African Women: A Modern History

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

12
Women and Factory Work

Women were seldom employed in colonial industries. The colonizers' rationale for this was based both on tradition (which forbade women's leaving their villages) and on their belief in women's inability to understand things modern because of lack of instruction or perhaps intelligence--hardly convincing but effective, because the result was that with few exceptions, the idea of women's having salaried jobs was not accepted. Western cultural traditions made white powers look to men, who were, it is true, more available. They no longer had the right to make war or hunt, whereas women remained responsible for most food production and subsistence-level business and seldom had the chance to enter the modern workforce. This division of labor by gender arose neither from chance nor from fatalism but from the most profitable symbiosis both for salaried African men and for their urban employers. Men brought back cash, and the women helped ensure the group's survival. This system allowed the men to be paid lower salaries.

Women's labor power was not used in the earliest phase of colonialism except in little-known cases of thinly disguised slavery--for example, the hundred or so young Christian women in a Ségou workshop, "bought back" by the Sisters to convert them but used in the 1930s as factory weavers under conditions that disregarded child labor laws entirely. This case is perhaps an extreme one but certainly explains why the first strikes there were launched in 1946-1947 by girls from ten to twelve years of age. 1

The African mind-set hardly allowed women the freedom of movement needed for work in a factory. Almost everywhere, women workers were despised. Usually young and divorced or unmarried, they often sought regular salaries because they were responsible for one or several children. Among men, the financial autonomy of their wives in the factory was ill-accepted: it meant that a woman was "lost," suspected of using her economic indepen

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