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Oyeronke Oyewumi

Oyeronke Oyewumi: Journey Through Academe

Background for the Journey: Pathways to a New Definition of Gender Mainstream Western characterizations of the social world tend to be unilinear and universalistic in ways that arrest critical theorizing about the rest of the world; in fact, thinking within the West about gender, social hierarchy, citizenship, democracy, and Africa, among other things, is in serious need of repair. Cultural biases threaten to deny agency to many experiences, except when those experiences are filtered through Western representations. Looking at African realities without such biases uncovers different conceptions of the problematique.

I began my academic journey studying political science at the University of Ibadan (UI), Nigeria. Most of our studies were focused on the State, and we read Western political theorists Karl Marx, the Social Contract theorists, Joseph Schumpeter, Jeremy Bentham, Niccolo Machiavelli among others. The curriculum was based on notions of “Western Civilization,” and the universality of its experiences was taken for granted. We also took a number of courses on African politics which gave me an understanding of the important role of colonization in constituting the State in Africa.

Nevertheless, when I applied to graduate school in the United States in the 1980s, I decided to go into sociology and not political science. Why? During my undergraduate career at UI, I took only one sociology course, the sociology of the


made a deep impression on me in relation to interests I had started to develop in the family as an institution. At the time I enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1980s. I did not at this time clearly understand the public/private divide in Western thought and how it may have shaped the boundaries of different disciplines. Therefore. they must be based on an assumption that because Western societies looked a certain way. and that in every society through time women have been oppressed.Oyeronke Oyewumi family in which we studied standard Western sociological texts on the family. In my gender classes. political science had no room for that. I did not see the evidence for these claims. and I promptly registered in my first sociology of gender seminar. I was pleasantly surprised by the courses on offer. more “traditional” African family. it seemed to me. Having learned how much colonization had to do with the changes in family forms. in sharp contrast to many of my friends whose mothers were college-educated and lived in what appeared to be Western nuclear families. was the discipline where I could study the family. having grown up in a large. I was shocked by the grand and grandiose claims being made about women of all societies and from all times: claims that women are powerless. The particular sociology course however. I had become acutely aware of the variety of family organizations in Nigerian society. then all other societies had to be like 2 . We learned little or nothing about African family systems. Sociology. my interest was to study the intersection of colonization and the family. affluent. I did not know that there was a new and developing area of study called Gender or Women’s Studies.

as a subject. that societies organized gender categories in different ways. human societies used all sorts of artifice like language and family organization to emphasize and exaggerate these differences in order to keep women powerless and subordinated. and that therefore. Anthropology was the discipline that brought home to the West the idea that gender is socially constructed. gender must be understood as a social construct and not a biological one. Culture and Society. despite the fact that the differences between males and females were not that large.” One of the most influential texts during this period was Women. What is more. This claim did not put any dent in the Universalist claims of the West as anthropologists went round the world to look for women and women subordination. an anthropological tome edited by Michele Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere in which several scholars claimed that the subordination of women is universal.Oyeronke Oyewumi that. I was particularly intrigued by the constant claim that. because women’s equality was a sign of civilization and because the West was reputedly the most civilized region of the world. Westerners believed that no society could have been organized differently. always already constituted and ready to be studied. This claim fascinated me because Yoruba language completely 3 . The anthropology of gender course that I took at Berkeley made this abundantly clear as we examined research that purported to be about a tribe called “women. There was no question from this point of view that “women” existed as a category.

and sometimes professors about why I was enrolled in sociology and not anthropology. I explained in the classes I was taking that Yoruba kinship categories expressed seniority and not gender. my comments were ignored or dismissed. wanted to engage with my findings. Rather than perceive males and females as different. As an outgrowth of this misconception about Africa I was constantly interrogated by fellow students. I pointed out in my classes that Yoruba was a non-gendered language par excellence in that there were no gender pronouns or gendered kinship categories.Oyeronke Oyewumi countered such a declaration. Yoruba people do not have a single word for son. If anything. or sister in their everyday vocabulary. as in many universities on the African 4 . No one. Yoruba actually presented them as linguistically the same. hierarchy within the family was not based on gender but that conduct privileged the person who is older in any particular interaction at any given time. Similarly. When I raised my hand in class and objected to these unwarranted universal assumptions about men and women. I came to understand that Africa did not count for much in the theories about the human condition. I became aware that Africa was regarded as the most primitive and misogynistic continent. the Yoruba categories translated into husband and wife in English were not gender-specific because both categories included people of both anatomic sexes. a view that made it difficult for some of my professors and fellow students to take seriously any comments that did not fit their prejudices. it seemed. I continued. Most importantly. brother. daughter. Furthermore. At the University of Ibadan. Subsequently.

they were able to recruit TAs from other departments. I would reply. Because at the time they had no in-house graduate students of their own.S. I am a sociologist because I am studying my own society!” During this period I was also taking courses on the Sociology of Race and Ethnic Relations and discovering that I was “Black. I had to go outside the department and look for jobs wherever I could find them on campus. “Voila. One department that repeatedly supported me with “TAships” and made it possible for me to complete my graduate studies was the Department of African American Studies.Oyeronke Oyewumi continent. Because I came into the country as a foreign student. A number of fellow students would reply that anthropologists study “Other” societies and sociologists studied their own society. I would ask my interrogators to explain the difference between anthropology and sociology. Because Teaching Assistantships were coveted. there was no anthropology department because of the ignominious history of anthropology as the handmaiden of colonization. Because my graduate education was not funded by the university or any other organization. This development was an untold blessing because through the many courses on the 5 . the number of times one could serve as a TA in one’s graduate career was limited. and within my department. I had to spend a lot of time as a teaching assistant and grader to earn money for my education and living expenses.” an identity I did not have before coming to the U. I was not allowed to seek employment off campus.

I became an Americanist. it was clear to me that I had to move away from Development because I felt that the emerging field of Women in Development had already produced African women as the beast of burden that had to be liberated by Western women. My reaction against this representation of African women was so strong that the first chapter of my dissertation was titled. In fact. In addition I chose Race as one of my areas of concentration. integrating it with my studies on European colonization of Africa. and politics. I used to express my dismay with this representation of Africa by insisting that what I wanted to do was study Africans but not develop them. the more problematic was the idea emanating from White feminism that all women were the same and equally oppressed. I came to realize that the theories and concepts discussed in my sociology classes came out of the European and American experiences and were based on assumptions about society and the human condition that may or may not have anything to do with Africa. The more familiar I became with writings of African American feminists. chapter 2). culture. I defined what I wanted to do in my dissertation as a study of culture and not development. 6 . and as a result. “The White Woman’s Burden: African Women in Western Feminist Discourse” (Oyewumi 2003. By the time I chose a dissertation topic. The other two fields in which I took a pre-dissertation qualifying examination were Gender and Development. For me. I got a full education on United States history.Oyeronke Oyewumi African American experience.

” he explained. and it did not accurately reflect African realities. let alone fund it. But the task I had set for myself was not an easy one. To offer an example of the dimensions of the problem. culture. I had to understand its underlying assumptions and interrogate its claims in relation to the African societies that I was trying to understand. Furthermore there was no prototype. religion and politics using the research data I was gathering on Yoruba society. it stereotyped Africans. Ultimately. No one on my committee understood what I was trying to do. I had a professor who was an Africanist and whose graduate seminar became an opportunity to develop a dissertation prospectus and simultaneously write proposals that we could use to seek dissertation funds from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). he explained to me that no one would take it seriously. but you cannot dismiss it offhand.” Needless to say.” I replied that I did not care for the literature because it was biased and distorted. no similar study that I could use as a model. “That is how research and academic work proceed. My long-suffering professor said further. “You must engage with the literature: you must read it.Oyeronke Oyewumi then. I did not want the literature to taint my work. I chose a dissertation topic that allowed me to try to make sense of Western claims about gender. it became clear that with every concept and theory I came across. After I wrote my proposal. “You have to situate your work within the context of the literature. you can critique or incorporate it. because I had not put my study within the context of the literature. about women and its intersections with history. and therefore they could offer very little guidance. I was not 7 .

bio-anatomical distinctions and gender differences as part of social reality and. I must have put together a coherent research proposal. Another challenge was how to write about non-gendered Yoruba categories in a gendered language like English. and realized its supreme importance in Western organization and thinking was the day that my work got on the right track. many African scholars assume the Western predilections wrapped up in theoretical and conceptual language and absorb them into the communities and situations under study. Once there. I came to understand my research project as an effort: To document why and how gender came to be constructed in Yoruba society of southwestern Nigeria—and how gender is constituted as a fundamental category in academic scholarship on Yoruba. there was none--I gathered that there was no “outside” of the West in regard to the academic literature. its depth and its reach in Western thinking. This realization is important because much of the literature by Africans on the subject of gender does not begin to understand the meaning of gender. The day I understood that I had to start with the question “what is gender?” thereby interrogating its taken-for-grantedness. on the other hand. because it fetched me a grant that led me to Ibadan in Nigeria to conduct my research. As a result of this misrecognition of what gender is. however. Alas. on one hand. Would I be able to make Yoruba categories intelligible to the gender-fixated intelligentsia? I wondered whether there was any literature outside of the Western tradition--Chinese or Japanese for example--that could liberate me from what I thought was a suffocating trap. unquestioningly. 8 . The major question addressed is this: what are the relationships between. gender constructs as something that the observer brings to a particular situation (Oyewumi 1997:ix).Oyeronke Oyewumi happy about this.

“a man’s body gives credibility to his utterance. Feminist.” Judith Lorber notes the ubiquity of notions of biology in the social realm when she writes that “gender is so pervasive in our [Western] society we assume it is bred into our genes. Gender. The question that arises from this finding is this: On what basis are Western categories exportable or transferable to other cultures that have a different cultural logic? It was clear to me that colonization. in Western societies. The two following quotes which I cited in the book capture the meaning of the biology of the human body in Western culture: According to sociologist Dorothy Smith.Oyeronke Oyewumi Thus in the first chapter of The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses.” Given the evidence. responses to the onslaught and its legacies were implicated in how African societies came to develop categories and organize institutions that looked similar to Western ones. I deconstructed the meaning of gender in Western society. Scholarly Debates My work addresses a number of debates in Social Theory. Postcolonial and African Studies: 9 . Colonization was clearly central to the study. whereas a woman’s body takes it away from hers. asserting that it is tied up with biologically deterministic notions of society: the idea of the body as the foundation of social hierarchy. I could not make the same claim for Yoruba society.

My major discovery is that Yoruba society did not organize itself along gender lines and did not create gender categories until recently in its history. believe in the inevitability of gender in organizing the social world. Both the social constructionists and the biological determinists however. who claim that gender hierarchies in society are a function of unequal social organization. I show that the opposition between the biological determinists and social constructionists was more apparent than real. in Western thinking both groups took for granted the idea that all societies inherently organized themselves socially around bodies that were understood to be gendered male and female.Oyeronke Oyewumi The debate about the source and origin of gender categories in society. and the social constructionists. 10 . but rather. whether in any given society the body is perceived to do so and therefore that society organizes itself accordingly. This discussion is usually framed as a debate between biological determinists who believe that gender hierarchies are inherent in nature. In Invention. the only difference between the two approaches was that the social constructionists recognized the significant role played by unequal social organization and socialization in the creation of male superiority and female subordination. This is a variation on the age-old nature/ nurture debate in Western culture. From my perspective. My findings suggest that the major issue is not whether the body or biology in reality provides evidence of gender difference.

essentialism means that the categories men and women have there own essences and by implication then. as they appear to be. then we must historicize why and how they came to be constituted in specific places. and which biological attributes count. are cultural questions located in how particular societies want to interpret biology and indeed construe what is biological. The debate on Essentialism. In feminist discourses geared towards liberating women. Invention postulated that in fact there were no 11 . and particular time periods. This debate concerns the idea that things have a true essence that defines them as what they are. and that that the category woman already existed prior to our search for her.Oyeronke Oyewumi Thus. the category “woman” was always already constituted as subordinate and waiting for liberation especially in “Other” societies. It is important to note that the idea that gender is socially constructed is not a declaration that biology is irrelevant or that nature does not count. If gender categories are universal today. In gender discourses. the notion of social construction propounds that how biology is interpreted.” some societies already had very decided notions of the natural differences between males and females. I conclude that gender is not only socially constructed but also historical. The corollary to this mode of essentialist thinking is that all women are the same. Rather. We must remember that even before hormones and the biology of reproduction was “discovered. men and women are naturally and essentially different. I show that the problem of gender is not to be found in biology but in what biology is called upon to do for social organization.

gender. the concept of the matrix of domination has been introduced to 12 . The debate about the gender fundamentalism. As such. there are multiple. representing it as the most important form of oppression in society. where this concept has been fully developed. For example. My analysis of gender and race categories in colonial Nigeria exposed the same racial privilege that white women enjoyed.Oyeronke Oyewumi “women” as such in Yoruba society thus making the claim that the category woman as subject of research or liberation is not constituted by nature. and does not exist prior to our interest in studying or liberating her. a fact that many black feminists in the Diaspora had written about so eloquently. in the United States. intersectionality— the idea that in society. and class factors are intertwined and inseparable. Today. gender. My book Invention questioned this fundamentalism. the gender fixation of white American feminists was a function of their own race and class-privileged position. as a number of feminists had posited. race. interlocking systems of domination and subordination that are impossible to separate one from the other — is accepted as an article of faith. and class are understood to be intertwined systems of power that shape everyone’s lives because they are embedded in the structures of society. joining voices with a chorus of black American feminists who insisted that race. During this period many white American feminists wrote much about gender oppression. Invention problematized the idea that women’s oppression is foundational to social organization and the ground zero of all forms of oppression. Lately. In showing that gender categories in Yoruba society are a recent addition.

In a sense. One of the implications of this finding for my study of Yoruba society is to pay attention to the ways in which seniority as privilege is increasingly entwined with gender in such a way as to privilege males in interactions and institutions which in the past betrayed no male superiority. and to capture the structurally complex and intertwined nature of inequality in any given society. whom I call the maximizers. European colonization hardly lasted a century. On the other hand. One group of scholars (I call them minimizers) had argued that colonization was best perceived as merely one episode in the long duration of African history. I document this kind of untoward development in a recent paper (Oyewumi 2011. colonization was not episodic but epochal given Africa’s loss of sovereignty and its continuing legacies even today. For these scholars. The finding that Yoruba society did not exhibit gender in its social thinking and organization until it was colonized by the British underscored the fact that colonization had introduced gender as a new way of thinking and organizing that has had profound effects on all Yoruba institutions.Oyeronke Oyewumi underscore the fact that gender cannot be a unitary concept. The colonial process also 13 . chapter1). there are scholars who insist on the profound impact of colonization on Africa. For the scholars who take the position that the impact of colonization was superficial. they point to the fact that in most places in Africa. I see the study documented in Invention as responding to this debate. The debate about how deep or shallow the impact of European colonization was on African societies.

My audience is unquestionably global. The director of the Center explained that they had learned of my conceptual work on gender discourses through the writings of the Russian author. As an academic text. One paragraph of her Gender Epistemology in the Eurasian Borderland (Moscow 2009. I was elated to see the expanse of the audience for my work. Gender.Oyeronke Oyewumi created new institutions. male superiority and its unequal distribution of resources. and fourteen years after its publication it is still being assigned in classes in many parts of the world. Although the collaboration is pending. Invention. Madina Tlostanova. later published in English by Palgrave) is devoted to my book. The Impact of my Journey: Who is Reading my Work? In 2010. I regularly receive requests from professors and students asking me to contribute to their class discussions of the book. Nation. The book Invention has been quite successful if we use as one measure the fact that it is in its fifth printing. most notably the State. with all its apparatus of power. in Russian. I 14 . I received an invitation from the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Kazakhstan to be part of an international group that will work on a project. I also routinely receive effusive appreciation and sometimes challenging questions from students from various parts of the world. and Decoloniality in Central Asia. Tlostanova’s book provoked an intense debate within the gender studies community in Kazakhstan and around the world. it is read in a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses.

It is also gratifying to note that a year after its publication the book was a finalist for the Herskovits Award of the African Studies association. The audience was engaged in the proceedings which generated healthy discussions. In 1998. I will not experience the nightmare of being ignored as a writer. family. “the major value of this book to sex and gender scholars is the way it forces us to examine the Western character of our fundamental assumption that gender is a major organizing principle of social life. Invention was recognized at the American Sociological Association with a Distinguished Book award in its Sex and Gender Section. comments and questions with the four panelists in the session. a panel convened at the African Studies Association to hold intellectual discussions on it.from my colleagues who prove to me that because of the quality of my work. Invention has generated so much passion that some years back. the editor of a special issue of the journal Gender and Society commented on my work summing up my contributions to the field of sociology of gender.Oyeronke Oyewumi continue to receive invitations to give lectures at conferences and institutions in various countries. read in part. read by the chair of the award committee. It is most gratifying to experience strong reactions-positive and negative. The citation. In the introduction to the Special Issue of the 15 ." More recently. and feminism.

with its preconceived notions of patriarchy and nuclear family. (2005. As a matter of fact when I showed up for graduate school at UC Berkeley. she cautions us from losing sight of the “situational” and “fluid” cultural contexts in which social categories are produced. Interrogating the concept of gender and allied categories such as “woman. wife and mother are represented as different from one another and 16 .” “family” and “sex differences” from the perspectives of African cultures and epistemologies. In fact. motherhood has been a constant in my own life since the beginning of my graduate studies. it is inevitable that I have to do a study of motherhood given its importance in theory and in the everyday lives of individuals and communities through time. Next Stage of the Journey: Current Work Having written about gender.Oyeronke Oyewumi journal titled “Conceptualizing Gender-Sexuality-State-Nation” H. My current focus on motherhood is not a new discovery. the family and sisterhood. Like many other scholars who have critiqued gender as a universal and timeless concept. it is an accumulation of my thinking and writing that has always been geared towards understanding this monumental institution.19. it is also clear that in many African societies. the categories woman. Rather. Furthermore. 2. no.Vol. Personally. Oyewumi asks why “gender” is uncritically assumed to be the fundamental organizing principle and category of difference in Western/feminist theory. my dissertation was titled “Mothers Not Women. J. I was accompanied by my two-year-old child. actually distorts how power and inequality are structured in different historical and cultural contexts. pp 137-139).” What I meant to capture then by that configuration is the fact that in many African societies mother is the preferred identity and name that adult females choose to call themselves. Kim-Puri explained that my work shows how a Euro-American-centered approach to gender.

My work employs a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective foregrounding an African vantage point that remains largely unknown and underrepresented in the academy. I am currently working on a book titled What is the Gender of Motherhood? This is an insurgent question given the treatment of the institution as the paradigm of gender in dominant feminist discourses. theoretical tools. as a principle of social organization is neither universal nor timeless. Equally important is the need for African experiences to be taken into account in theory building. My understanding of motherhood derives from the privilege and responsibilities accorded to it.Oyeronke Oyewumi eschew conflation. this question follows logically from my findings about gender in my previous research in which I show that gender. Conclusion The primary goal of my research has been to bring African experiences to bear in the constitution of knowledge. Rather than being counterintuitive. My objective is to look to Africa for conceptual categories. Much of my academic research and writing has used African experiences to illuminate 17 . and an evidentiary base in the constitution of knowledge about the continent and its peoples. and the ways in which female activists have used it and continue to use it to mobilize politically against the colonial masters and their contemporary heirs. Consequently. one must ask how motherhood—the fact that females give birth—is understood and elaborated in times and places where gender was not ontologized or written into the nature of social existence.

political science. I have also studied and been open to concepts.Oyeronke Oyewumi theoretical questions pertinent to a wide range of disciplines including sociology. and literature. In all of my work. religion. all in an effort to broaden scholarly understanding to include non-Western cultures. women studies. 18 . history. I hope to provide a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which societies are complex and changing and therefore cannot be understood through reductionist formulations. theories and experiences emanating from other non –Western contexts in the full realization of the global nature of the historical and emerging processes that shape our lives.

University of Minnesota Press. African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood. edited. 19 . African Gender Studies Reader (edited) Palgrave: New York (2005).Oyeronke Oyewumi Books Gender Epistemologies in Africa: Gendering Traditions. Spaces. Africa World Press. Social Institutions and Identities (edited) Palgrave (2011). The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis. Trenton: New Jersey (2003).