A Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Helly, Dorothy O. | African Research & Documentation, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa


Helly, Dorothy O., African Research & Documentation


A Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, (Historical Dictionaries of Women in the World, No. 1); by Kathleen Sheldon. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2005. xli, 405pp. ISBN 0-8108-5331-0. $80

Kathleen Sheldon, the author/ compiler of this dictionary has put together a truly comprehensive, well thought-out volume, with valuable introductory essays regarding both the history and the historiography of its subject matter. An independent scholar affiliated with the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles, she has published major articles on African women's history, edited Courtyards, Markets, City Streets: Urban Women in Africa (1996), and authored Pounders of Grain: A History of Women, Work, and Politics in Mozambique (2002). As Sheldon reminds us, modern scholarship on Africa dates to the 1960s. African women's history developed at a slower pace, relying for the most part on the dedicated work of feminist scholars. Only in the last decade and a half have major monographs appeared in significant numbers in this field. Nonetheless, sub-Saharan African women's history is potentially revolutionary for reshaping our understanding of this region, as is clearly demonstrated by this dictionary. A great many Africanists still do not treat gender as a critical factor in historical analysis, and that neglect makes all the more important the achievements of this volume.

The book includes a map, a chronology, and an appendix that lists dictionary entries by country. The entries themselves range widely from specific women and women's associations, both cultural and political, to a wide range of historical phenomena. Under "F," for example, the reader finds "family law," "female genital cutting," and "female-headed households," as well as "feminism," "fertility," "film," and "first ladies." Similarly, under "M," entries range from "micro-enterprise," "midwives," and "missions," to "motherhood," "music," and "mythology." Following up the cross references within entries also provides the reader with mini-histories of particular kinds of women's activities throughout a region that includes over 50 countries. The very first dictionary entry, "Aba Women's War," refers the reader to "Adoro; Analu; Dual-Sex System; Goddesses; [and] Shaming Practices." These entries enable the reader to trace the ways in which women in Africa have traditionally wielded power and organized to defend themselves.

The volume is the first in a projected series of historical dictionaries of women in the world, and it sets a high standard for the future. This dictionary can readily introduce women's history in sub-Saharan Africa to both undergraduate and graduate students and will give general readers - involved perhaps in activities that focus on parts of the region - a quick and dependable access to the field. …

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