In the open marketplaces found in cities and villages throughout Africa, women traders usually predominate. This gives women considerable weight as economic actors, because these marketplace systems are the primary distributive networks in most parts of Africa. A large proportion of Africa’s consumer goods and foodstuffs move through their intricate chains of intermediaries, which can include market retailers, neighborhood shops, street vendors, wholesalers, and travelers who collect goods from farms, factories, and ports. Although the vast majority of women traders live at or below the poverty line, some have risen to powerful positions that earn them the sobriquet of queen.
Different regions of Africa show distinctive patterns of trading practices and of men and women’s participation in specific trading roles, reflecting specific gendered histories of precolonial trade, colonial interventions, and waves of national policy. These variations arise not from some primordial isolation, but from traders’ varied positioning within longstanding trade relations that have linked Africans since ancient times between regions, across the Sahara Desert and over adjoining oceans. Women’s trading roles are more highly developed in western Africa than in eastern, northern, and southern Africa, where precolonial trading patterns were more radically disrupted by conquest, land appropriation, and apartheid.
Ideologies and arenas of practice such as Islam, Christianity, modernization, socialism, structural adjustment, and globalization likewise shape the constraints and opportunities facing women traders in any given situation. Because these influences operate around the globe, though not uniformly, they to some extent create parallel or convergent trends in widely separated nations. Deepening economic pressures today push even more women and men into trading to support their families and sustain the hope of prosperity. Market women struggle individually and collectively to keep their communities going under difficult circumstances that make formal economic channels function poorly. Their determined efforts give African economies more resilience as they respond to the challenges of war, political instability, and climate change.
Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué
From 1958 to 1961, Kom women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture—normally their domain—and the alleged plan by the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. In keeping with the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public; demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; destroyed and burned property; and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, Kom women disturbed local political power, and protested against British rule in the Southern Cameroons. They were a crucial force in the victory of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.
The meaning and context of gender is contested even in the 21st century. No generalizations about gender are applicable through time or across space. Even where gender roles are defined by particular cultural norms, they are not static, and an individual may pass through several gendered social transformations in a lifetime. Sub-Saharan African rites of passage into adulthood are sometimes marked by gender-specific physical mutilations such as circumcision, dental modification or scarification, together with other forms of symbolic marking that invariably adopt a binary gender system as the norm. The initiations are largely designed to instruct initiates about behavior appropriate for men and women of reproductive age belonging to a specific community. Some aspects of initiation rites may be detected archaeologically through skeletal alterations, rock art motifs, and props such as scarified dolls. Concepts of gender are also connected to the last rite of passage: burial. Through this, people gain access to the ancestral world. In some parts of Africa such as Mali, men and women are buried with the artifacts they owned in life, while in Ethiopia, stelae mark the gender of the deceased. Elsewhere, as in the Stone Age of southern Africa, gender-undifferentiated grave goods are placed with men, women, and children, suggesting a genderless ancestral world. Gender roles can be identified in some archaeological sites in parts of Africa, and these roles sometimes appear to have altered through time. Gender roles changed with environmental shifts, and certain tasks such as big-game hunting disappeared as a result. In other cases, gender roles were revised because of social pressures imposed on specific communities.
Kathryn Linn Geurts
For centuries, European and Global North observers of non-Western societies have been fascinated by African bodily expressivity and power. Artistic and ritual displays of bodily ways of knowing have captivated explorers, traders, missionaries, anthropologists, historians, and tourists, and this engagement has spawned a robust industry of representational accounts of African affect and sensibilities. Both European colonialism and American imperialism created and produced voluminous documentation of “the black body” through study of folklore, proverbs, myth, sculpture, masks, adornment objects such as beads, tunics, hair combs, and so forth. In addition, film and still photography have been used to capture vivid portrayals of bodily powers revealed in dance and possession trance. A history of such documentation and collection reveals shifts over more than a century in the way body, affect, and sensing have been understood and studied. Anthropology and psychology took the lead in attending to affect and the senses, but by the late 20th century additional fields such as music, art history, archaeology, and history joined in the sensory turn.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, massive numbers of African women, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, were deeply involved in resistance to European colonialism/imperialism and male domination at both the national and local levels of their nations. The 1890 rebellion led by Charwe in present-day Zimbabwe, the 1929 women’s rebellion in eastern Nigeria, the 1940s women’s marches in Senegal as part of the strike of African male railway workers so beautifully chronicled in Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood (1960), the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the revolution against the French in Algeria, and women’s roles as troop support and combatants against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique and against apartheid in South Africa are among the many examples of women centered in African resistance to colonialism and African nation-building. In all of these struggles women did not isolate their struggles as women from their struggles as oppressed people.
Born Frances Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho Thomas, but best known as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (and later Funmilayo Anikulapo -Kuti), is the best-known Nigerian woman anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist, and feminist. She struggled for the independence of Nigeria and the empowerment of Nigerian women to vote, be educated, and be included in the governance structures of their nation. She also identified herself as a human-rights activist who struggled on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of all nations. She was among a small number of West African women (such as Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Constance Cummings-John, and Mabel Dove Danquah) who traveled widely internationally and who were active in international women’s organizations such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). At one point, when Amy Ashwood Garvey visited Nigeria, FRK wrote to ask about affiliating with Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Women’s Corps.
In addition to her travel to many countries on the African continent, FRK traveled to Eastern and Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Though invited to participate in a conference in San Francisco in the 1950s, she never visited the United States because she was unable to secure a visa due to her travel during the Cold War to eastern bloc nations and China, for which she was accused of being a communist. She was never a member of the communist party, but she did embrace the socialist ideal that all people were entitled to their freedom, education, medical care, and housing, and her activism was firmly rooted in grassroots organizing.
She is best known for having led the struggle that deposed the Alake (king) of Abeokuta, for leading women in their struggles against taxation by the British colonial government without the vote or representation in government, and for her work with the nationalist party the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and with the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). She founded two women’s organizations within Nigeria, the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU-which was the basis for the formation of the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies), and a short-lived political party, the Commoners’ People’s Party (CPP). Internationally she worked with the WIDF (of which she was elected a vice president), the WILPF (that listed FRK as president of its Nigeria section), and the West African Students’ Union (WASU) of London. She authored articles on women in Nigeria in the WIDF journal, and one (“We Had Equality ’til Britain Came”) in the Daily Worker published in London.
During her lifetime as an activist, she received many honors: the Order of the Niger (1965—from the Nigerian government for her work on behalf of the nation); honorary doctorate from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1968); an appearance in the International Women’s Who’s Who (1969); and Lenin Peace Prize (1970).
On her death in 1978, FRK was hailed in headlines in major Nigerian newspapers as the “Voice of Women” and “The Defender of Women’s Rights.” She is also considered a pioneer in the articulation and practice of African feminism and an important figure in the rise of Nigerian radical political philosophy. Analyses of 20th-century African and transnational feminism will continue to be informed and complicated by her story.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Swazi women, who are grossly underrepresented in social, political, and economic spheres in contemporary Swaziland, nevertheless have helped to perpetuate the Dlamini dynasty that has ruled the kingdom since its inception in the mid-16th century. The kingdom has been ruled by the Ngwenyama and the Ndlovukazi, in complementary gender roles for the Swazi king and Queen Mother, respectively. Queen Mother Gwamile (1859–1925), a forward-thinking woman and the most prominent Queen Mother and regent, had a tremendous impact on shaping the Swazi polity by promoting the education of both genders and buying back land alienated by concessionaires and European settlers. Yet most women’s marginalization in the public sphere increased markedly during Swaziland’s colonization and has been reinforced in the post-independence period. Swaziland became a peripheral capitalist formation even prior to formal colonization vis-à-vis South Africa. Labor and capital were exchanged unequally, with Swazi men having more employment opportunities in Swaziland and South Africa, resulting in women having more restricted migration and employment opportunities. Often, women were confined to poor, rural homesteads. Furthermore, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, in which Swaziland eventually had the highest percentage of cases, has resulted in a higher death rate for women. As independence approached, King Sobhuza II (1899–1982) resisted Westminster-style political institutions in favor of enhanced indigenous institutions. In the post-independence period, he prohibited citizens’ formation of political parties and exercising the franchise at the national level. Swazi women’s parliamentary representation is on the lowest tier in Africa and worldwide. Improvement in the status of Swazi women will require their own activism and the involvement of the international human rights community at various levels.
Apartheid, the system of racial and ethnic separation introduced in South Africa in 1948, was a gendered project. The immediate goal of the white Afrikaner men who led the apartheid state was to control black men: to turn black men from perceived political and criminal threats into compliant workers. Under apartheid, African men would travel to work for whites in towns and on mines, but their homes would be in rural ethnic “reserves,” known as “homelands” or “Bantustans.” This vision depended on the labors of African women: while their men migrated to work, women were to maintain their families in the increasingly overcrowded and desolate countryside, reproducing the workforce cheaply while instilling a sense of ethnic difference in their children. “Coloured” (mixed-race) and Indian women were similarly charged with social reproduction on a shoestring, in segregated rural and urban areas. White women uniquely had the franchise and freedom of movement, but they were also constrained by sexually repressive laws.
Apartheid’s gendered vision of production and social reproduction faced continual resistance, and it ultimately failed. First, it failed because African women increasingly moved from rural areas to urban centers, despite laws limiting their mobility. Second, it failed because some women organized across ethnic and racial lines. They often organized as mothers, demanding a better world for a new generation. Both their nationally and internationally resonant campaigns—against pass laws, educational and health care inequities, police brutality, and military conscription—and the fact of their collective organization gradually undermined apartheid. Officials generally underestimated the power of women, and their contributions have continued to be under-appreciated since apartheid ended in 1994, because women’s political style emphasized personal and familial concerns. But because apartheid was premised on transforming how families lived, actions of women in fact undermined the system from its core.
Aili Mari Tripp
While women were never fully equal to men in the political sphere, women in precolonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, launched military conquests, and founded states. Some governed as sole rulers often as queens, while others governed together with a king, as a mother or sister of the king. A third arrangement involved a tripartite sharing of power among the king, mother, and sister, and a fourth arrangement involved societies in which an age set or group of elders governed the society and in which women exerted either direct or indirect power.
Women lost out in such arrangements, first, with the spread of Islam and Christianity and later with colonization. Women participated actively in nationalist movements, but their motivations sometimes differed from those of men, and were related, for example, to taxation and the desire to improve female education. After independence, women were further sidelined from political life with a few exceptions. It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders. This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role for women. The decline of conflict after 2000 created greater stability that enhanced these trends. Pressures from the United Nations after 1995 and from foreign donors strengthened domestic actors pressing for women’s-rights reforms in the area of political representation.
Gretchen Bauer, Akosua Darkwah, and Donna Patterson
Building upon their participation in anti-colonial struggles across Africa in the mid-20th century, African women have taken on many political roles in the post-independence period. While military rule and single-party rule precluded access to elected office in many countries in the early years after independence, female combatants fought alongside their male counterparts in ongoing struggles for national liberation in other parts of Africa, especially southern Africa, into the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, national gender machineries established in the 1970s provided an institutional infrastructure for pursuing women’s rights even if they were often not fully implemented. State feminism, articulated through First Ladyism and state-led national women’s associations, sought to co-opt women’s struggles for political gain. In some instances, it did ameliorate women’s economic hardships and promote political participation. Women’s mobilization in the 1980s, in part a response to the severe impact of structural adjustment programs on devastated African economies, led to local-level organizing and eventually to a focus on women’s access to political office. Since the political transitions that swept the continent beginning in the early 1990s, women have accessed political office in all three branches of government in unprecedented numbers just as new forms of mobilization have emerged around issues like the rights of sexual minorities.
Mariana P. Candido
European colonial powers established the contemporary boundaries of Angola during the Conference of Berlin (1884–1885). However, colonialism dates to the 15th century, when Portuguese merchants first contacted the Kingdom of Kongo along the Congo River and established early settlements in Luanda (1575) and Benguela (1617). Parts of the territories that became known as Angola in the early 20th century have a long history of interaction with the outside world, and as a result European primary sources provide much of the information available to historians. The reports, official correspondence, and diaries were produced by European men and are therefore problematic. However, by reading against the grain scholars can begin to understand how women lived in Angola before the 20th century.
Some, such as Queen Njinga, had access to political power, and others, such as Dona Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, enjoyed great wealth. Kimpa Vita was a prophet who led a movement of political and religious renewal and was killed as a result. Most women never appeared in historical documents but were fundamental to the economic and social existence of their communities as farmers, traders, artisans, mediums, and enslaved individuals. The end of the slave trade in the 1850s led to the expansion of the so-called legitimate trade and plantation economies, which privileged male labor while relying on women’s domestic contributions. The arrival of a larger number of missionaries, colonial troops, and Portuguese settlers by the end of the 19th century resulted in new policies that stimulated migration and family separation. It also introduced new ideas about morality, sexuality, and motherhood. Women resisted and joined anticolonial movements. After independence, decades of civil war increased forced displacement, gender imbalance, and sexual violence. The greater stability at the end of the armed conflict may favor the expansion of women’s organizations and internal pressures to address gender inequalities.
This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.
Catherine Cymone Fourshey
A predominantly rural territory with few urban centers historically, the Gambia holds little in the way of well-known luxury resources commonly discussed in studies of western Africa. People of the region, in particular women, have exploited both riverine and oceanic food and material resources. The limited scholarship available on Gambian women reveals they have been essential to those endeavors contributing to economy, politics, society, and family institutions. Often by pursuing seemingly less-lucrative endeavors, women have been prominent actors innovating production and acquisition techniques as well as product uses in this mixed agricultural and aquatic economy, from precolonial to contemporary times. Despite few raw materials or luxury resources, and in certain contexts great limits on their authority, women of the Gambia River region were central to economic life historically, developing household food production and trading their surplus agricultural, aquatic, and manufactured goods. In different eras and contexts, Gambian women have been agricultural innovators and technologists; catchers, processors, and traders of aquatic resources; merchants of manufactured and crafted items; and educators. In essence, they created intellectual, economic, and artisanal opportunities for themselves and others in their communities. These activities allowed women to influence and propel economic and political agendas over time. In particular, women have been credited with critical developments in rice production technologies going back at least to the 16th century, though women’s expertise in this realm likely has much deeper historical roots. This knowledge and set of skills related to rice agriculture made Mandinka women of the Gambia River region critical to West Africa’s Upper Guinea coast and also to life in the Americas as enslaved producers. Mandinka women and men became a large demographic represented in southeastern US plantations and communities because of their well-developed techniques in rice cultivation. Gambian women significantly influenced the eastern and western Atlantic worlds.
The modern-day nation of The Gambia, which achieved independence in 1965, is a relatively small territory hugging the banks of Gambia River for a narrow fifteen miles from the north and south banks. Starting 300 miles inland to the east (upriver), the river flows west into the Atlantic Ocean (downriver). Looking back in time at this region bordering the river, it is important to consider Gambian women’s lives over time in the context of both centralized and non-centralized political units. In the orbit of centralized states such as Ghana (4th–13th centuries), Takrur (9th–14th centuries), Mali (13th–15th centuries), and Jolof (14th–16th centuries), women (and men) negotiated shifting expectations over time. Certainly Gambian women have been born into, circulated among, or married within several local cultural and linguistic traditions that include Aku, Bambara, Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Manjago, Serahulle, Serer, and Wollof. However, scholars have written more about women and gender for these groups in neighboring countries. Non-centralized political and social affiliations typically provided women a great deal of authority and autonomy. However, most positions and statuses women were privy to historically were reshaped and often greatly diminished from the 19th century onward due to processes of the slave trade, Islamization, and European colonialization. With the rise of Atlantic-world trade small numbers of coastal Gambian River women expanded their spheres of influence and wealth by forming both marital and economic alliances with Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British men. By the 20th century a number of women pursued various forms and levels of education in efforts to increase their opportunities in the social, political, and economic arenas. In essence, in each historical era women of the Gambia River have sought out knowledge, expertise, and skills in order to achieve their ambitions regardless of the political, religious, or social order dominant at the time.
The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender.
Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance.
The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.