Elizabeth Thornberry

Elizabeth Thornberry

Associate Professor

Contact Information

Research Interests: History of gender, sexuality, empire, and law in Southern Africa and across the continent

Education: PhD, Stanford University

I am a historian of South Africa, with research and teaching interests in the history of gender, sexuality, law, and disability in Southern Africa and across the continent.  I wrote a book about rape in colonial South Africa, and am currently working on two major research projects: an intellectual history of customary law, and a history of intellectual disability in South Africa from 1902-1948. In 2024-2025, I will be on leave from Johns Hopkins to complete a year of training in law through the Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship.

I currently serve on the board of directors for the American Society for Legal History and am co-chair of the program committee for the Northeast Workshop on Southern Africa. 

I received my Ph.D. in African History from Stanford University in 2011. My research has been supported by the Fulbright Institute of International Education, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University, and the Mellon Foundation. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, I taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.

I welcome applications from potential graduate students in modern African history, and from those with interests in transnational histories of law, gender, sexuality, and disability.

My first book, Colonizing Consent: Rape and Governance in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, is both a social history of sexual violence and an examination of the deep links between sexual and political authority in the Eastern Cape region, from the late precolonial period through the triumph of segregationism. Drawing on records from criminal, civil, customary, and ecclesiastical courts, Colonizing Consent shows how competing political ideologies confronted each other on the terrain of women’s bodies—with, too often, devastating consequences for women themselves.

I am currently working on two major research projects.  The first,  provisionally titled Imagining African Law: Black Intellectuals and the Politics of Custom in South Africa, 1880-1927, races debates over the meaning of “native law and custom” among a range of black intellectuals in South Africa in the decades leading up to the passage of the Native Administration Act. My research for this project seeks to recuperate a lost set of imagined futures for customary law, and in doing so, to intervene in contemporary debates over the place of customary law in the post-apartheid era. As in my first project, I am particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality, which have long been central to debates over custom in South Africa.

I am also currently researching the history of intellectual disability in segregation-era South Africa, with a focus on childhood.  During the first half of the twentieth century, the South African state invested heavily in both techniques for measuring cognitive capacity and in the creation of  institutions to house and education intellectually disabled children.  These efforts focused primarily—although not exclusively—on white children, they were profoundly shaped by a need to differentiate white South Africans from the black majority.  My current research seeks to trace the relationship between these state-driven projects and the efforts of South Africans of all races to make sense of cognitive impairment and to care for intellectually disabled family members.

Courses currently taught include:

Graduate: South African History and Historiography, Historiography of Law and Empire

Undergraduate: History of Africa (from 1880), Race and Power in Modern South Africa, Law and Custom in Colonial Africa

"Procedure as Politics in the Cape Colony: The Center of Andrew Gontshi, 1880-1903," Journal of African History, 61:3 (2020), 409-427.

"The Problem of African Girlhood: Raising the Age of Consent in the Cape of good Hope, 1893-1905," Law and History Review, 38:1 (February 2020), 219-240.

“Rape, Race, and Respectability in a South African Port City: East London, 1870-1927,” Journal of Urban History (September 2016).

“Ukuthwala, Forced Marriage, and the Idea of Custom in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,” in Anne Bunting, Benjamin Lawrance, and Richard Roberts, eds. Marriage by Force? Contestation Over Consent and Coercion, Ohio University Press (2016).

“Virginity Testing, History, and the Nostalgia for Custom in Contemporary South Africa,” African Studies Review 58:3 (December 2015), 129-148.

“Punishing ‘Crime’ in the Eastern Cape: Sexual Violence ca. 1835-1902,” Journal of Southern African Studies 37:3 (September 2011), 415-430.

“Sex, Violence, and Family in South Africa’s Eastern Cape,” in Emily Burrill, Richard Roberts, and Elizabeth Thornberry, eds., Domestic Violence and the Law in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, Ohio University Press (2010).