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Article

Amina Mama

African feminist thought refers to the dynamic ideas, reflections, theories and other expressions of intellectual practices by politically radical African women concerned with liberating Africa by focusing women’s liberation, and as such cannot be easily defined or captured. However, the conditions out of which Africa’s feminist movements form, and the intellectual labor that they carry out in the pursuit of women’s rights and freedoms can be explored and discussed. African feminist thought is the potentially limitless product of movements that are themselves constantly in the making, succeeding in changing the conditions of their formation by their very existence. African feminist political thought can be traced to the world’s women’s movements that formed in the context of transnational liberal and emancipatory political discourses of the late 19th and 20th centuries of European empire. Out of these liberal emancipatory reformist, international labor, communist, socialist revolutionary, and Pan-African Diasporic and African nationalist movements were all formed. However, following the flag independence of over fifty nation-states, women who joined the anti-colonial freedom movements have had to pursue further struggles in independent nation-states, because Africa’s new states often hesitated or reverted to conservative patriarchal views when it came to extending freedom and equality to African women. It is as citizens of new nations that 20th century African women have formed independent feminist movements that continue to demand freedom, equality and rights, for example, by seeking freedom of movement, political representation, educational and economic equality, and perhaps most commonly of all, freedom from sex and gender-based violence. Contemporary publications and writings by African feminists are the primary sources consulted here, because of the need to correct the spurious mis-representation of African feminism as “un-African,” a position that hinges on the definition of feminism as exclusively Western. This view is advanced by conservative African men and women who seek the restoration of pre-colonial cultures, as well as in some of the early scholarly literature on the subject. African feminism is a radical proposition: it refers to the liberatory political philosophies, theories, writings, research and cultural production, as well as the organizing work of the transnational community of feminists from Africa. These respond to objective conditions of global systemic inequality that have led African women to resume the struggle for freedom and liberation. African feminists in 2019 identify with earlier generations of women freedom fighters but enunciate visions of a future in which the women of Africa will be afforded human rights and freedoms, on a continent liberated from a global neoliberal capitalist system that continues to marginalize the vast majority of the world’s peoples and exploits natural and human resources to a degree that now threatens planetary survival.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

Jennie Burnet

Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.

Article

Meghan Healy-Clancy

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.

Article

Women played a central role in the development of Pan-Africanism. It can even be claimed that it was a woman, the South African Alice Kinloch, who initiated the modern Pan-African movement at the dawn of the 20th century. In the early 21st century it has become fashionable, mainly in some academic circles in the United States, to use the term “Black Internationalism” as an alternative to Pan-Africanism. This phrase was also first coined by a woman, Jeanne Nardal, an influential and important Martinican writer in Paris in the 1920s, who used the term internationalisme noir to refer to the growing links between “Negroes of all origins and nationalities.” There is no doubt that she also used the phrase to refer to the growing Pan-Africanism of the period, and therefore it is difficult to see what distinguishes the two terms. There has never been one universally accepted definition of exactly what constitutes Pan-Africanism. It has taken different forms at different historical moments and geographical locations. What underlies the manifold visions and approaches of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Africanists is a belief in the unity, common history, and common purpose of the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora and the notion that their destinies are interconnected. In addition, many would highlight the importance of the liberation and advancement of the African continent itself, not just for its inhabitants but also as the homeland of the entire African diaspora. Pan-Africanist thought and action is principally connected with, and provoked by, the modern dispersal of Africans resulting from the trafficking of captives across the Atlantic to the Americas, as well as elsewhere. The largest forced migration in history, and the creation of the African diaspora, was accompanied by the emergence of global capitalism, European colonial rule, and anti-African racism. Pan-Africanism evolved as a variety of ideas, activities, organizations, and movements that, sometimes in concert, resisted the exploitation and oppression of all those of African heritage; opposed and refuted the ideologies of anti-African racism; and celebrated African achievement, history, and the very notion of being African. Pan-Africanism looks forward to a genuinely united and independent Africa as the basis for the liberation of all Africans, both those on the continent and in the diaspora. However, it should be made clear that historically there have been two main strands of Pan-Africanism. The earlier form emerging during and after the period of trans-Atlantic enslavement originated from the African diaspora and stressed the unity of all Africans and looked toward their liberation and that of the African continent. The more recent form emerged in the context of the anti-colonial struggle on the African continent in the period after 1945. This form of Pan-Africanism stressed the unity, liberation, and advancement of the states of the African continent, although often recognizing the importance of the diaspora and its inclusion. The continental focus of this form of Pan-Africanism can be seen in the orientation and activities of such organizations as the Organisation of African Unity and the African Union. The more recent continental form of Pan-Africanism is likely to include the peoples and states of North Africa, while the earlier form sometimes does not. Although women such Alice Kinloch and Jeanne Nardal have played an important role in the emergence and development of the modern Pan-African movement and its ideologies, there have been few studies devoted solely to women’s involvement with Pan-Africanism. Some significant organizations such as the Pan-African Women’s Organisation, founded in 1962 and still in existence, have no written history and have therefore been excluded from many accounts. It is evident that women were generally less prominent than men in the Pan-African movement, but also that the literature has often overlooked, underestimated, and sometimes ignored the role of women.

Article

Aili Marie 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.

Article

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.

Article

Claire H. Griffiths

Gabon, a small oil-rich country straddling the equator on the west coast of Africa, is the wealthiest of France’s former colonies. An early period of colonization in the 19th century resulted in disease, famine, and economic failure. The creation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 marked the beginning of the sustained lucrative exploitation of Gabon’s natural resources. Gabon began off-shore oil production while still a colony of France. Uranium was also discovered in the last decade of the French Equatorial African empire. Coupled with rich reserves in tropical woods, Gabon has achieved, since independence in 1960, a higher level of export revenue per capita of population than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa in the postcolonial era. However, significant inequality has characterized access to wealth through paid employment throughout the recorded history of monetized labor. While fortunes have been amassed by a minute proportion of the female population of Gabon associated with the ruling regime, and a professional female middle-class has emerged, inequalities of opportunity and reward continue to mark women’s experience of life in this little-known country of West Central Africa. The key challenge facing scholars researching the history of women in Gabon remains the relative lack of historical resources. While significant strides have been made over the past decade, research on women’s history in Francophone Africa published in English or French remains embryonic. French research on African women began to make a mark in the last decade of colonization, notably with the work of Denise Paulme, but then remained a neglected area for decades. The publication in 1994 of Les Africaines by French historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch was hailed at the time as a pioneering work in French historiography. But even this new research contained no analysis of and only a passing reference to women in Gabon.

Article

Joanna Davidson

Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups with complicated historical entanglements along the Upper Guinea Coast and across European and Afro-Atlantic orbits. Generalizations about women’s lives, given both the longue durée of its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and the diversity of its social systems, are quite easily countered by contradictory—or at least more nuanced—renderings. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some broad commonalities and continuities, especially in market-related roles and activities. Guinean women have been enterprising traders—sometimes gaining economic and political prominence—since precolonial times and throughout the prolonged Portuguese colonial presence in the region. In particular, Luso-African women, known as nharas, revolutionized and dominated trade in coastal settlements from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but their political and economic autonomy was ultimately curtailed by increasingly repressive colonial policies. Guinea-Bissau’s unique struggle for independence—spearheaded by the revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral and achieved through an 11-year military struggle against the Portuguese—opened up opportunities for women’s liberation from both Portuguese colonialism and customary patriarchal strictures. Although Guinean women participated in the Luta da Libertação in unprecedented ways, they struggled to maintain an active role in nation-building after formal independence in 1974. The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde’s (PAIGC) rhetorical commitment to gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in the postcolonial period, as chronic political instability, deleterious economic policies, and largely unfavorable structural adjustment programs have tended to worsen women’s overall conditions. Women have continued to carve out creative roles in an expanding neoliberal marketplace, often becoming intrepid—although always precarious—players in the informal sector. Although women have gained several protective legislative rights since independence—such as the prohibition of forced and child marriage, and easier access to divorce—these have been implemented unevenly. Guinea-Bissau’s human development indicators are among the lowest in the world, especially for women: life expectancy for women is 59 years, childbirth is the leading cause of women’s mortality, and literacy among women is at 44 percent. The failure of the postcolonial state to fulfill Cabral’s egalitarian vision has not only marginalized women’s political and economic status within the country, it may have contributed to the overall weakening of key state institutions, ultimately enticing international narco-traffickers to its shores in the early 21st century and entrenching a drug economy amidst the ruins of the country’s capital city. The gendered roots of Guinea-Bissau’s present woes cannot be ignored.

Article

Mary H. Moran

Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847. As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.

Article

Madina Thiam

Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.

Article

Christine Saidi

In precolonial Africa, relations between women and men were varied, changing, and culturally specific, yet there were some common themes. Most African societies attempted to attain forms of heterarchy, which meant they often created several centers of authority and aspired to establish communities where gender relations between women and men were equitable. Additionally, throughout history most Africans determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control, and in a historically underpopulated continent, this meant that motherhood and giving birth to children was very important. The result is that women, as both biological and social mothers and as grandmothers, were highly respected throughout the history of the continent. The earliest ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa, and so the history of women starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, probably around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early humanity have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that situated grandmothers at the center, a family structure found in many parts of Africa in the early 21st century. Around 5,500 years ago, a small group of Bantu-speaking people migrated from West Africa and over time populated large portions of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Heterarchy and gender equity were features of most Bantu-speaking societies. Their worldviews were manifested in the matrilineal social structure that most Bantu societies preferred until recent history. Even the earliest empires in Africa, Nubia and Egypt, were organized matrilineally. The West African Sahel empires from 700 ce were also matrilineal, and there is a long history of Muslim African female rulers. However, with the creation of empires and more centralized societies, hierarchy among some societies replaced heterarchy. This change motivated a shift in gender relations: Women from elite lineages maintained their status, while other women tended to lose their traditional positions of authority as mothers and elders within their clans. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade severely challenged heterarchical social relations and threatened women’s authority and status in West Africa. Another element of this period is the transference of African gender relations to the Americas. During the 19th century, as Europeans arrived in greater numbers, they imposed new gender ideologies as they began to structure how the rest of the world viewed Africans. From the so-called White Man’s Burden to Social Darwinism, new definitions of the Other placed African women at the bottom of this new social order. While women played key roles in the long term history of Africa, the Western analysis of African gender dynamics began to inform colonial policies, dominate world opinion, and shape academic research.

Article

Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice. During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.