"Tampax, Snowdrops, and Girls Throwing Axes: Writing Girlhood into Modern South African History," a talk by Dr. Sarah Emily Duff, Assistant Professor of World and African History, Colby College


Leacock Building Room 738, 855 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal, QC, H3A 2T7, CA

In Making Modern Girls: A History of Girlhood, Labour, and Social Development in Colonial Lagos (2014), historian Abosede George urges scholars of childhood and youth in Africa, to ‘girl’ the subject of their study. Too often, she and others have pointed out, historians have assumed that the ‘youths’ who appear frequently in accounts of colonial and postcolonial politics, especially, are gendered adolescent and male. In this definition of ‘youth’, girls are left out.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it explores what a history of South African girlhood might look like. Avoiding what some historians of childhood and youth have dubbed the ‘agency trap’—a narrow definition of agency-as-resistance which frequently excludes more than it brings to light—the paper draws attention to the surprising frequency with which girls turn up in the South African archive. They appear in court records as both ‘delinquents’ and the subjects of state care; in advertisements for consumer products in the twentieth century; as the authors of diaries, letters, and stories; as pupils and as sex workers and factory workers; as refugees during conflict, and as prophetesses. These rich sources build up a complex portrait of the lived experience of girlhood in modern South Africa.

But secondly, attentive to the changing meanings of ‘girlhood’ over time, and particularly as the category was inflected in relation to race and class, the paper the paper asks how the addition of girls into South African history, might shift the ways in which we approach this history. Put another way, how would a ‘girl’s eye view’ reshape familiar arguments and frameworks?

For additional information, please contact Rachel Sandwell, rachel.sandwell [at]

Sponsored by: Department of History and Classical Studies & the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies

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