changing social, political, and economic institutions.

In various parts of Asia, these myths generated questions about matriarchal societies that were reinforced by the nineteenth-century work of Friedrich Engels (18201895) and Garrett A. Morgan (18771963). This theoretical framework may have encouraged one of Japan's first historians of women, Takamure Itsue (18941964), to do research on family registers; that research, parts of which have been reinforced by twentieth-century scholarship, strongly suggests that families in eighth-century Japan were predominantly matrilineal. For other women in Asia, myths and legends provided models for resistance and revolution in the twentieth century (China and Vietnam) and left some, like Hiratsuka Raicho (18861971), wondering why and how women had lost the power and authority they once had in Japanese history.

The Confucian Pattern

Few intellectual traditions have had a greater impact on women in Asia than Confucianism, in part because Confucian traditions were central not only to China but also to other parts of Asia (Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia) influenced by Chinese culture. The study of women in these cultures has dismantled basic assumptions about Confucianism: its universality, monolithic nature, and immutability. The study of women has shown many different Confucianisms and has made it clear that the continuity of these traditions is the result of accommodation to social change, not stasis.

Scholars of Chinese women's history have, in recent years, moved far beyond an earlier scholarship that focused on Confucianism's role in conceptualizing and rationalizing a patriarchal, patrilineal family in which women were marginalized, victimized, and seemingly left with little opportunity to develop or exercise a sense of their own agency. Overcoming and supplanting this view has come only through the continuing research of historians who, reading against the grain of the Confucian record, have provided a much more complex picture of women's lives and of Chinese culture. Margery Wolf's work on women in Taiwan represents a rare early glimpse of women developing strategies to increase their power in the family; Susan Mann, Patricia Ebrey, and Dorothy Ko have since demonstrated, in a number of different settings, how important women were as contributors to "Chinese civilization" and how effectively they circumvented the institutional barriers ranged against them.

Elsewhere in Asia, Confucian patterns had less continuity as well as less influence. In the Japanese case, Confucian ideas about the family and statecraft were heavily moderated by existing cultural patterns, even in the two periods when Confucianism is thought to have had greatest influencethe eighth and ninth centuries when the Japanese state was being organized, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Tokugawa period. Korea, although thoroughly conversant with Confucianism, was really not dominated by these ideas until well after the fourteenth century, and Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, encountered the greatest levels of Confucian influence between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Recent scholarship makes it clear how difficult it is to walk the tightrope between establishing a history of women in Asia that speaks to their strengths and acknowledges the reality of the constraints they faced. Although historians continue to investigate stereotypical symbols of women's oppression in Asia (sati, footbinding), they do so with a heightened sense of the possibility that Western scholarship "orientalizes" women when it fails to present them as active participants in their own culture, able to find nuanced and effective ways to challenge those constraints.

The Modern Period

There has always been a women's version of the Western civilizing narrative in Asia; in many times and places, Western colonizers sought to use the "oppression of women" in Asian cultures as a rationale for their self-proclaimed civilizing mission. The treatment of women, they often said, was the standard by which civilizations could be judged, and on that basis it was clear that Asia "needed civilizing." The history of women in Asia has convincingly demonstrated that the "Western impact" on Asia not only complicated women's ability to improve their lives but also generated an anticolonial, nationalist engagement that did not aid, but typically subverted, feminist agendas.

Growing recognition of the intellectual significance of feminism since the late nineteenth century has been coupled with the assumption that feminism's natural competitorsnationalism and socialismhave eclipsed feminism's impact in the modern period. Women have been critical to the development of nationalism and socialism in China, India, Korea, and Southeast Asia: as symbols of "tradition," workers, educators, and soldiers. Women were asked to postpone their agendas in China's great twentieth-century revolution, where leaders pursued a "backward to revolution" strategy, and in India, where connections with nationalism and anti-imperialist movements were complicated by geography, ethnicity, caste, class, and religious diversity. While South Asia may present the greatest challenges for historians of women, it is also true that, in the 1990s, scholars there such as Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid pointedly demonstrated how much a feminist standpoint adds to our understanding of nationalism, colonialism, and anticolonial movements. Independence may have brought an improvement in the legal status of women, but the partition that created the new states of India and Pakistan ushered in a long period of conflict in which large numbers of women were abducted, raped, and/or killed as part of a continuing political, ethnic, and religious struggle. Until 1990, women were an invisible part of historical analysis of this conflict; since then, historians of women, such as Urvashi Butalia in South Asia, have made clear how important women and gender are to any understanding of these conflicts.

See also Feminism ; Gender ; Women's History: Africa ; Women's Studies .


Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

Johnson, Kay Ann. Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Ko, Dorothy, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott, eds. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003.

Mann, Susan. Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Mann, Susan, and Yu-Yin Cheng, eds. Under Confucian Eyes. Writings on Gender in Chinese History. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Ramusack, Barbara N., and Sharon Sievers. Women in Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Ray, Sangeeta. En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Sangari, Kumkum, and Sudesh Vaid. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Sarkar, Tanika, and Urvashi Butalia, eds. Women and Right-Wing Movements. London: Zed Books, 1995.

Sekiguchi, Hiroko. "The Patriarchal Family Paradigm in Eighth-Century Japan." In Women and Confucian Cultures, edited by Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2003.

Sievers, Sharon. Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Stacey, Judith. Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.

Tonomura, Hitomi, Ann Walthall, and Wakita Haruko, eds. Women and Class in Japanese History. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1999.

Wolf, Margery. Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Sharon Sievers

Women's History: Africa

views updated May 29 2018

Women's History: Africa

Since 1970 the history of African women has developed into a vital and steadily expanding area of research and study, motivated, as with other areas of women's history, by the development of the international feminist movement. African women's history also paralleled the expansion of African history following World War II, as scholars inside and outside of Africa began to focus on historical transformations on the African continent.

Before the 1970s there was little available research on African women's history per se, though information on women in Africa was found in anthropological and ethnographic studies. This focus has continued in the preponderance of research on African women appearing in development studies. The first publications in the 1970s dealt with women and economic change and with women as political activists. By the mid-1980s there were a number of important extended studies, but only in the 1990s did a substantial number of monographs on specific topics begin to appear, although the bulk of new research is still found in journal and anthology articles.

Earlier historical eras were initially neglected, in part as a result of the difficulty in obtaining historical sources that dealt with women before the nineteenth century. Written materials on earlier eras, especially from an African woman's perspective, were scarce because many African communities were decentralized and nonliterate. Topics that have archival source materials included elite women such as Queen Nzinga, a seventeenth-century ruler in what became Angola, and market women along the West African coast who interacted with European traders. Eva, a seventeenth-century African woman who settled in the early Dutch community on the Cape in South Africa and married a European colonist, is also found in archival documentation. Egypt was exceptionally strong in sources concerning women in earlier centuries.

Source availability influenced the large number of studies on slave women in the nineteenth century, which is an important issue but did not represent the experience of most women. Slaves within Africa were more likely to be women, a reflection of their productive and reproductive contributions to their communities. Scholars have retrieved information on other aspects of the lives of women in the nineteenth century, as exemplified in research that detailed women's work in Lesotho, elite women in Buganda, women's vulnerability in Central Africa, Swahili women's spirit possession cults, Asante queen mothers' political influence, religious Muslim women in West Africa, and numerous other specific areas of women's activity.

Reexamining familiar issues from a woman's perspective has altered African history more generally. For example, many of the initial studies of women's work during the colonial period showed how they had lost power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops and their exclusion from the global marketplace, in contrast to men, who were more likely to benefit from these economic changes. The emphasis on the formal sector of the economy in African labor history eclipsed women's actual economic activity, which centered on agricultural work. Studying women's economic contributions meant paying attention to rural agricultural work as well as the urban efforts of market vendors, both sectors previously neglected in African labor history. Female agricultural innovations were described as essential to community survival. Women's changing position in arenas formerly seen as only male has been shown in research on mining compounds in Zambia, railway communities in Nigeria, and other urban studies.

Research on women's involvement in political activism changed previously accepted ideas of women's passivity in the face of such changes. In some areas, such as southern Nigeria in the 1920s, women drew on precolonial practices to express their displeasure with the colonial powers. New information about the leadership role of illiterate Muslim women in Dar es Salaam in the nationalist movement of the 1950s fundamentally changed the view that the Tanzanian anticolonial movement was led solely by men who were products of Christian mission education. Research on more recent years has found a proliferation of African women's organizations concerned with bringing peace to conflict-ridden areas, ending female genital cutting or mutilation (erroneously called female circumcision), and training women to get involved in national politics. Women's studies programs have been established at most African universities.

Scholars of women and religion have investigated female spiritual power in local religions and the role of women in developing local churches that were often offshoots of larger denominations. Research in the 1990s also included a focus on women and missions, with researchers demonstrating that the introduction of European ideas about marriage and family simultaneously brought new oppressions and new opportunities for women. Research on women and Islam has also grown, with new information on women and Koranic education in West Africa and on Muslim women's involvement in nationalist struggles in North Africa.

The earliest publications tended to be descriptive as scholars worked to prove that African women had made an impact on their societies. More recent studies have provided much more nuanced descriptions of the complexities of women's lives, of the changes over time, and of local and outsider ideologies about women in Africa. Helen Bradford's reanalysis of the role of the adolescent girl Nongqawuse in the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s has demonstrated that taking women's testimony seriously and focusing on women's experience and expression of history can fundamentally change the explanation of an event. She convincingly suggests that issues of changing sexuality and possibly abuse or incest were of central importance in understanding people's motivations, and conventional reliance on broader economic and political reasons for the upheaval is not completely satisfactory.

Among the issues continuing to appear in writings on African women's history are those of representation (who is writing this history and for what audience), sources and methodology, and periodization, as well as the usual areas of productive work, family life, and public activities such as politics and religion. Tiyambe Zeleza has described the enduring marginalization of African women's history, as the information that has been recovered is omitted from textbooks or included in very limited ways. The absence of African women historians is frequently commented on, as there are regrettably few who publish regularly. The history of women in precolonial Africa continues to be a weak point, while the history of the colonial era (from around 1880 to the 1960s for most of the continent) has shifted from examining the impact of colonialism on women (assessed as mostly negative) to investigating African communities and history from their own perspectives. This approach includes an emphasis on African women's agency and efforts to present African women's own voices. A notable effort in this regard is the Women Writing Africa Project sponsored by Feminist Press, which presents extensive materials written and recorded by African women. A single volume on English-speaking southern Africa has been published and the editors, Tuzyline Jita Allan and Abena Busia, plan several more regional collections. New research reexamines territory already covered and opens new topics while incorporating the voices of African women as both subjects and scholars, indicating the direction African women's history will take in the near future.

See also Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Women's Studies .


Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Berger, Iris, and E. Frances White. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Bradford, Helen. "Women, Gender, and Colonialism: Rethinking the History of the British Cape Colony and its Frontier Zones, c. 180670." Journal of African History 37 (1996): 351370.

Charrad, Mounira M. States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Daymond, M. J., et al. Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region. New York: Feminist Press, 2003.

Hodgson, Dorothy L., and Sheryl A. McCurdy, eds. "Wicked" Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.

Tripp, Aili Mari, ed. Sub-Saharan Africa. Vol. 6 of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women's Issues Worldwide, edited by Lynn Walter. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2003.

Zeleza, Tiyambe. "Gender Biases in African Historiography." In Engendering African Social Sciences, edited by Ayesha M. Imam, Amina Mama, and Fatou Sow, 81116. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA Book Series, 1997.

Kathleen Sheldon

Women's History

views updated May 29 2018


This entry includes two subentries: