Writing the History of Conservative Women - Law and Christianity in West-Central Africa

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

This month’s blog post is by Charlotte Walker-Said on history of law and religion in West-Central Africa, and touches upon current issues as well. Charlotte is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). Apart from researching the transnational character of Christianity, and its influence on gender politics and family law in Africa, she has also published on human rights in Africa. More information can be found on her website. 

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- Fadzilah Yahaya, editor 

Writing the History of Conservative Women

Charlotte Walker-Said


Recently, I was contacted by Annalisa Merelli, a journalist at Quartz, to discuss the rise of female leaders of conservative political parties and national movements. The emergence of women like Marine Le Pen in France, Theresa May in the United Kingdom, and Sarah Palin in the United States (as well as the considerable victory won by Kellyanne Conway, the first woman ever to run the campaign of a GOP presidential nominee and the first woman to run a victorious presidential campaign) appears to many to offer a contradictory triumph for women. While Le Pen, May, Palin, and Conway clearly demonstrate their ability to capably lead national organizations and marshal the support of complex constituencies, they have not placed sex and gender at the center of their public or political identities. Nor have they stated the desire to combat injustices that women (and sexual minorities) face as part of their platforms. Are these women, as Katherine MacKinnon states in the article in which we are both quoted, “fail[ing] to challenge a masculine view of power?” MacKinnon’s position is that women like Le Pen, May, Palin, and Conway “shouldn’t be viewed as particularly empowering [for women].” But can we dismiss the successes of conservative women so easily? Are these women advancing rights and opportunities for women? Or are they simply, as Andrea Dworkin offered in her book Right-Wing Women (1983), maintaining the patriarchal hierarchy because it “feels safe”?

I am a historian of social and legal history focusing on Christianity in West-Central Africa in the era of French colonial rule. Many of my historical agents are deeply religious African men and women who coextended the theology and ethics presented by foreign missionaries to craft meaningful new codes and constitutions in a time of considerable flux. As in many societies facing transitions, rifts emerged in Africa between those who avidly embraced new ideas, opportunities, technologies, and behaviors—often either advantageous to them or appearing substantively intriguing—and those who rejected them. There were also agents who appropriated and repurposed the “new” to fashion something even newer but culturally more familiar. In researching these phenomena, one may perceive the emergence of the “liberal” and the “conservative” in African cultural politics, but of course one must also be careful not to slip into lazy, presentist presumptions of what “conservative” and “liberal” ethics and worldviews represent or signify.

My recent research on Catholic and Protestant women leaders in Cameroon at the end of the French empire reveal fascinating insights for those who wish to better understand what could be termed “conservative” women’s motives and strategies today. Following the outbreak of World War II and the return of many European church leaders to Europe to serve those on the front, African women in Cameroon came forward to take on powerful positions within Christian religious institutions as headmistresses of schools, managers of clinics and orphanages, and mother superiors of religious orders. They did so in part by promoting strict and demanding gender roles, inflexible marriage practices, and a life based on adherence to dogma and canon law, rather than individual desires. According to these women, education and professionalization in church-funded schools was essential for women’s dignity, but was also exclusively be put to use in the home and the church, not in the secular or public spheres.

The Christian Churches in Cameroon were also led by growing numbers of African priests and pastors, as African men increasingly joined the ranks of the high episcopacy of the Catholic Church or leadership of Protestant church synods and polities. Whereas African clergymen often weighed in on matters of social and civic importance from the pulpit, African nuns, deaconesses, and laywomen increasingly guided new modes of social action and negotiated new roles for African women in the Catholic and Protestant Churches by working alongside them in the villages and city streets. Christian women activists criticized the radical Marxist political party Union des populations du Cameroun (UPC), which they asserted was as formidable an enemy of Christian values, as its self-styled avant-garde leadership refused to enshrine monogamous, consensual unions as a cornerstone of national development. In their activism, lay and consecrated African women’s social programs sought to educate and “liberate” women from the influence of leftist/anticolonialist political parties and from non-Christian Africans who sought the continuation of longstanding traditions antithetical to a Christian life. As part of this, African Christian women leaders imagined new forms of educational outreach and charitable work focused on women that provided a powerful means of injecting religious ideology into mainstream politics. Not surprisingly, foreign missions became powerful indigenous institutional structures whose leadership systems and administrative networks arose from local sociocultural frameworks that compelled recognition of Church authority.

In thinking about these women, my mind turned to many conservative leaders in the US and Europe in the present day, who argue for the greater influence of (Christian) religious values on national law, as well as women like Sarah Palin, who espoused a particular kind of “conservative feminism” in urging “mama grizzlies” to “rise up” against liberal feminists who promote pro-choice abortion laws. Abortion was a heated religious and political debate in late colonial Cameroon—much as it is today in the United States. Female Christian leaders in Cameroon were vehemently anti-abortion and blamed its rise on the growing influence of “bourgeois” European women who had lost their femininity and their faith. Rhetoric against elitism and “anti-feminine” women infuses current-day conservative politics as it did in colonial Africa. But the question remains—can the historian view African women in the 1940s and 1950s who professed Christianity and believed in its potential for securing a better future for their country as “conservative”? Does that word fully capture the motives and belief systems of devout women who believed that adherence to Christian doctrine could advance women’s rights and opportunities?

One can also ask MacKinnon: “Can conservative women challenge a masculine view of power?” The answer I would offer is a resounding “Yes!” But many liberal feminists have long criticized that the teachings of the Christian churches as promoting a “masculine view of power.” The fact remains that many devout women—as Saba Mahmood and others have proven—do not view religious doctrines as necessarily disempowering to women, nor do they perceive “empowerment” as the only metric by which women should measure “advancement.” The premises upon which “conservative” and “liberal” in the present and in history, and in secular and religious life, rest, are both too simple and complex to be aptly applied to many historical contexts. Nevertheless, the figure of the “conservative woman” remains a challenging and interesting one for historians of law and culture, not least because such women shape our everyday lives today.

By 1950, African Christian women widely concurred that Cameroon was a poor country rich in spirituality and that in order to rise to the challenges of contemporary life, including potential future self-government and economic development, it would have to confront the modern evils of Marxism, capitalism, and secularism while simultaneously resisting long-established practices that violated Christian doctrine. Consecrated African women opened new convents and religious orders and worked in hospitals and girls’ schools, and in the years leading up to national independence, they expanded their influence in Social Catholic and Protestant youth movements that approached the moral and economic problems of the era with an eye toward revitalizing, protecting, and enriching African marriage and family building practices.[1] In these later years of French rule, Protestant and Catholic women actively applied Christian moral teachings as a critique of polygamy, bride price, child marriage, and other established local marriage practices, which they termed “le mariage coutoumier,” or customary marriage.

While companionate marriage, domestic comfort, and educationally enlightened motherhood were liberating—representing freedom from drudgery and indignity, female religious leaders did not promote them as empowering per sé.  

In short, marriage and motherhood came to occupy not only a central position in modern social life and a holy and revered status in religious communities, it also became the centralizing aim of devotional acts of charity performed by women in the form of counseling, education, and guidance of their fellow African Christians in marriage.

What emerged in the period leading up to national independence was a demonstrable force of Christian social action that constituted an articulation of a social justice policy prioritizing affiliations and reciprocity above and below the nation-state.

[1] Soeur Gertude Thérèse Kibénél Ngo Billong, Noces de Grâce de La Congrégation Des Soeurs Servantes de Marie de Douala: 70 Ans D’existence (Douala: Congrégation des Soeurs Servantes de Marie de Douala, 2009); Christiane Masseguin, A l’Ombre des Palmes: L’oeuvre familiale et missionnaire des Soeurs du Saint-Esprit (Paris: Éditions Spes, 1942).