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Accepted Paper:

For a research agenda on urban working women in colonial and early post-colonial African history  
Elena Vezzadini (Institut des Mondes Africains)

Paper short abstract:

This proposal focuses on the working conditions, experiences, professional identity and ethics of urban working women of the so-called 'informal sector' in colonial and early post-colonial history, taking Sudan as a case in point, proposing a reflection about sources and a new research agenda.

Paper long abstract:

Looking at the research on urban working women in African history, one can reckon two main strands: women employed in informal sectors, and women who became the first educated professionals and who often struggled for women’s rights. It is relatively possible to track in official archives traces of these ‘pioneers’, through biographies and autobiographies, or through trade unions archives. If the importance that their professions had in their lives has been the object of seminal historical inquiries (Barthélémy 2019; Hugon 2009), the same cannot be said for women in informal sectors, where details about their experience of work become blurred behind structural descriptions of exploitation and vulnerability.

One of the reasons is that women who joined trade unions were overwhelmingly educated professionals, while those from the informal sector got hardly involved into unions. This fact has contributed to silence their identities as workers, their labor demands, but also more generally their day-to-day lives as workers, their contribution to family revenues and how this impacted family relations, and last but not least, work ethics and professional solidarities.

This proposal suggests a research agenda for those masses of urban working women who did not belong to professional elites. It starts first of all from deconstructing the category of “informal sector” especially when applied to colonial and early post-colonial periods, and then, taking colonial and early post-colonial Sudan as a case in point, suggests some avenues of research, and some possible sources to overcome the invisibility of women in official archives.

Panel Hist25
The African labour movement at a historical crossroads: past and future of unionism, work and society in Africa
  Session 1 Thursday 1 June, 2023, -