Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, African History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 June 2022

Women’s Emancipation from Slavery in Africa in the 19th and 20th Centurieslocked

Women’s Emancipation from Slavery in Africa in the 19th and 20th Centurieslocked

  • Patricia van der SpuyPatricia van der SpuyDepartment of History, Geography, Economics and Politics, Castleton University

Summary

Women were the majority of enslaved people in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was transformed and expanded in the context of so-called “legitimate commerce” that followed the abolition of oceanic slave trading. Abolition proclamations followed, in British colonies in the 1830s, and elsewhere from the 1870s through much of the 20th century, but abolition did not equate to freedom. Gender was at the heart of emancipation everywhere. Colonial merchants and officials colluded with local male elites to ensure the least disruption possible to the status quo. For these male allies, emancipation was a contradiction in terms for women, because masculine authority and control over women was assumed. In many regions, it was difficult for Europeans to distinguish between marriage, pawnship, and slavery. Women engaged strategically with colonial institutions like the courts over such distinctions to assert some form of control over their own lives, labor, and bodies. Where slavery and marriage were categorically distinct, again women might engage with Western gender stereotypes of marriage to extricate themselves from the authority of former slaveholders, or they might withdraw their labor by fleeing from the farms. Whereas for Europeans women were ideally defined as subservient wives within nuclear families, for many women themselves motherhood and access to their children were key to struggles toward emancipation.

Women’s decisions about their emancipation were influenced by many factors, including whether or not they were mothers, if they were born into slavery or enslaved as children or adults, their experiences of coercion and cruelty including sexual violence, their status within the slaveholding, and their relationships of dependency and support. Topography and location mattered; urban contexts offered different kinds of post-slavery opportunity for many, and access to land and other economic opportunities and limitations were critical. The abolition of slavery by European colonial officials did not emancipate women, but it did provide the context in which some women might negotiate or claim their own rights to freedom as they defined it—which in some cases meant walking away from systems of involuntary servitude. Some women engaged colonial officers and institutions directly to demand a change in status, whereas others decided to stay in relationships that, in many cases, were subtly redefined.

Subjects

  • Slavery and Slave Trade
  • Women’s History

You do not currently have access to this article

Login

Please login to access the full content.

Subscribe

Access to the full content requires a subscription