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.
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.
Ndubueze L. Mbah
As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?
The intersecting histories of African women artists are often found in three historical categories: traditional/classical, modern, and contemporary. As historical categories they mark the transitions in conceptualizations of gender, race, and class. Treated as a linear progression of history, these categories may, on the one hand, be useful in understanding the radical impact of imperialism and colonialism on African societies and specifically African women and their creative practices. On the other hand, however, they obscure the intricacies of intertwined creative practice, separating urban and cosmopolitan art forms from rural, localized ones, drawing more attention to art that circulates in market-driven international exhibitions, making it harder to comprehend and account for nuanced historical narratives of African women artists.
Furthermore, the hangover of hypermasculine colonial bureaucratic structures not only displaced African histories but more specifically silenced gendered perspectives on art and creative practice in general. The modern African nation, though liberated, confined women to colonially constructed gendered spaces. However, through nationalist ideologies the figure of the woman—or at least as male artists generally portrayed her—came to symbolize rebirth and the rising nation. This artistic rendition of women did not materialize into the formal recognition of the work of women artists, making it possible to declare that “African women artists remain unknown to the Western world,” as art historian Freida Tesfagiorgis states. This is affirmed by the sparse literature on African women artists and analyses of their work. There are more resources about internationally recognized contemporary women artists than there are about modern women artists or women whose work has been foundational in the so-defined traditional category. These categories, then, are indicative not only of the gaps in art history but also of the incongruent methodological approaches to how that gendered history is constructed. In this article, these categories are used loosely to reflect on gender and creative practice in Africa.
The first permanent African residents of the new towns established by whites in southern and eastern Africa at the end of the 19th century were female. These towns were new social spaces, existing where no towns had existed before. The residents had to invent the rules for living: new forms of urban identity emerged over time. For white settlers, the towns were intended to mirror familiar European urban spaces. For Africans, little was recognizable, but there were many opportunities to adapt familiar social relationships to the new contexts.
African women’s lives in the early years of these white settler towns seem paradoxical. They were permanent residents, but officially they had no rights of residence at all. They had very limited economic opportunities, being pushed into prostitution and beer brewing, yet they ended up being powerful property owners with independent wealth. They can appear as both victims and liberated agents. Their lives were complicated. But part of the paradox arises from trying to interpret their lives through European lenses, in which terms such as “prostitute wife” seem oxymoronic. Their lives perhaps made more sense to these women pioneers than they have to the academics who have attempted to reconstruct them.
While African women in film have distinct histories and trajectories, at the same time they have common goals and objectives. Hence, “African women in film” is a concept, an idea, with a shared story and path. While there has always been the hope of creating national cinemas, even the very notion of African cinema(s) in the plural has been pan-African since its early history. And women have taken part in the formation of an African cinema infrastructure from the beginning. The emergence of an “African women in cinema movement” developed from this larger picture. The boundaries of women’s work extend to the global African diaspora. Language, geography, and colonial legacies add to the complexity of African cinema history. Women have drawn from the richness that this multiplicity offers, contributing on local, national, continental, and global levels as practitioners, activists, cultural producers, and stakeholders.
Hasna Lebbady and Hiam El Hilali
Referred to as the best-known Amazigh malika (queen), Zaynab al-Nafzaouiya was centrally involved with the building of the Almoravid dynasty of Morocco and its empire in the 11th century. The Almoravids were Sanhaja tribesmen who, led by Abdellah b. Yasin, started off as religious reformers and developed into empire builders when they embarked on a campaign to regain control over trans-Sahara trade, which the Sanhaja had lost the previous century. Two Almoravid leaders, Abu Bakr b. Umar and Yusuf b. Tashfin, married Zaynab, who had already been married twice before, and brought her to the world’s notice. The sources, in which she receives brief but significant notice, mention her only as her life touches upon those of the Almoravids; however, they depict her as playing a pivotal role in both the cultural and the political spheres of Aghmat (near Marrakesh), in which she was based.
Although some called her a magician, Zaynab was actually just intelligent, knowledgeable, and capable of benefitting from the intellectual and cultural affluence that characterized her era. She was, moreover, gifted with political acumen, making her a good advisor for Abu Bakr b. Umar and a good co-ruler for Yusuf b. Tashfin. Her understanding proved to be particularly helpful concerning the founding of the Almoravid empire, stretching from modern-day Senegal to al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), which the two emirs were instrumental in building. They were both virtuous men who possessed considerable military skills; however, they were basically nomads from the desert. It was Zaynab who was familiar with the more settled and refined way of life in Aghmat, enabling her to advise them diplomatically concerning the politics of the area to which she was accustomed. She was even able to advise Yusuf b. Tashfin on how to handle Abu Bakr b. Umar, enabling him, with her at his side, to take over the leadership of the dynasty and launch the extension of its empire all the way to al-Andalus.
Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.
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.
Sara Baartman (also known as Saartje, Saartjie, or Sarah), a South African woman, was widely known on stage in England and France in the early 19th century, and subsequently internationally since then, as the “Hottentot Venus,” the Western racist fiction of the primitive, sexualized, black woman. Until the 21st century, scholars paradoxically paid more attention to the fiction than the actual person. Further research showed that Baartman was born on the colonial frontier in the 1770s and lived in Cape Town in conditions similar to urban slavery from the 1790s through 1810, when she was taken to London. There and later in the English countryside and in Ireland, she was displayed on stage. In 1814, she was sold to an animal trainer in Paris who forced her to display herself to restaurant patrons and who possibly also forced her into prostitution. George Cuvier, the founder of Comparative Anatomy, interviewed her and, after her death in December 1815, performed an autopsy, not to discover the cause of death but to see if her body, literally, was the connection between humankind and animals. The Museum of Man in Paris displayed a nude plaster cast of Baartman’s body until the 1970s. Following the coming of democracy to South Africa, activists petitioned to bring Baartman’s remains home, and they were buried on South African National Women’s Day, August 1, 2002, as part of a nationally televised ceremony. Her burial site is in Hankey, Eastern Cape.
The Tunisian Bchira Ben M’rad (1913–1993), a feminist for some, a reformist for others, was a significant figure in Tunisia in the first half of the 20th century in the struggles for women’s education, for a more balanced relationship within the married couple, and against colonialism. Her participation in these struggles was shaped both by her own personal experience as well as by the then social, cultural and political context of Tunisia and its region.
Bchira Ben M’rad was the first Tunisian woman to request official recognition for a women’s organization, the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia (l’Union des femmes musulmanes de Tunisie, or UFMT), which she founded in 1936 and headed until 1956, during the period when Tunisia was a French colony. The refusal by the authorities to award official recognition and the excuses they offered in defense of their refusal provide an insight into the complex relations between the French colonial power and the Tunisian authorities, headed by the Bey, as the debate over women’s rights, including the right to form women’s organizations, became an increasingly profound societal issue. It was only in the early 1950s, in the years just before Tunisian independence was achieved in 1956, that the UFMT obtained official recognition.
Chambi Chachage and Jacqueline Mgumia
African women were at the forefront of nationalistic struggles for independence in Africa that were at their height in the 1950s. In mainland Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, Bibi Titi Mohamed emerged as a leading voice in building the liberation movement through a political party known as the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). As a leader of the women’s wing of TANU, she traveled throughout the country to mobilize both women and men to join the party that led to the independence of Tanganyika in the early 1960s. During the transition to full independence, she became a member of the Legislative Council, agitating for inclusive improvement in the welfare of all citizens. Her contribution in the parliamentary debates focused on rural development and equal access to employment, education, and provision of healthcare, with special attention to women in general and the girl child, in particular. After independence, she became the Junior Minister for Community Development and a leading advocate of people-centered development and gender equality.
During the second half of the 1960s, Bibi Titi’s promising political career took a downward turn, bringing it to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. Her downfall started in 1965 when she lost her parliamentary seat in the general elections. Since one had to be an MP in order to be a Minister, she also lost her ministerial position in the government. Although she continued to serve as a notable member of the ruling party’s executive organs and vocal leader of its women’s wing, her career hit another snag when TANU issued the Arusha Declaration on Socialism and Self-Reliance in 1967. She would appear to have disagreed with provisions of the Arusha Declaration’s Leadership Code that barred leaders from owning rentable properties as well as being of the opinion that the process used in adopting the Declaration had been inadequately consultative. On this account, she resigned from all party positions. One would have assumed that after the resignation she would have had a quiet retirement from her momentous political career, but this was not to be. Three years later, she was charged for treason and then jailed for life prior to getting a presidential pardon in 1972.
Bibi Titi’s life after imprisonment went on unrecorded and unnoticed. She largely lived out of the public limelight that characterized the first decade of her political career. One of the most recognized names in the country partly faded from the public for almost an entire generation. Reference to her name and contribution to national his/herstory disappeared from party and government official records, almost extinguishing her significant role in the early years of Tanzanian history. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, her name started to re-emerge, not least because of the rise of the feminist movement, life histories, and gender and women studies. Hers is the story that ought to be told and retold—of the muting and unmuting of a leading voice of freedom. It is a story that will continue to manifest itself in various debates on the nature and character of the leadership of liberation movements, with specific reference to women leaders in Africa.
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.
Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) is traditionally designated as the founding mother of Mozambican national poetry. She was the only woman poet in Mozambique to play a major role in shaping the cultural imaginary of the Portuguese African nationalisms that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Her early life as a woman of mixed African, European, and Goan racial heritage, and the education this racial status afforded her, drew her into writing and journalism in opposition to the colonial regime of the Portuguese New State. Her first and only poetry collection, Sangue Negro (Black blood), was completed and circulated clandestinely in 1951. She was subsequently exiled to Lisbon, and from there to Paris, returning to Portugal in 1973, shortly before the April 1974 Revolution. The contents of Sangue Negro were circulated, in the original and in translation, largely through specific selected poems in African nationalist anthologies. Divided into five sections, the poems of Sangue Negro mix oral and literary tropes and influences. They deal with issues of racial hybridity and colonial assimilation, African American and Pan-Africanist influences in Mozambique, Portuguese Neorealism and Marxist resistance, autobiographical memories and testimonies, and the specificity of women’s political voice. The literary establishment’s reception of de Sousa in 1960s Mozambique was generally dismissive. Her work was also afforded relatively minor status in foundational anglophone accounts of the Lusophone African canon, such as those by Russel Hamilton and Patrick Chabal. The Marxist sociologist critic, Alfredo Margarido was an important exception in this regard and an early champion of her work. In the 1990s, de Sousa was progressively validated and incorporated into the canonization of black, Pan-Africanist, and Negritudinist writers by critics such as Pires Laranjeira in Portugal. Since the 1990s she has received more in-depth, gender-informed attention in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom, consolidating her international status as a pioneering woman’s voice in Africa’s literary history of national liberation struggle. Her poetry collection Sangue Negro was reprinted by the Mozambican Writers’ Association (AEMO) in a new edition in 2001, for the first time since the 1951 original.
Margaret Ekpo was a woman leader, a pioneer parliamentarian and a human rights activist who contributed immensely to the political development of Nigeria during the colonial and pre-Civil War eras. She was actively involved in the struggle for Nigerian independence, and agitations for women’s inclusion in policies and programs of government. A leading member of National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), which became the National Council for Nigerian Citizens in 1960, Margaret rose to become a member of National Executive Council (NEC) of the party as well as the Vice President of the NCNC Women Association. In 1954, she was appointed a Chief with a seat in the Eastern House of Chiefs, breaking gender barrier that had hitherto made the space a male preserve. Margaret was a patriotic Nigerian. As part of her contributions to the constitutional development of Nigeria, Ekpo attended many constitutional conferences in Lagos and London as an adviser to the NCNC. She deployed different strategies to build political consciousness among women in Eastern Region of Nigeria. Her concern on universal suffrage led her to speak unequivocally against women exclusion in political process in the Northern Region of Nigeria. Margaret was an industrialist. She founded a sewing institute named “Windsor Domestic Science Institute” where she trained women in bookkeeping, dressmaking, and home economics among other activities. She believed that women must not be idle but work to earn income to assist their husbands. Margaret founded Aba Market Women Association, which she also used as a platform to educate women on their rights. She was rights activist who utilized her position as a parliamentarian to agitate for the political, economic, educational, and cultural emancipation of her people. For instance, she fought for the welfare of workers and their fundamental human rights. She demanded gender equity in the appointment of people to the Census Board, employment in the police force, and called for more girls to be offered scholarships. Margaret mobilized women against the British colonial administrators following the killing of coal miners at Iva Valley, Enugu, known as “Enugu Colliery Massacre” in 1949, and the murder of Onyia, a wardress in Enugu prison killed in 1954 for her refusal of sexual advances of a warder. She wanted government to coordinate the processes through which Nigerian students abroad access scholarships. Margaret believed in the indivisibility of Nigeria and suffered for her conviction during the Nigeria–Biafra Civil War (1966–1970). For her services to humanity, Ekpo received several awards and honors. An airport, Margaret Ekpo Airport Calabar, was named after her in her life time. She was awarded National Officer of the Order of Niger (NOON) and Commander of the Order of Federal Republic (OFR). Ekpo was a member of the Board of Trustees of Women’s Research and Documentation Centre (WORDOC), Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. Chief Margaret Ekpo died on September, 21, 2006 at the age of ninety-two.
Azza El Kholy
Shajarat Al-Durr’s life and death constitute a story that deserves to be told. Turkic in origin, she was sold into slavery but grew up to become a great Sultana. She was purchased by Al- Saleh Ayyub, and soon became his favorite concubine, and later his wife after bearing his son Khalil who died in infancy. She was intelligent and beautiful, and was the Sultan’s companion and advisor in many state affairs. Her astuteness appears in her role in boosting the morale of the army by concealing her husband’s death during the Crusade in 1249. Upon Al- Saleh’s death, his son Turanshah became Sultan, and persecuted her and his father’s Bahari Mamluks who, abetted by her, murdered him. They then instated her as Sultana of Egypt because of her liaison with the Ayyubid dynasty as wife of the Sultan, and mother to his deceased son.
For eighty days she ruled as Sultana. Coins were minted in her name, and she was praised in prayers around the country until the Abbasid Caliph, Al- Musta’sim, sent a derogatory message offering to send a “man” to rule Egypt. Shajarat Al-Durr, a wise woman, abdicated the throne in favor of Aybak, one of her husband’s Mamluks and the man she took as husband to avoid political turmoil, thus finally marking the end of the Ayyubid dynasty and the beginning of the Mamluk era. They ruled together until he betrayed her trust when she learned that he was thinking of taking another wife, and seeking to rule on his own. A proud woman, Shajarat Al-Durr ordered him dead. In retaliation, Aybak’s Mamluks and his first wife killed her, and thus ended the life and reign of one of the most prominent women in Islamic history.
Buchi Emecheta (1944–2017) was a Nigerian writer, born in Lagos to a seamstress mother and a railway worker father. Emecheta’s early ambition was to get an education, like her brother Adolphus. Orphaned early in life, a scholarship to a coveted high school gave her the opportunity she wanted. Married at sixteen to Sylvester Onwordi, she joined him in London in 1962. Their marriage soon ended because of Onwordi’s physical and mental abuse. By the age of twenty two, she was a single mother with five children. Her first novel, In the Ditch, published in 1972, chronicled the struggles of Adah, who represented Emecheta’s own alter ego, in raising children in the slums of London. Overall, Emecheta published over twenty books, which frequently centered on a black woman’s experience. Many of her novels revisit the same themes and draw inspiration from her life. There is perhaps no other African writer in whose works their own biography is centered as much as it is in hers. Her work illuminates her life while her life informs her work. Her life and fiction feed one another to the extent that her novels are often referred to as “fictionalized” accounts of her life. Although Emecheta was a symbol of the modern African woman, she rejected being called a feminist. If she were to be called a feminist, it had to be “feminist with a small letter ‘f’.” A term she would have accepted for herself as well as for her strong female characters would have been Obioma Nnaemeka’s “nego-feminism,” a feminism of Africa, of negotiation, and a no ego feminism.
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.
There is no singular or universal experience of girlhood in Africa. Conceptions of childhood, youth, generation, gender, and sexuality have differed across the continent and around the world over time. Since the 19th century, varying understandings of African girlhood have been deeply connected to the growth of racist hierarchies of human societies, the European colonization of Africa, African nationalisms, transnational feminist movements, and crises in capitalism. Case studies of two areas concerning African girlhood—female circumcision and the emergence of the girls’ rights movement—show how politicized girlhood in Africa has been. These two topics provide a distinct vantage point from which to understand far-reaching political processes and how these processes have uniquely played out in and through debates over girls’ bodies.