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

By Mary Johnson Osirim

From Gender and Society

Official Publication of Sociologists for Women in Society

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.

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

DOI: 10.1177/0891243218804188

Gender & Society



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.