Are you trying to play a white woman? La Mère Patrie and the female body in French West Africa

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When they carved out a place for themselves in the colonial system of French West Africa, black and white women questioned how the romanticized white, bourgeois femininity that defined African girls’ education in the AOF (L’Afrique occidentale française) regulated and contested all women’s bodies, sexuality, and domesticity. Traditionally, administrators and observers construed white women as untouchable, opposing them to highly sensual and available black women. Yet in their everyday, lived experiences of colonialism, women and their bodies were not easy to manipulate, contain, or stereotype. This article analyzes how women in the French Empire pushed themselves to assume and resist normative interpretations of their race and gender and, in particular, how black African and white French women manipulated intersections between whiteness, sexuality, and femininity when establishing roles for women, black or white, in the French Empire. It pays particular attention to how women in the early twentieth century read both bodies’ physical and representational qualities, using embodiment to challenge not only what it meant to be French and a woman but also, therefore, to reevaluate who could lay claim to the social and cultural advantages of the idealized virtues associated with these attributes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)841-864
Number of pages24
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Gender Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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