On SAGE Insight: Feminist Political Economy in a Globalized World: African Women Migrants in South Africa and the US

SWS Distinguished Feminist Lecture

From Gender and Society

Official Publication of Sociologists for Women in Society

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‘Migration is one of the most important social phenomena of our times.  In the social science literature, particularly among US-based scholars, African migrant women remain an understudied population.  The experiences of African women migrants, either as immigrants or refugees, clearly demonstrate that migration is a gendered process. 

In this study, feminist political economy is the perspective within conflict theories in sociology, which enables us to more fully understand the experiences of African migrant women in various contexts, as well as the lives of other Global South migrant women.  Based on over two decades of fieldwork, both in-depth interviews and extensive observations in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa and in Greater Boston and Philadelphia, this study reveals that although African women migrants face major challenges on both sides of the Atlantic, they continue to demonstrate creativity and resilience in and in the process, they contribute to community development.

Why is feminist political economy the paradigm that is most useful in exploring African women’s experiences?   This theory is very helpful in providing three major areas of focus that allow us to make sense of these women’s lives:  1. the impact of the current phase of globalization; 2. their intersectional experiences and 3. the agency they demonstrate in addressing the challenges they face. Global capitalism creates conditions in their home nations – whether in Zimbabwe in particular or in other sub-Saharan African nations – which creates the “push” factors for women to leave these nations and seek new opportunities to support themselves and their families.  Zimbabwean women migrants in South Africa or African women migrants in the northeastern US experience intersectionality based on their gender, race, class (or perceived class status), immigrant status and sometimes, due to their religions.  African migrant women have also exhibited much agency in creating networks and organizations, as well as a “new Pan-Africanism” in the US, to support their lives in their new homelands.  In this regard, they have enhanced the communities in which they live.’

By Mary Johnson Osirim

Mary Johnson Osirim is Provost and Professor of Sociology at Bryn Mawr College. Her research has focused on women, entrepreneurship, the state and non-governmental organizations in the microenterprise sectors of Nigeria and Zimbabwe, the development of gender studies scholarship in Anglophone Sub-Saharan Africa as well as transnationalism and community development among African immigrants in the United States.  She has written and edited books and many articles in these areas.  She was the Sociologists For Women in Society’s Distinguished Feminist Lecturer in 2017.


Based on research conducted over the past two decades, this lecture examines how the feminist political economy perspective can aid us in understanding the experiences of two populations of African women: Zimbabwean women cross-border traders in South Africa and African immigrant women in the northeastern United States. Feminist political economy compels us to explore the impact of the current phase of globalization as well as the roles of intersectionality and agency in the lives of African women. This research stems from fieldwork conducted in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in metropolitan Boston and Philadelphia. Despite the many challenges that African migrant women face in these different venues, they continue to demonstrate much creativity and resilience and, in the process, they contribute to community development.

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Article details
SWS Distinguished Feminist Lecture: Feminist Politcal Economy in a Globalized World: African Women Migrants in South Africa and the United States
Mary Johnson Osirim
First Published October 31, 2018 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/0891243218804188
Gender & Society

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