August 10, 2016, BY Paula Cogan Myers

Professor Cymone Fourshey
Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications

Historical research is usually a solitary endeavor, which is why Professor Cymone Fourshey, history and international relations, looks forward to working with a transnational collaborative ​research team to examine the breadth and depth of the social, political, economic and institutional authority women have held in central and east Africa.

In early August, Fourshey and her collaborators, Rhonda Gonzales of the University of Texas, San Antonio and Christine Saidi of Kutztown University, received a $200,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Collaborative Research Grant, an award the NEH established to support research undertaken by a team of two or more collaborating scholars that adds significantly to knowledge and understanding of the humanities.

During the span of the three-year grant, the professors plan to conduct research and data analysis on gender history in a region that has been predominantly matrilineal (lineage is traced and inheritance and authority are determined through the mother's ancestry). They will collaborate with African colleagues involved in similar research on the continent​, and collect data primarily in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

Their project centers on questions about lineage and gender as features of authority, identity, belonging and worldview in eastern and central Africa's Bantu-speaking communities. They will build on prior studies and their own individual research to examine the history and meanings of words people spoke to understand what they did, produced and valued over the last 5,000 years. Their fieldwork and data analysis will be compiled ​in a book​ and digital resources​ in what will be a ​major contribution to theories of precolonial histories around ​gender, authority ​and family in the region. ​

The grant will allow Fourshey to study a subject in history that has had little systematic examination, but for which society has made many assumptions. "As historians we raise questions about the present as we interrogate and reconstruct the past, and yet when it comes to gender we are too often expected to apply modern-day patterns to the past," she said. "This grant will allow me to apply questions rarely raised to configuration and expressions of gender historically in Africa. Is patriarchy really universal historically and geographically? Should we assume men have always held more economic, political, and social power and authority than women?"

They plan to use qualitative and quantitative data to assess at the macro and micro levels how communities throughout history determined who made decisions and how they made them. "This project turns gender history on its head, leaving all assumptions behind," said Fourshey. "Rather than looking at gender as a determining factor of authority and decision making, it challenges the idea that authority rooted in gender has everywhere always existed. We talk about gender as a construct and ask how authority and community are shaped differently in matrilineal and patrilineal societies, and if this form of organizing is related to issues of gender or some other conceptualization of community."

Fourshey plans to bring students into the research process as well, giving them opportunities to do innovative projects and get first-hand experience with scholarship and publication. "Getting students involved in data collection and analysis very early in their undergraduate careers is critical to engagement and success," she said. "They take greater pride in their own education when they become producers of new knowledge rather than mere bystanders absorbing knowledge."

As Fourshey and her colleagues have already been working together for a year, they are ready to start planning a research trip to central and east Africa, where they will collect data and conduct interviews during the summer of 2017.