Associations and organizations are groups of individuals who form a body to achieve an aim. Women’s leadership and membership in associations constitute a vital part of Africa’s economic, social, and political history. Women-only associations and women in dual-sex organizations protested against colonial rule; fought for independence; and mobilized for democracy, peace, and equality. Still, women in associations also supported colonial projects, fought in war, and held up postcolonial authoritarian rule. Taken together, economic, social, and political accounts of Africa are inherently incomplete if they fail to interrogate women’s participation in collective action on the continent. Women have created and joined many kinds of associations and organizations in Africa. These include secular and religious associations. Some groups represent the interests of a profession (e.g., academics, journalists, lawyers, midwives, traders) or a political party or ideology (e.g., African National Congress Women’s League in South Africa). Others explicitly try to bring together women and men from multiple status and political groups (e.g., Women’s National Coalition in South Africa). Women have formed groups of friends and family members in their immediate vicinity, at times through small-scale rotating savings and credit associations. Other associations have a national membership base. Associations further vary in their relationship to the state. Some are formally recognized, and others are informal. Whereas some groups receive state financing, others depend solely on the contributions of its members, and many fall in the middle of the spectrum. Women have also forged intra-regional, pan-African, and global networks of individuals and organizations. It is not uncommon for a woman to belong to multiple kinds of associations simultaneously and for her memberships to vary over her lifetime. The associations and organizations that women have spearheaded rise and fall, consolidate and fragment, and succeed and fail in achieving their aims, reflecting local, national, and international contradictions and dynamics. The power of women-led organizations has changed over time. Women-led organizations registered economic revolutions, political upheavals, and religious conversion on the continent before the advent of European colonization, under European rule, and in postcolonial Africa.
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.