Belinda Bozzoli’s article represents one of the first attempts to insert a systematic feminist perspective into South African historiography. Based in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she has been a major contributor to the History Workshop movement in South Africa—a group which has greatly extended the scope of popular history, labour history and African history. Her article does not merely argue that historians should write about women, but that patriarchy and gender roles have had a far-reaching impact on the structure of South African society. Patriarchy was not a single power relationship but a ‘patchwork quilt’ reflecting the diverse societies that made up South Africa. In respect of African societies, pre-colonial controls over women and the division of labour by gender were carried over into the twentieth century. While African men migrated to work they were able to keep African women at home in the countryside. Here they continued to work the fields, thereby underpinning the survival of African rural society. The development of labour migrancy on a large scale, as well as segregation more generally, can therefore be seen as in part the (unintended) result of gender divisions within African society.
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Our understanding of South African society has been radically revised and deepened over the past decade—but the recent radical revision of South African history, sociology and politics has not, by and large, been interwoven with feminist reinterpretations of conventional wisdoms.