African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

8
The Urban Condition

One conclusion can clearly be drawn: the presence of so many women in the city can only partially be explained by their husbands' migration. The major shift of the twentieth century was the emergence in the cities of a very specific new category of independent women who could meet their own needs and the needs of their families--particularly their children--without help from anyone and without depending on a man unless under accepted social arrangements that lacked any economic relation.

Much attention, perhaps too much, has been given to prostitution. It is not that it should be denied or that it is not a relatively profitable profession, but studies of it tend to accord it disproportionate importance, at least historically. Certainly, urban prostitution was encouraged in the early twentieth century by colonizers who preferred (or, as in Kenya, the Rhodesias, and South Africa, demanded) that the only workers admitted to the cities be men under contract, treated as bachelors. Despite everything, women were able to find many other kinds of work in the city. Lacking training and means, they chose jobs that required little capital and great adaptability to local markets. They held a privileged place in petty merchant capitalism in the informal sector and later in domestic labor.


Deterioration or Progress?

When we look at the question of the urban woman, once again it is impossible to generalize. The factors at play are many. Beyond the cultural heritage unique to each region, women's ages, geographical and social origins, and urban class, as well as relations between the sexes unique to each society, created noticeable differences. It has been observed that city women's status rose or fell in inverse relationship to their class origins. For middle-class women, city life meant increased dependence. Working-class women found conditions favoring relative emancipation. The peasant women who came to

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