Summary and Keywords
The first permanent African residents of the new towns established by whites in southern and eastern Africa at the end of the 19th century were female. These towns were new social spaces, existing where no towns had existed before. The residents had to invent the rules for living: new forms of urban identity emerged over time. For white settlers, the towns were intended to mirror familiar European urban spaces. For Africans, little was recognizable, but there were many opportunities to adapt familiar social relationships to the new contexts.
African women’s lives in the early years of these white settler towns seem paradoxical. They were permanent residents, but officially they had no rights of residence at all. They had very limited economic opportunities, being pushed into prostitution and beer brewing, yet they ended up being powerful property owners with independent wealth. They can appear as both victims and liberated agents. Their lives were complicated. But part of the paradox arises from trying to interpret their lives through European lenses, in which terms such as “prostitute wife” seem oxymoronic. Their lives perhaps made more sense to these women pioneers than they have to the academics who have attempted to reconstruct them.
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