Sheldon, Kathleen. Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Author:Najafizadeh, Mehrangiz
Position:Book review

Sheldon, Kathleen. Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Series: Historical Dictionaries of Women in the World, Jon Woronoff (series editor). Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2005, 405 pp

This book would be a magnificent addition to any gender library. Sheldon begins with an illuminating chronology of over one hundred gender-related events in Africa, from the tenth century BC to the present. This is followed by an introductory chapter in which she notes the geographic, social, religious, and historical diversity of Africa and in which she then focuses on "common threads and shared occurrences" as well as on key "events and individuals." One central issue is that of the predominance of African women (estimated at 65 to 80 percent) who participate in different forms of agriculture and a diversity of food-producing activities, varying from one geographic and environmental region to another. Another important characteristic found in most African societies, as Sheldon notes, center on "the control of land and of labor by kin groups and clans" wherein land is owned by social groups rather than by individuals. Of related significance are "matrilineal descent systems" and matrilineal societies that "embodied an idea of social organization that privileged the personal and social power of women," as well as African societies that had patrilineal forms of organization. Yet, as Sheldon points out, even though women have tended to maintain a central role in agricultural activities, "they generally had only indirect access to power and authority in African societies."

Another key element is that of slavery and the Western slave trade, wherein men "were more often sold into the international market." In contrast, "slaves within Africa were more likely to be women, a reflection of their productive and reproductive contributions to their communities." Other key issues and periods include religion, where women were prominent during the 1800s in expanding Islam in West Africa, and the colonial period during which many women, in contrast to men, lost their "power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops and their exclusion from the global marketplace." Of additional importance is the "modem nationalist movement" in Africa during the twentieth century where "The role of women in anti-colonial and...

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