Proposal preview

African Women at Work in Historical Perspective: New Methods for the study of Female Inequality in Economic Participation, 1800-2000

Following the 4th World Conference on Women and the establishment of the Beijing Platform for Action for Equality, Development and Peace (1990s), and the publication of the World Bank Group Gender Action Plan (2007-2010) arguing that “Gender equality [w]as smart economics” and women’s participation in the economy contributed to economic expansion and had long-term effects on future generations, a growing body of literature has been published on the study of modern form of gender inequality focusing in particular in developing and undeveloped regions, being sub-Saharan Africa a case in point.
Rarely, however, has long-term historical analysis been conducted with data preceding the 1960s and 1980s and have the historical roots of African gender inequality been fully discussed and acknowledged. More importantly, scholars studying women’s economic participation in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa have focused mainly on their participation in formal labour markets (i.e. wage gap, economic sectors), leaving female contribution to the informal labour market, to the agricultural sector under the form of subsistence agriculture as well as their reproductive labour unaccounted for.
In order to fully assess women’s participation in the economy of the continent and their significant contributions at local, regional and national level, it is essential to adopt a broader definition of labour and a new methodology that will encompassed both formal and informal labour markets, and the forms of labour aforementioned. By defining labour as “any human effort adding use value to goods and services. […]” (Tilly and Tilly, 1984) and applying a new methodology and the Taxonomy of Labour Relations developed at the International Institute of Social History for the study of shifts in labour and labour relations across time and space at a global scale, the contributions in this set of panels will demonstrate how the study of African women’s labour and their labour relations can be key indicators to assess women’s contribution to the economy and also to help scholars to identify what are the historical roots of women’s inequality in terms of economic participation in the economies of different regions and countries, including Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, among others.


  • Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, International Institute of Social History (The Netherlands),,
  • Karin Pallaver, University of Bologna (Italy),,

Session members

  • Karin Hofmeester, International Institute of Social History (The Netherlands),
  • Jan Lucassen, International Institute of Social History (The Netherlands),
  • Karin Pallaver, University of Bologna (Italy),
  • Rory Pilossof, University of Free State (South Africa),
  • Marlous Van Waijenburg , Northwest University (USA),
  • Valentina Fusari, University of Pavia (Italy),
  • Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, International Institute of Social History (The Netherlands),
  • Felix Meier Zu Selhausen, University of Sussex,
  • Michiel De Haas, Wageningen University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Gareth Austin, University of Cambridge/Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies,