Abstract: Much of the
literature on colonial policies towards women has highlighted the ways that these
policies spread Western notions of domesticity and narrowed the space available
for African women to participate in public life. Drawing from the case of
British Southern Cameroons, this paper argues that colonial policies and
encounters were in fact more complex. While certain policies did seek to
propagate European notions of domesticity and to confine African women to the
private space of the home, others opened new opportunities for education,
salaried employment, and participation in women's organizations. The paper stresses that colonial encounters often
had multiple, and even contradictory, effects and that African women were not
merely passive subjects, but agents capable of rejecting and transforming
colonial policies and ideologies that did not meet their needs.
Colonial encounters in Southern Cameroons affected women in complex and contradictory ways. As
multiple scholars have demonstrated, many colonial policies spread Western
notions of domesticity, constricting the space available for women to
participate in public life.
Other policies, however, opened new opportunities to women for education,
salaried employment, travel abroad, and activism in local and international
organizations. In this paper, I use the case of Southern Cameroons to demonstrate that British colonial and missionary
policies did not seek solely to
domesticate African women. Although certain colonial projects did aim to create
"good" Christian wives and mothers for educated African men, others,
particularly during the last decade of colonial rule, sought to promote women's
participation in public life. This case study supports and extends recent,
nuanced work on colonial encounters that complicates relations between Europeans
and Africans, demonstrating that African women were frequently active agents,
rejecting and transforming colonial ideologies that did not meet their needs.
DOMESTICITY: ONE GOAL AMONG
between African and European women have frequently been studied through the
lens of domesticity. This perspective
emphasizes that colonial and missionary institutions played an important role
in diffusing Christianity, European languages, and Western norms throughout Africa. This focus on domesticity also emphasizes the role that colonial and
mission policies played in socializing African women into European gender norms
and "appropriate" forms of social organization. In general, this literature
argues that European influences-including colonial administrations, missions,
and informal organizations - narrowed women's sphere of activities and
increasingly confined them to the home and family. These influences propagated "an ideology of
female domesticity that laid stress on women's reproductive and nurturing roles
above their autonomy and productivity." The major focus of this literature is on how
the colonial state and Christian missions contributed to the "housewifisation"
of African women.
Nancy Rose Hunt, for example, examines the links between
gender and domesticity in the Belgian Congo. Describing the foyers
sociaux established by missionaries, social-service agencies, and colonial
women's associations with the support of the Belgian colonial administration,
Hunt argues that they are a key component in a "Belgian colonial project to
refashion gender roles and instill a Western family ideology into African urban
life." Within the foyers sociaux, women participated in classes on sewing, cooking,
housekeeping, and maternal hygiene. They also took part in home visits,
decorating contests, graduation ceremonies, and other public rituals, all of
which, according to Hunt, attempted to re-define gender roles and domesticate
Similarly, Deborah Gaitskell has examined the diffusion of
ideologies of domesticity through colonial and mission institutions in Southern Africa.
Specifically, she has examined hostels for African women established in
by the Anglican and Methodist
churches and the American Board Mission. Gaitskell argues that these
mission-run hostels sought to control African women's sexuality, protect them
from the dangers of city life, and ensure a supply of female domestic workers
as the men who previously filled these positions turned to work in the mines.
Yet other work, focusing on different contexts, finds that
colonial and mission influences on women are more complex, providing African
women with both opportunities and constraints.
Examining colonial female education in Mozambique, Kathleen Sheldon finds that
despite the limitations of the domestic science curriculum emphasized at such
schools, girls and women gained some valuable skills through these schools. She argues that "[c]riticism of the gender bias of [domestic science] programs
ignores that some women were able to use that education to enter into new
arenas of work during and after the colonial era."
Through these programs, some women became literate, gained fluency in
Portuguese, and learned other skills that helped them survive in the colonial
economy. Sheldon concludes:
It has been easy to
critique the Portuguese colonial education system for its racism and sexism,
ideologies that were central to the overall organization of the mission school
system. Yet a history of that system should also include the experience of a
small number of Mozambican girls who desired to attend the mission schools and
who later found success as workers and professionals.
Her findings complicate our understandings of colonial
mission activities, demonstrating that while certain aspects of curriculum
served to diffuse Western gender norms and confine women to the domestic
sphere, others provided women with valuable skills that opened new economic
Other scholars make similar
claims, demonstrating that colonial ideologies served both to limit and to empower
women. In his study of the Friends Africa Mission in Kenya, Samuel S. Thomas argues that female students
subverted the ideology of domesticity disseminated at the mission school. These students strategically used the school to "delay marriages and control
their choice of partners" and to move beyond the domestic sphere as they used
the skills they learned in dressmaking, needlework, and cooking to provide an
independent source of income. Barbara Moss, in a study of the British Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society
(WMMS) in Rhodesia similarly found that women transformed their women's
prayer union to better meet their needs. Moss argues that these women rejected
"the dependent image that Christian missionaries and colonial authorities
concocted" and created an organization that enabled them to help themselves and
other women in the community "[b]y contributing labor and pooling their
African women were not just passive recipients of missionary and colonial
doctrine, they were also active agents who reinterpreted and reshaped these
Recent scholarship has also directed its attention to
colonial women, emphasizing the diversity of women involved.
Kumari Jayawardena, for example, has argued that western women's experience
with patriarchy in their own societies led some to fight for women's liberation
of the women who traveled to Africa as missionaries, representatives of
international women's organizations, and even as colonial administrators were
iconoclasts within their own societies and viewed domestic science courses not
as the goal of education but as a launching pad for other work.
Examining the work of the World YWCA in Africa, Nancy Boyd describes how Celestine
Smith, an African American who briefly worked for the World YWCA in
, Nigeria from December 1934 to June 1935,
felt about the YWCA's work in Nigeria:
While admitting that, to her
surprise, she had enjoyed patching and darning, hemming baby clothes, covering
lampshades, baking cakes for the Bishop's tea parties, and other unaccustomed
chores, Celestine Smith was appalled by Miss Bentall's suggestion that her
successor be a teacher of dressmaking and home economics. Pointing out that no
one in Nigeria will freeze if she never wears a
dress, she advises her to choose 'the most intelligent,
Christian YWCA Secretary or social
worker whom you can find.'
Smith recognized that while enjoyable and sometimes useful,
domestic science should not be the sole, or even the primary, focus of the YWCA
in Nigeria. European women did not always
"push" domestic science classes on African women. In some cases, they responded
to Africans' desire to learn some of these skills.
Though nearly all
missions and colonial governments diffused domestic ideologies, these
ideologies varied in significance and affected women differently. Class,
context, religion, and the colonial administration were all important variables
that influenced how these ideologies affected specific women. In certain
contexts, ideologies of domesticity were tempered by other policies that
explicitly sought to increase women's participation in the public realm.
Moreover, African women frequently subverted these domestic ideologies, taking
what was useful and leaving the rest behind.
BRITISH COLONIAL POLICIES ON
WOMEN IN SOUTHERN CAMEROON
Moving from general findings to a specific case, this
section examines how colonial policies affected women in British Southern Cameroons. Southern Cameroons, which the British controlled from 1922 to 1961,
were comprised of what are today the Northwest and Southwest provinces of Cameroon. Specifically, the paper focuses on the last decade
of colonial rule from 1950 to 1961, which differed in important ways from
earlier periods. Colonial records provide evidence that British administrators
strove to instill Western gender norms in African women and to mold "suitable"
wives for educated, Christian men. But the records also support the claim that
the British administration-at least in the terminal colonial period-sought to
incorporate women more fully into public life, by providing certain African
women with opportunities for education, travel abroad, and salaried employment.
Still, it is important to note that significant disparities continued to exist
in the kind and length of education of girls as opposed to boys. Additionally,
women were recruited for a narrow range of positions within the colonial
administration, and women's associations were constructed as inherently
non-political bodies. The colonial administration interpreted activities that did
not challenge British colonial rule and capitalist ideals as non-political. Any
activity that overstepped these boundaries was deemed political and, therefore,
While early colonial
policies reflected the biases of the overwhelmingly male colonial
administrators, after World War II, the British colonial administration focused
greater attention on the education of girls and women. This increased attention to girls' and women's education was linked to the
growth in the number of female colonial officers in the British administration.
The success of these initiatives can be partially gauged through school
enrollment and attendance figures for girls and women in the Southern Cameroons. The complex nature of the educational system in the
territory, which included government, native authority, and mission schools,
presents some difficulty in gathering total school enrollment and attendance
figures. Nevertheless, British reports to the League of Nations and later to the United Nations provide general data
on girls' school attendance rates in Southern Cameroons,
which indicate that they increased over the course of British colonial rule.
Narrative reports also indicate that these gains were not accidental but rather
a part of a conscious effort to increase girls' and women's access to
education. The 1954 report notes, for example: "Prejudice against the education
of women dies hard, but the number attending school is increasing gradually
throughout the territory."
Describing increases in girls'
primary enrollment rates between 1950 and 1980 in sub-Saharan Africa, Claire Robertson notes: "These figures indicate a strong commitment to
increasing girls' education, both before and after independence, but generally
higher preindependence growth rates."
In part, rapid growth rates during the 1950s reflected the low levels of girls'
primary school enrollment before this period. They also, however, indicated
administrations' growing commitment to girls' education during the terminal
Still, even as girls'
attendance rates increased, the gains occurred overwhelmingly at the primary
level, meaning that women were still greatly underrepresented in fields
requiring higher levels of education. In 1949, the governor of Nigeria, who also controlled Cameroons, established a commission to examine how to train Nigerians (and
Cameroonians) to take on Senior Service posts.
The study placed special attention on women, noting:
It has already been recommended that
women should be given equal consideration with men for any departmental
scholarship and training schemes for which they may possess the necessary
educational qualifications but the Commission considers that in addition a
special allocation of thirty scholarships in all should be made during the
three year period to enable women to obtain qualifications overseas for posts,
such as nursing, secretarial and librarian and certain other specialists
appointments, in which a larger number of skilled Nigerian women officers are
In 1949, Great Britain launched a special training program to increase the
number of educated African women in Nigeria and the Cameroons, and in
that year, three women from Cameroon undertook studies in Great Britain.
In 1950, five women from the Cameroons were pursuing higher education in either Nigeria or Britain due to this program. These gains were small, and women were limited to a
narrow range of occupations. One respondent, who benefited from this program,
noted: "Only a few [Cameroonians] went to Nigeria for education on government scholarships. Very few
girls were selected for these places." Despite the fact that only a few women benefited from the program, its
existence at least indicates that incremental changes were occurring in
colonial policies towards women during the terminal colonial period. Reports throughout the 1950s state that there
were a growing number of women working as nurses, teachers, and clerks. By
1958, there were 222 teachers, five nursing sisters, and 55 nurses and midwives,
and "a number of women [held] clerical positions in the public service and in
In this context, higher education provided by the colonial administration to a
limited number of women enabled them to take on new roles outside the home.
administration also sought to eradicate practices like polygyny and bridewealth
through education. British reports on the Cameroons emphasize that legal approaches to eradicating these cultural practices
were largely ineffective and difficult, if not entirely impossible, to enforce.
Recognizing the limits of legal strategies, the documents advocate education as
the best avenue toward social change. The 1950 report notes, for example: "the
development of education, notably of girls, will have as one of its results,
the spreading of a higher conception of the role of women in society.which will
lead them to resist the requirements and usages of old and harmful customs."
From this perspective, exposure to Western norms and values disseminated through
schools and centers would lead Cameroonians to choose European over African
practices. Western women, as colonial administrators, missionaries, or wives,
were to serve as role models, offering African women alternatives to their
traditional gender roles.
It is important to
highlight that colonial agents frequently had only a cursory understanding of
these cultural practices, which impeded their ability to understand the complex
ways that these practices affected women's position in society. In her fieldwork
in Cameroon, Fiona Bowie, found, for example, that
"[t]raditional marriage with exchange of bridewealth gives women some security
as a woman's husband cannot dismiss her without losing his 'investment.'"
Thus, under certain conditions, the prohibition of cultural practices like the
exchange of bridewealth could render women's status in society more precarious
rather than more secure.
opportunities for professional employment and seeking to eradicate certain
cultural practices, one must not overestimate the "liberating" potential of British
educational policies. Throughout its years in the Southern Cameroons, Great
Britain also employed domestic science education to create "good" wives and
mothers. In this context, colonial policies did seek to spread European notions
of domesticity to African women. Consider the following quotation from a 1958
girls . come in straight from the hill pagan villages, without having
previously attended any kind of school, to learn simple cookery, babycraft,
health and hygiene, and local crafts. At
the end of their two years they can qualify for a Housecraft Certificate or, if
they can read a little a Certificate of Merit.
The girls usually marry at once on returning to their villages and they
make excellent housewives.
The domestic science
centers established throughout the colonial territory were a means through
which European norms of hygiene and domesticity could be transferred to African
women. The 1950 British report describes the spread of these centers:
Bamenda province the domestic science organisation, which is in charge of a
woman education officer, made good progress. During the year, at the request of
the wives of the African junior staff, a woman's institute was started in
Bamenda. The institute is managed by a committee of which the president is the
only European, and is conducted on much the same lines as a women's institute
in the United
At its meetings, which take place once a week, the women learn sewing and
knitting, play games and do useful work for the community such as mending
This school and others
like it did not seek to encourage women's participation in the public sphere. Nevertheless,
some women were able to benefit from domestic science education. As this
quotation indicates, these initiatives enabled women to take on leadership
roles, which could, and often did, serve as stepping stones to broader
involvement in public life.
education also provided some women with an economic livelihood as enterprising
students used sewing and baking skills learned in these programs to earn an
income or even open a small business.
Information on hygiene and nutrition reduced infant mortality rates and
responded to real needs.
It would be a mistake, therefore, to believe that the African women who
participated in these domestic science groups and classes unquestioningly
accepted the gendered discourses offered by European women. Moreover, as noted
previously, many of the European women who led these domestic science classes
had ambivalent feelings towards their subject matter, viewing them as a jumping
off point into broader studies. Elizabeth O'Kelly, for example, used corn mills
societies in the Northwest grassfields to attract women to join women's groups
but then used the groups to address a wide range of issues.
In sum, for some women,
education opened new opportunities for travel abroad and professional
employment. Particularly during the last years of colonialism, the British
administration sought to incorporate more women into the civil service. To do
so, it needed to promote women's education at the secondary and university
levels. For others-and this includes the vast majority of African
women-colonial educational opportunities consisted entirely of primary school
and domestic science courses. Yet, even within this restricted framework,
Cameroonian women were able to take the elements of domestic science courses
that were useful to their lives and leave the rest behind. In some cases, they
used the skills learned in these domestic science courses to enter the public
sphere as entrepreneurs, teachers, and leaders of women's groups.
Women's Participation in
Certain colonial practices,
intentionally or unintentionally, decreased women's influence in the public
sphere by undermining their traditional bases of authority. In pre-colonial
societies, women's authority stemmed from both their reproductive and
productive roles. The colonial administration's introduction of cash crop
agriculture and its preference for recruiting men to civil service posts during
much of the colonial period undermined women's status. Other policies, however,
explicitly sought to increase women's participation in public life. The 1954
report to the United Nations notes, for example: "In the Southern Cameroons there is a trend towards an increasing independence
for women which has the encouragement of the Southern Cameroons Government." To track these trends, the British colonial administration in Southern Cameroons collected data on women's participation in "native
authorities," supported educational programs that aimed to prepare women to
take on decision-making posts, and sponsored female participants in regional
and international training programs.
The British colonial
administration in Southern
information on women's participation in native authorities and collected data
on women's representation in local government throughout the territory.
Specifically, the government asked administrators across the territory to
provide information on whether and to what extent women were participating in
the native authorities.
Synthesizing the data, the administration found that women's participation was
generally quite low. In most areas, participation in native authorities was
linked to the payment of tax. Since few women paid taxes, women were,
unsurprisingly, excluded from leadership positions, although there were a few
exceptions. In general, only women with salaried positions or another form of
easily assessable income (primarily barkeepers) were therefore eligible to vote
and serve in leadership positions. In a few locations, one or two women
participated on the councils on an equal capacity with men. In others areas,
provisions enabled special representatives of women's interests to participate in
native authorities. In Bamenda, for example, the South West and South East
Native Authorities allowed for special representatives of women's interests on
the councils (four women participated in the first and three in the latter). These
women's representatives, however, did not have the same rights and privileges
as male members. They were able to represent women in the community but not the
community as a whole. In still in other councils, women had no representation
In particular, women gained greater
access to political roles following the adoption of the December 1957 Southern
Cameroons Electoral Regulations, which allowed women to vote and to stand for
election without the taxation requirements that impeded women's ability to
participate in political affairs in the past. A 1957 British report on the
Cameroons notes that a woman was present on the Southern Cameroons House of
Assembly to represent interests of women, a woman was appointed to Southern
Cameroons Scholarship Board, and in "Victoria Division each council.nominated
women councilors to represent women's interests on the council and one woman
[was] appointed a court member on the Tiko Council." In addition, the report indicates that "Native Authorities continue[d] to
employ an increasing number of midwives, female teachers and some female
clerical staff." A
document on the participation of women in native authorities also indicates
that women were taking on a broader range of occupations. They were becoming
telephonists, midwives, nurses, teachers, clerics, machine operators,
wardresses, and receptionists. Although women's participation increased, it
continued to lag significantly behind that of men. Moreover, many of the women
who served on these councils represented "women's interests" and, therefore,
did not have equal rights with male representatives. Still, these examples
point to some positive developments that resulted from colonial policies that
had the explicit intention of increasing women's participation in the public
Particularly as the period of
colonial rule began to draw to a close, Great Britain recognized the roles that women and women's
associations could play in the territory. Circular 212/60 on "The Participation
of Women in Public Life," for example, discusses how women were "increasingly
participating in the social and public affairs of the community" and noted that
the "development of women's clubs has been symptomatic of the new movement." Britain supported the formation of women's groups in Southern Cameroons and encouraged these groups to form links with
international associations. Its motives for this support are evident in the
valuable work can be done through the work in each territory of women's
organisations and societies. Such organisations, where sufficiently advanced,
can be greatly helped in their educative task by affiliation at the territorial
level with appropriate, responsible international women's organizations, such
as the International Council of Women, the International Alliance of Women, the
Associated Country Women of the World, and other such non-political
organisations. Such affiliation may also
counter any attempt by communist-dominated bodies, such as the Women's
International Democratic Federation (WIDF) to secure allegiance of local
Thus, while Britain supported the formation of women's associations in Cameroon and the affiliation of these groups with
international women's organizations, it only supported certain kinds of
organizations, namely non-communist and non-political ones.
Great Britain not only encouraged the formation of such groups but
provided funding for representatives of "appropriate" women's organizations to
attend international meetings, which enabled Cameroonian women to establish
links with women in other countries. The
administration chose Minerva Martins, for example, to represent the Southern Cameroons at a United Nations Regional Seminar on "The
Participation of Women in Public Life" in
in December 1960. The conference program addressed
subjects like women's participation in all levels of government, the wider
implications of this participation, and the factors that facilitated and impeded
women's ability to participate in public affairs (e.g. educational, economic,
social, and legal issues). As one of a series regional conferences
sponsored by the United Nations, it was part of a global effort to increase
women's participation in public life. An abortive coup in Ethiopia, which occurred during the conference, created
unforeseen difficulties. Martins spent several days at the British Consul in
Ethiopia, prompting an endless trail of paperwork between the United Nations
and Great Britain over which agency should cover her additional expenses. Despite this unfortunate outcome, the example demonstrates that the British
colonial government took tangible steps to increase women's participation in
political life in the Cameroons by providing funding and logistical support for
Martins' participation in the meeting.
administrators, and wives of colonial agents also encouraged the formation of
women's groups in Southern
Cameroons. British colonial
reports list a number of women's organizations active in the region. These
include the Young Ladies' Improvement Society (Victoria), the Women's
Progressive Society (Kumba), The Ladies' Dramatic Society (Buea), the Ndola
Bitu Women's Fellowship (Buea), and the Ladies' Glee Club (Mamfe).
The Girl Guides, the female equivalent of the Boy Scouts linked to the World
Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), also had a small but
growing presence in Southern
Cameroons. As of 1959,
there were 250 registered Girl Guides. Other organizations included the Red Cross, the Mothers' Union, women's sports clubs, women's farm clubs, and corn mill
The 1950 report to the
United Nations notes that a women's institute was established in Bamenda and
functioned similarly to Women's Institutes in Great Britain.
Though modeled after a British organization, the women's institute enabled
Cameroonian women to take on leadership positions. The Bamenda women's
institute was managed by a committee of which only one member (albeit the
president) was European.
Thus, even groups patterned after British organizations took on a life of their
own and provided women with opportunities to take on leadership positions.
ENCOUNTERS BETWEEN CAMEROONIAN
AND EUROPEAN WOMEN
Corn Mill Societies
While men greatly outnumbered
women in the colonial service, British women served as colonial agents in
various capacities, particularly after World War II. Specifically, they tended
to work as nurses, teachers and principals, and colonial administrators.
Elizabeth O'Kelly was a British colonial officer in Southern Cameroons from 1950 until 1961. Upon her arrival in Cameroon, O'Kelly worked at the Cameroon Development
Corporation (CDC) in Buea, where she planned and ran literacy classes and
courses on history, geography, arithmetic, hygiene, and diet. In October 1952,
she became a woman education officer in the British Colonial Service and was
in the Northwest grassfields. After talking with Phyllis Kaberry, an
anthropologist who worked in the Bamenda area who had recently published Women of the Grassfields, O'Kelly
learned that grinding corn was one of women's most time-consuming tasks. She
created a program to provide grinding machines to groups of women. By 1960,
there were 200 groups encompassing thousands of women. Most of this section
draws on O'Kelly's perceptions of the corn mill societies since the colonial
and expatriate records are better preserved than Cameroonian records. Unfortunately,
there are scant written records of the corn mill societies from Cameroonian
The first corn mill society
was established in July 1954. By October of that year, eight societies were
functioning. Groups averaged about 70 members, and each group established rules
regarding the use of the corn mill, how the loan for the mill would be repaid,
and members' responsibilities. O'Kelly notes that chief rule was "that
membership was open to any women regardless of tribe or religion and that the
movement was non-political." To ensure that the societies were inclusive, O'Kelly refused to provide a corn
mill until it was clear that all women in the area had the opportunity to join.
Describing this requirement, O'Kelly states: "Because of this the corn mill
societies were perhaps the only group in the country which could claim members
from every section of the community and from every tribe and religious
denomination." While earlier organizational forms were
primarily emerged along ethnic lines, corn mill societies brought together
women of different ethnic and religious groups. For O'Kelly, "One of the
greatest achievements of the societies over the years had been the gradual
breaking down of the barriers between tribes so that the women worked amicably
with each other regardless of their different origins." This emphasis on "nontribalism" became even
more central to women's organizations in the immediate post-colonial period as
the Cameroonian state sought to build a sense of nationalism.
While the corn mills were an important component of
the new associations, they were not the sole reason for women to come together.
O'Kelly targeted grassroots women who lacked a formal education and were
primarily engaged in subsistence farming. Describing women's ambivalence
towards colonial educational initiatives, O'Kelly observed: "women have very
little free time and still less inclination to attend the already established
domestic science centres which cater largely for the wives of the educated
quotation highlights the class distinctions that emerged in the colonial
period. At least initially, many women in the rural areas had little interest
in domestic science and English classes. Thus, O'Kelly sought to use the corn
mills to bring women together to address a wide variety of issues. She states:
mills were really a bait to attract women to the societies and to classes that
might help them in other ways. Now that the women had more time, freed as they
were from their most time-consuming task, they did begin to consider other
activities. They enjoyed the sociablility of gathering around the corn mill and
many societies initiated regular meetings.
Some women decided that they wished to learn more about cooking and
In a number of cases, members
of the corn mill societies built community halls where they could hold these
meetings and classes. These buildings were no small endeavor as they had to be
large enough to hold a hundred or more women. Many groups expanded their work to
include poultry schemes that relied on the bran from the milled corn to feed
the chickens, fuel plantations, which increased the supply of firewood
available to women, and, in one case, a cooperative shop.
By 1960, a year before O'Kelly left Cameroon, there were more than 200 corn mill
societies comprising over 20,000 members. The very success of the groups created some difficulties. As the plebiscite to
determine whether Southern
would join Nigeria or Cameroon drew near, male politicians sought
to co-opt the corn mill societies. Describing this period, O'Kelly states:
"[f]eelings ran high, and as the largest organised body in the country the corn
mill societies were under repeated pressure to join one or the other of the two
main political parties, and constant vigilance was necessary to ensure that
their neutrality was not infringed."
In an increasingly politicized environment, this was not the only attempt to
associate women's associations with partisan goals. Emmanuel Konde argues that
male politicians similarly attempted to co-opt a traditional, informal women's
organization, anlu, in the lead up to
the plebiscite. In the
immediate post-colonial era, the Cameroon National Union (CNU), which quickly emerged
as the most significant political party in independent Cameroon, also sought to bring independent
women's groups under the umbrella of its women's wing.
While the accomplishments of the
corn mill societies were impressive, at times O'Kelly's discussion of them reflects
the patronizing attitude towards Africans common among colonial administrators.
Describing how the societies worked in a 1955 article in African Women, O'Kelly notes, for example: "it must be borne in
mind that arrangements had to be of the simplest when all members are illiterate." She concludes the article: "whilst gradually, as the women get used to the idea
of meeting together, it should be possible to introduce to them a better
knowledge of child welfare and hygiene and generally raise their standard of
living. That this is necessary there can be no doubt." These quotations reflect a top-down approach through which information is
transferred from Europeans to Africans. O'Kelly also indicates that one goal of
these activities was to explain colonial practices, which Cameroonian women
often viewed as arbitrary and authoritarian. O'Kelly explains, for instance,
that women in the region did not respond favorably to the introduction of
sanitary inspectors in local markets. These inspectors would patrol markets and
destroy women's produce that did not meet their food safety requirements. While
bringing a sanitary inspector to a corn mill society meeting-a suggestion
offered by O'Kelly-would enable women learn more about the requirements and
possibly avoid the destruction of their goods, it would not enable them to challenge
the very premise of having an external authority impose new rules on food
The legacies of the corn mill
societies, for good and bad, were far-reaching. During O'Kelly's tenure in the
grassfields from 1952 to 1961, the cooperatives experienced incredible growth,
encompassing thousands of women. They brought women together to alleviate one
of their most time-consuming tasks, to learn new skills, and to socialize. Yet
the corn mill societies also demonstrate the pitfalls of relying too heavily on
a single leader and on external sources of support, two lessons that still have
relevance today. While many of the organizations failed following O'Kelly's
departure, others were integrated into programs organized by the newly
The final verdict on the corn
mill societies remains ambiguous. Discussing cooperative movements in the
Northwest and Southwest provinces, Mark W. DeLancey writes: "A recent report
blames the failure [of the corn mill societies] on the inability to increase
the functions of the organizations, the lack of cooperative education, the
failure to include the women in planning or management, and the inability of
the members to locate spare parts for the mills."
A 1977 report published by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) argues
that the failure of the corn mill societies decreased women's willingness to
enter similar ventures. Community development workers provide a different
perspective. They argue that the corn mill societies "had become the hub of the
cooperative movement in Bamenda."
The success of the corn mill societies between 1952 and 1961 demonstrated that
Cameroonian women could successfully form cooperatives and provided experience
for the women involved. The societies' subsequent failure, though, made women
more cautious of entering into similar arrangements in the future.
Women's Corona Society
Founded in 1937 as a
counterpart to the male Corona Club, the Women's Corona Society was an
association of women of all races connected in some way-either directly or
indirectly-with Britain's overseas service.
The Women's Corona Society established clubs throughout Britain's colonial territories. Members engaged in
philanthropic and social welfare work. The organization also provided support
to women travelling to and living in Great Britain's colonial territories as well as women visiting England.
Two branches existed in the Southern Cameroons: one in Victoria (present-day Limbe) and one in
After Southern and Northern
Cameroons came under
British rule in 1922 as a League
of Nations mandate
ruled these territories as part of Nigeria until 1961. Thus, the Cameroonian clubs were linked
with both the Corona Society headquarters in
and branches in Nigeria. According to a letter written by Mrs. J.O. Fields,
the president of the Buea branch of the Women's Corona Society, the
organization had two primary aims: "service and friendship between members and
from members to the community as a whole."
The Cameroon branch undertook a number of tasks. It welcomed
newcomers to the community, provided support to members, organized educational
programs, and worked closely with organizations like the Red Cross, the Girl
Guides, the hospitals, and the missions. The Victoria and Buea branches held
regular meetings "with a varied programme arranged for pleasure, interest, and
usefulness." Specifically, members organized "how-to-do-it" demonstrations on activities
like cake making, embroidery, flower arranging, and dressmaking. They also
organized public events like Library Day, Botanist Day, a pet show, and the
Victoria Centenary Celebration. Of note is the fact that members of the Bota
club refused to help organize a beauty contest as part of the Victoria
Centenary Celebration. Members were willing to support alternate
programs such as a children's party, a history of
, a needlework competition, a parade of traditional
African dress, or a baby show, but they drew the line at a beauty contest.
The club's multi-racial
character provided opportunities for its African and European members to have
cultural exchanges. Cooking demonstrations, for example, did not only teach
African women how to cook European dishes, but also enabled African women to
share their favorite dishes with European women. In some meetings, European
members provided practical information to Africans travelling to Great Britain, teaching Cameroonian women how to stop a taxi, to
greet people on the street, to eat with a knife and fork, to post letters, and
to stand in a queue. They also shared advice on dress for Great Britain and where to purchase necessary items. At other meetings, Cameroonian women shared
their cultural practices with European members. Anna Foncha, for example, gave
a talk on marriage customs in Bamenda province.
These exchanges demonstrate that the diffusion of information was not
one-way-from Europeans to Cameroonians-but rather a two-way exchange, with both
groups sharing information.
The Women's Corona Society was
open to Europeans and Africans, and some, primarily elite, Cameroonian women
participated in the organization.Corona
would, for example, invite high-profile women like
Anna Foncha, the wife of the future prime minister John Foncha, to baby shows
or other events to help raise the hygiene and health of lower-paid Cameroon
Development Corporation (CDC) workers.
Still, differences in
perspective and priorities between African and European members existed,
particularly as independence drew near. A
letter written by J.O. Fields to Women's Corona Society members highlights some
of these differences:
I would ask, with all urgency that I can, that we all do all in our power to
foster goodwill between Government and non-Government, and between black and
white. Politics are often difficult to
understand, and even distressing. Let us try to understand what is going on in
these momentous days while Nigeria is being built up into a great country; let
us not do harm by ignorance, or by suspicion, or ill will. As women, we do have
great influence, we set the whole tone of our homes. Let us, as
members, think of this and let us be on the side of
Despite attempts to bridge
cultural differences, Cameroonian women chose to leave the Women's Corona
Society to found their own associations as independence approached. Commenting
on these developments, Anna Foncha writes:
the past women's activities in the social and economic field were confined to
villages or at most in the tribal groups. These activities were soon to assume
new faces with the broadening of society and contact with foreign air. As Cameroon was coming into its own as recently as in 1960 a
Corona Society invited a selected number of Cameroon women who enrolled as members. This society may be
described as an organisation with a colonial bias, the idea having been mooted
by the Colonial Office. It served the needs of expatriate women, some of whose
husbands were serving in the overseas territories. It soon became evident that
such a society could not serve the needs of a true Cameroon Women Society and
this missing link led to the resignation of some Cameroon women from the
Foncha believed that this
division between expatriate and indigenous women brought Cameroonian women
together and led to the creation in September 1960 of the Buea Women Social
Organization. As it became clear that
colonialism was coming to an end, Cameroonian women chose to form their own
organizations rather than continue to participate in those created by
expatriate women and linked to the colonial government.
Even as Cameroonian women
rejected some of the specific organizations founded by expatriate women, in
this case the Women's Corona Society, they engaged in some of the same
activities. Groups like the Buea Women Social Organization took on similar
projects, increasing the size and number of baby shows, giving talks in
hospitals, and sharing information on nutrition and health care. Describing the
activities of these new organizations, Burnley stated: "baby foods, baby clothes, and talks in hospitals-these were
the kinds of things that kept these groups together."
Though these topics would
generally fit within under the rubric of domesticity, discussions of hygiene,
nutrition, and health care were far from irrelevant in Cameroonian women's
lives. The baby shows taught women how to deal with fevers and other common
sicknesses among infants and young children and allowed women to share
information on nutritious foods that could increase the health of children.
Child mortality was high at the time, and these topics responded to women's
real concerns. Describing similar initiatives in Uganda, Tripp notes: "To
denigrate domestic training and see it only as part of a civilizing and
domesticating imperial project misses its relevance to ordinary women in a very
pragmatic sense.. most of it was quite essential to the healthy survival and
welfare of children and families." Moreover, the organization of baby shows served as a means of bringing women
together to share information and to address a broad array of issues. These
shows initiated conversations between urban and rural women, served as a means
to attract new members to women's associations, and led to the "frank exchange
of views and first hand information regarding problems common to all in the
Federation." Finally, by mobilizing women around such issues, some women-like Burnley-were able to break out of the private realm to become community
activists and politicians. Through tours of West Cameroon organizing baby shows, meetings, talks, and other
events, Burnley became well known. These activities raised her
profile within political circles and launched her political career. Burnley served as a representative to the West Cameroon House of Assembly from
1970 to 1973 and as a member of the Cameroon's National Assembly from 1973 to 1983.
The newly founded Cameroonian
women's groups continued to interact with European women through exchange
visits, participation in international conferences, and affiliations with
international organizations such as the Associated Country Women of the World
(ACWW) and the International Council of Women (ICW). With independence,
significant changes in women's organizing occurred as Cameroonian women formed
their own multi-ethnic women's associations. However, continuities also existed
as these associations maintained some of the same projects and activities as
In pre-colonial Cameroon, women's authority stemmed from their productive and
reproductive work. Women gained prestige from their roles as primary food
producers and as child bearers.
In many societies, there were also specific leadership roles, such as queen
mother, set aside for women, but the authority of these positions was often
limited to an advisory capacity and to representing women rather than the
entire community. In these realms, women's influence declined during
colonialism as the economy shifted from a focus on subsistence agriculture to a
reliance on cash crop production and the power of traditional institutions
weakened. At the same time, women gained in other realms, particularly in the
area of formal political power. In many pre-colonial societies, cultural norms
prohibited women from assuming most political roles.
While informal constraints continued to limit women's access to formal
political offices, a number of women were able to leverage their education and activism
in women's associations into political power in the immediate post-colonial
The history of encounters
between European and African women in Southern Cameroons
was characterized by complexity and ambiguity. To be sure, British colonial
agents frequently asserted authority over Cameroonian women and imposed norms
of domesticity that were irrelevant to Cameroonian women's daily lives. At the
same time, it would be a mistake to deny the agency of Cameroonian women in
these encounters. Cameroonians managed to
take some of the skills attained in colonial schools, domestic science centers,
and colonial women's associations and put them to use in the post-colonial era
in ways that increased their status in society and facilitated their
participation in the public sphere. Dorothy
Gwan-Nulla, writing about women's status in the region in 1963-two years after
the departure of Great Britain-made a similar point: "Educated women are on the
increase and with their education they are eligible to enter into government
service or private enterprises. As working class women, the earning of and free
use of money renders them a vast degree of independence." Gwan-Nulla also indicated that membership in women's associations grew rapidly
immediately following independence, building partially on the foundation established
in the last decade of colonial rule.
Specifically, there were at
least three legacies of Euro-Cameroonian encounters. The first involved the
development of multi-ethnic associations.
Both the corn mill societies and the Women's Corona Society brought
together women from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and sought to
bridge ethnic, religious, and even racial divides. Multi-ethnic membership was
a significant departure from pre-colonial women's groups, which became even
more important in the post-colonial period as the newly independent state
sought to establish a national identity. The second legacy involved organizational
forms and activities. Cameroonian women carried some forms and activities from
colonial to post-colonial groups. While
many of the corn mill societies failed following the departure of O'Kelly,
those that survived provided a foundation for women's cooperatives in
independent Cameroon. The legacies of the Women's Corona Society are
easier to trace. Prominent women like Anna Foncha took relevant ideas to new
organizations. Thirdly, the corn mill societies and the Women's Corona Society both
explicitly stressed their non-political character. Both eschewed participation
in political debates, focusing instead on development and social welfare. This
choice to avoid political disputes affected the nature and work of
organizations after independence, where the norm of "non-political" organizing
was disseminated widely.
These encounters also differed
in important ways. The corn mill societies were directed at grassroots women,
while the Women's Corona Society sought out educated, elite Cameroonian women. Class
differences, in particular, mediated the agency of Cameroonian women. Immediately
following independence, the corn mill societies experienced a period of
hardship and neglect that stemmed from a dearth of leadership. Women's groups
like the Buea Women's Social Organization, in contrast, experienced a period of
growth. In fact, a year after its formation, the Buea Women's Social
Organization was renamed the Women's Cameroon Society to reflect its broader
membership. Unlike the corn mill societies, these associations had a ready
supply of educated, politically savvy, and internationally connected Cameroonian
women who were willing and able to assume the reins of leadership.
conclusion, British colonial policies in the Southern Cameroons affected women in contradictory
ways. Certain policies and ideologies constricted the space available to women
for public action, while others opened new possibilities for women in the areas
of education, salaried employment, public life, travel abroad, and activism in
local and international women's organizations. Cameroonian women instrumentally
rejected and incorporated elements of colonial practice and selectively incorporated
certain gender discourses into their post-colonial activities.
 See, for example, Hunt, Liu, and
Quataert 1997; Hansen 1992; Walker 1990, especially chapters by Cock,
Gaitskell, and Meintjes; and Gaitskell 1983.
 See, for example, Special Issue on
"Indigenous Women and Colonial Cultures," Journal
of Colonialism and Colonial History, 6, no. 3 (2005); Special Issue on
"'Destination Globalization? Women, Gender and Comparative Colonial Histories
in the New Millennium," Journal of
Colonialism and Colonial History, 4, no. 1, (2003); Special Issue on
"Revising the Experiences of Colonized Women: Beyond Binaries," Journal of Women's History, 14, no. 4
(2003); and Special Issue on "Gendered Colonialism and African History," Gender and History, 8, no. 3 (1996). See
also Tripp 2004 and 2001; Allman, Geiger, and Musisi 2002; Thomas 2000; Sheldon
1998; and Moss 1997.
Cameroons was first a League of Nations mandate territory and later a UN trusteeship
territory. Great Britain ruled Cameroon as part of Nigeria. In 1961, the UN Trusteeship Council organized a
plebiscite in the British-controlled territories to determine whether they
would join Nigeria or Cameroon. Northern
Cameroons voted to join Nigeria, while the population of Southern Cameroons chose to reunite with Cameroon.
 In a study of female leaders in Cameroon, Emmanuel Konde found that the
Catholic Women's Association (CWA) has been particularly successful in getting
members in high political offices.
Indeed, the CWA is second only to the CPDM in having members in
parliament. Konde suggests that the CWA empowers women by emphasizing their
individual capabilities. One CWA leader notes: "We encourage all our
members. We tell them that each and
everyone of them can do something . . . that you're capable (296)." This
strategy enables women to envision taking on roles in the public sphere. See
 NAB, Safe 1957/1, "Participation of Women in Native
 NAB, Safe 1960/1, Circular 212/60, "The
Participation of Women in Public Life,"
March 1, 1960
 NAB, Safe 1960/1, Circular 212/60, "The
Participation of Women in Public Life,"
March 1, 1960
 NAB, Safe 1960/1, UN Regional Seminar,
 Other regional seminars on the participation of
women in public life were held in
May 18-29, 1959
, Pakistan on
November 21, 1960
, and in
, Mongolia from
August 3-17, 1965
 NAB, Safe 1960/1, UN Regional Seminar,
 Great Britain 1960, 59. Within the literature, there are mixed
opinions on the value of such organizations. Ifi Amadiume, for example, argues
that the spread of European women's associations like the Young Women's
Christian Association (YWCA), Girl Guides, and Girls' Brigade to Nigeria contributed to the construction of the "daughters of
imperialism." See Amadiume 2000, 39-43. In Uganda, Tripp, in contrast, finds that these organizations
brought European, African, and Asian women together through an explicit
ideology of nonracialism and served as the foundation for the Ugandan women's
movement. See Tripp 2001 and 2000.
 The Women's Institutes movement began in Canada in 1897 and in Great Britain in 1915. Women's Institutes were rural women's
groups that, as written in the first constitution, sought "To promote that
knowledge of household science which shall lead to the improvement in household
architecture with special attention to home sanitation; to a better
understanding of economics and hygienic value of foods and fuels; and to a more
scientific care of children, with a view to raising the general standard of the
health of our people." In short, organizations aimed to better the home and the
community more broadly and to bring women together without regard to
"political, religious, or ethical belief." See Jenkins 1953, 7, 12.
 Konde 1990. Other scholars, though, take issue with
his description of anlu. See Awasom
2002. Anlu, a traditional sanction
mechanism used by the Kom women in Northwest Cameroon,
is an example of women overtly challenging British authority. Though different
scholars offer different explanations of the 1958 uprising, it was at least
partially a protest against colonial policies affecting women, including rising
taxes and laws regulating farming techniques. For an extended discussion of anlu, see Diduk 1989; Nkwi 1985; Ardener 1975; Ritzenthaler 1960.
 For a history of the Women's Corona Society, see
 Victoria (Limbe) is a coastal town in what was
British Southern Cameroons. Buea is
located several miles inland at the base of
. Buea has been a key administrative site since
German colonial rule. Both towns are located in what is now the Southwest
 Bota is a section of Victoria (now Limbe), where
many expatriates associated with the colonial administration lived.
 NAB, Safe 1956/2, Minutes of the Women's Corona
Society meeting held at Bota Club,
June 19, 1958
 NAB Safe 1956/2, Minutes of Women's Corona Society
 Helen Callaway argues that in Nigeria the Women's Corona Society became an important
multiracial organization where African and European women came together to
undertake voluntary work. By 1953, the
organization had a school, a nursery, and regular activities in
. Schools were later established in
and Jos. In Cameroon, the Women's Corona Society was established much
later. As late as 1956, the president of the Buea branch notes that the
organization "only exists on paper." Thus, the Women's Corona Society in Cameroon was not as effective at bringing together African
and European women on a long-term basis. See Callaway 1987, 11, 215-218.
 The Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) is a
government-controlled parastatal specializing in agricultural production. It
was formerly called the Commonwealth Development Corporation. The British
handed over the CDC to the independent government, which renamed it the
Cameroon Development Corporation. Tea, palm nuts, bananas, rubber, and coconuts
are grown on CDC plantations. The CDC is
currently in the process of being privatized, although there is little evidence
that this is actually taking place.
 NAB, Safe, 1956/2, Letter written by Mrs. J.O.
November 29, 1956
 NAB, Safe 1962/1, "National Council of Cameroon Women."
 From 1961-1972, Cameroon was a federal state comprised of West Cameroon (British Southern Cameroons)
and East Cameroon. In 1972, Cameroon became a unitary state. Immediately following independence,
women's associations organized events that brought together women from the two
federal states. NAB 1962/1 "National Council of Cameroon Women."
 Kaberry 1952, 149-150 and Kaberry and Chilver 1961,
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Melinda Adams is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University. Her research focuses on women's political action in domestic and international arenas. A current research project focuses on gender equity policies in the African Union.
Reference Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing this article: Melinda Adams. "Colonial Policies and Women's Participation in Public Life: The Case of British Southern Cameroons." African Studies Quarterly 8, no.3: [online] URL: http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v8/v8i3a1.htm