Women, marginality and the Zulu state: Women's institutions and power in the early nineteenth century

Sean Hanretta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Standard Zulu historiography has held that until the arrival of capitalism no substantial changes in the power or status of women took place, even during the period of systemic transformation know as the 'mfecane'. Dissenters have argued that militarization (and an assumed 'masculinization') of Zulu society necessarily reduced the importance of women. This study instead argues that social, cultural and material conditions of women became highly stratified during the early nineteenth century. Potential for both exploitation and the acquisition of power and prestige increased as women's lives became integrated into the Zulu state. Changes in women's status and roles were not only the result of state centralization, but an important source of power which kings used to try to maintain control over lineage elites. As a result, struggles for political power between Zulu kings and lineage elites played a large role in women's lives, affecting the degree of stratification in general, as well as determining in part the fate of individual women. While some fundamental elements of the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity remained constant throughout this period and shaped the ways in which socio-economic changes were experienced, certain roles began to be seen as determined by women's social and political association rather than as inhering in the nature of the female body. Individual women responded in a variety of ways to try to minimize losses in power or status and to capitalize on new opportunities; but women also initiated more coherent society-wide changes. Growing dissatisfaction among women with the extent of state interference in personal relationships or with the disparity between their own status and that of royal and favored women may have brought about one of the most important changes in Zulu religious history: the appearance of women as dominant members of the class of diviners.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)389-415
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of African History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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