In this post, Alice Evans argues that women’s historical paucity in Zambian politics was largely due to gender divisions of labour. The colonial model of male breadwinner and female housewife fostered assumptions that men were more competent in socially valued domains, thus more suited to leadership. Alice is a Fellow in Human Geography at the London School of Economics.
Men accounted for over 92 percent of parliamentarians in the early decades of Zambian independence. Their predominance was chiefly due to widely-shared gender stereotypes: men were perceived as typically more competent in socially valued domains and more suited to positions of influence.
These gender beliefs curbed the supply and demand for women leaders – as further detailed in a forthcoming paper, ‘History lessons for gender equality from the Zambian Copperbelt, 1900-1990’. Doubting their own capacity for leadership, women were often reluctant to put themselves forward, at local or national level. Although some privately rejected these stereotypes, they too tended to comply with cultural expectations, in order to avoid social sanction and expected insults. Publicly assertive and vocal women were often chastised by their embarrassed kin. Many assumed that women could not ascend to the highest echelons by their own merit and so regarded them as ‘prostitutes’. Thus even if women did stand as leaders, they were generally overlooked and disregarded, rarely perceived as evidence of women’s equal competence.
These gender stereotypes largely resulted from gender divisions of labour. Men predominated in formal employment, which was valorised. Meanwhile, women’s unpaid care work was largely unappreciated. Observation of these sex-differentiated practices led many to regard men as typically more competent in socially valued domains, thus entitled to esteem and influence.
The male breadwinner and female housewife model persisted due to economic circumstances. In urban areas of the Zambian Copperbelt, men’s access to employment was secured by high copper prices, limited mechanisation and protected local industries. Men could largely provide for their families. They were further aided by social security provisions. Accordingly, there was little economic compunction for families to support female employment. Moreover, doing so signalled men’s inability to fulfil their stereotyped role of breadwinner, and would bring shame. In this context, few regarded women’s labour force participation as economically or socially advantageous – as explained by Helen (a low-income, local government councillor in the Zambian Copperbelt):
A long time ago… there were very few women selling… Their husbands had jobs: they were working in industries, industries were all over… There was free education and medical care… Historically women were oppressed. Even if she was educated, men would not want that person to go and work, they just wanted her to be a housewife. She cannot participate in anything: in political parties, you cannot go at the market and sell, because her husband will be feeling shy, ‘Why is she selling? It looks like I’m not keeping her very well’… A long time ago women were very oppressed because men didn’t want a woman to do things… to work or have her own money [translated from Bemba].
This model of male breadwinner and female housewife emerged during the colonial period. Mining companies trained women in domestic skills in order to stretch miners’ wages. The stereotype of the good housewife was further promoted by churches, government social welfare and the media. It became a standard of prestige, which families increasingly adopted. Female employment was further impeded by government restrictions and fines, such as on beer-brewing and sex work. Women were also excluded from domestic service in European settler homes – one of the largest sectors – because colonisers perceived them as promiscuous.
These gender divisions of labour, which fostered gender stereotypes, persisted as long as men’s access to employment was protected. When circumstances changed in the late 1980s and Copperbelt families experienced worsening economic security, many came to regard women’s labour force participation as financially beneficial. This was not due to a shift in gender beliefs, but rather a change in perceived interests. Gender beliefs themselves persisted: although women’s economic contributions became increasingly vital to household livelihoods, they were often overlooked, regarded as ‘supplementary’ at best. Accordingly, few working women gained commensurate social status or respect, at least not in the 1980s and 1990s. Men continued to be stereotyped as leaders.
This colonial legacy – gender divisions of labour, which are unequally valued – thus perpetuated gender stereotypes, which historically curbed the demand and supply of women leaders in Zambia, reinforcing a positive feedback loop.