Elizabeth Thornberry

Elizabeth Thornberry

Assistant Professor

Gilman 338E
On Leave Fall 2018 & Spring 2019

I am a historian of South Africa, with research and teaching interests in the history of gender, sexuality, empire, and law in Southern Africa and across the continent.

I studied African history at Oxford (MSt 2005) and Stanford (PhD 2011). During my time at Stanford, I conducted fieldwork in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region, where I was hosted by the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research. From 2011-2016, I taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. I have also been a visiting scholar at the Center for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, where I maintain a research affiliation.

My research has been supported by the Fulbright Institute of International Education and the American Council of Learned Societies.

I have recently completed the manuscript for my first book, Colonizing Consent: Rape and Governance in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, 1820-1927. The book narrates the intertwined histories of sexual violence and popular politics during the period of colonization. In the book, I explore the ways in which sexual consent and political consent helped to constitute each other across a range of ideologies, including precolonial theories of customary rule, missionary Christianity, imperial liberalism, and racial nationalism.

My current research project is a history of customary law in South Africa during the decade following the South African War (1902-1912). During this period, as the four separate colonies prepared to merge into the Union of South Africa, the place of customary law in the white-ruled state emerged as a crucial problem for colonial administrators and African intellectuals alike. My research investigates local debates over the implementation of customary law by the colonial state, seeking to show how the regime of customary law that emerged from this period was shaped by debates within African communities as much as by theories of paternalism and segregation.

Although my research focuses primarily on South Africa, one of my primary intellectual commitments is in situating South African history within the history of the African continent. I maintain an ongoing interest in comparative and transnational research in gender, sexuality, empire, and law across the continent.

Courses currently taught include:

Graduate: South African History and Historiography

Undergraduate: History of Africa (from 1880)

“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).