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date: 25 November 2020

Women in Precolonial Africafree

  • Christine SaidiChristine SaidiDepartment of History, Kutztown University


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.

African Concepts of Gender

Over the Longue Durée, early African societies tended to be heterarchical, having several centers of authority. This was especially true for gendered institutions, as a majority of African societies attempted to create some form of gender equilibrium. Men and women may have had different roles and tasks, but what men and women did frequently had a similar status within their communities. What really defined African gender concepts was that women were not, as a result of their biological sex, assumed to be inferior and conversely men, based on their biological sex, were not innately superior. The result was that African women had greater respect, standing, and authority than previously assumed, and they were given a particular status, especially as grandmothers, mothers, sisters, potters, farmers, healers, and religious leaders. Seniority, life stage, family, and ability—and not gender—determined status and authority in Africa prior to 1900.

Some of the explanations for African women’s high status are based on ecological/demographic and economic/political factors at work on the African continent. Throughout African history most people determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control and in this historically under-populated continent. This meant that motherhood and the creation of children was central to all the communities. Status and authority were also determined by how many people one could control, influence, or impress. This, coupled with few institutions that supported concepts of private ownership of land or resources, meant that it was the goal of each community to produce as many members as possible, requiring them to create social institutions that supported maternity, child welfare, and social parenting.

The history of the Western world has been quite different from Africa’s; thus, it is not surprising that Africans have different and varied ways of conceptualizing their worlds (African Philosophies of History and Historiography). During the late precolonial and colonial periods, there were conflicts between Western socially determined gender categories and African ones. Yet the Western belief system brought with it superior economic, political, and military power. As a result, Western worldviews often were superficially imposed on African societies. The major necessity of scholars studying African social history is to dig deeper into earlier eras to recapture long term concepts, beliefs, and institutions. Historians of early Africa have developed and used a combination of methodological tools such as historical linguistics, oral tradition, comparative ethnographies, art history, archeology, and recently genetic studies to allow them to do just that (Africa in the World: History and Historiography).

Terms such as woman and man are used frequently in the studies of African history to designate a person who is anatomically female or male. Yet in the approximately 500 Bantu languages spoken in two-thirds of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, terms that indicate anatomically female or male aren’t as generally used as they are in both English and French.1 For example, to categorize a female person in most Bantu languages, one must know whether she completed her education/initiation ceremonies; had her first child; achieved menopause; became an elder; became a grandmother or an ancestor. These life stages determined her role, her status, or her authority within the family and society—in ways her anatomy did not. For purposes of clarity, the terms men and women will be used in this history, but the reader is cautioned that these terms may have more nuanced meanings among most Africans.

To understand African gendered history within a more African-centered context, it is necessary to examine some of the differences. There are four major ways in which African societies conceptualized gender differently during the long-term history of Africa prior to colonization—these are by necessity generalizations, and there are many exceptions. The first was that in the Africa social categories, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister, and daughter were more important than the role of wife. The second is that, since the Industrial Revolution, Western societies have assumed that the nuclear family was universal and natural, whereas most Africans viewed their families as extended and included those alive today, those who are ancestors, and those not yet born.2 The third is that identity and inheritance in most African communities were determined either through their mother or father’s lineage; however, in the West these determinations are usually through both parents, with an emphasis on the fathers’ family since most children are given their father’s last name. Historically, African women have remained powerful members of their own birth families. The final difference is that Western gender relations are often viewed as binary, and while those ideas are being challenged, a basic tenet of binary gender concepts is viewing men and women in an eternal contest for resources. Conversely, the majority of African societies prior to colonialism viewed gender equilibrium as an ideal to achieve, supported a more heterarchical distribution of resources and status (African Masculinities), and left room for such social institutions as female husbands and male sons.

Before Eve Was Eve—Earliest African Gender Dynamics

Much of the latest research on the origins of humans indicates that women as mothers and grandmothers were crucial to human survival throughout history. Since modern humans’ earliest ancestors come from Africa, gender history starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early human societies have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that had grandmothers at their center. These anthropologists proposed the Grandmother Hypothesis, which argues that a social unit consisting of a healthy grandmother, past child-bearing, her daughters, and their children was the most successful family unit for early humans.3 The grandmother, since she was no longer able to be pregnant, could gather food for her daughters when they were either pregnant or nursing and could also provide food for children too young to gather. This social unit would guarantee that more children would survive to adulthood and, therefore, contributed the most to modern humans’ DNA. Since all human beings were gatherers and hunters prior to approximately twelve thousand years ago, this theory is based on studies of modern gathering and hunting societies, especially the Hadza people (Interactions among Precolonial Foragers, Herders, and Farmers in Southern Africa—Hadza). Researchers are particularly interested in the Hadza since they have consciously remained gatherers and hunters, even as they encountered agriculturalists, colonialist, missionaries, and development programs. Thus, researchers believe that Hadza communities may have retained more of the social institutions of early modern humans, than any other current gatherers and hunters.4

Another important observation that supports the Grandmother Hypothesis is that gathering and hunting societies did not engage in much warfare, and this would probably be even more true 200,000 years ago when the world was much more sparsely populated. In large parts of pre-colonial matrilineal Africa, there were social organizations consisting of grandmothers related matrilineally, their daughters and their grandchildren, that anthropologists called the sororal group and which may well have been based on this successful social configuration of early human societies.

African Women and Technology

About twelve thousand years ago, when the earth was much damper during the Holocene Climatic Optimum, the conscious production of food was innovated in four parts of the world, including Africa. In what is today the Sahara Desert, Africans were the first to domesticate cattle, and a few centuries later they invented seed cultivation.5 Around the same period, West Africans developed root and tree agriculture. In more recent times, agriculture and animal husbandry were very gendered professions, and historians speculate that this was true in the remote past. Women controlled the technology of agriculture and men the technology of animal husbandry (Economic History and Historiography).6 Technology in this historical period was the practical application of knowledge and was just as significant as the industrial and computer revolutions are to the modern era. The ability to control one’s food sources dramatically changed how people lived. Since females were gatherers, it is proposed that they may have invented agriculture. Conversely, males were hunters and had to know the life cycle of all the animals they hunted and thus were the first to domesticate them.

Around the same time, 9,000 bce, women probably invented the technology of pottery and ceramics in the then moist Sahara Desert regions. The evidence for this is that in the late 20th century, African women represented 90% of the potters—a much higher percentage than in any other part of the world.7 As they migrated into new environments, women may have had to make small adaptations to their methods in various regions in response to differing qualities of the clays and kinds of tempers available or to change decorating styles in response to cultural transformations; however, for the most part, they retained pottery production techniques from much earlier times. The importance of potting went well beyond the economic or practical use-value (Pottery chaînes opératoires as Historical Documents). In more recent times, pots were used in most religious ceremonies, such as consecrating a new village, funeral rites, and puberty initiations. In Central Africa, God’s creation of humans was equated with a woman making a pot.8 The invention of ceramic pots allowed newly agricultural peoples to cook in pots over an open fire and to innovate different forms of cuisine, as well as store food items (Development of Plant Food Production in West African Savannas: Archaeobotanical Perspective).9

Another gendered technology in Africa is that of iron production. Iron smelting was independently invented in two parts of Africa between 1000 to 500 bce, many thousands of years after the invention of pottery. Men who smelted iron adopted the same ritual restrictions as potters.10 For example, men who smelted the iron also had to refrain from sexual intercourse prior to the smelt, and men exclusively ran the processes of both producing and processing (blacksmithing) the iron. Children and women were rarely allowed, and menstruating women were to remain far from the smelting process. While it was definitely a male technology, in more recent times women actually dug the raw ore out of the ground.11 Archeologists have discovered primarily female skeletons in ancient mines, which probably indicates that women were the first miners.12 Among Bantu-speaking iron workers in Central and East Africa, the iron production process required the spiritual invocation of motherhood, represented by gynecomorphic smelters.13 The entire process invoked the metaphor of a woman giving birth. Some societies would actually make the smelter in the shape of a woman giving birth, or they would add breasts to it, while others used songs and words to conjure the image of motherhood. When they placed the raw ore into the smelter, they would cry out, “She has conceived” (Precolonial Metallurgy and Mining across Africa).14

In large parts of Africa, women controlled the technology of agriculture, but men often played essential roles. In areas too dry for agriculture or where the environment could support both cultivation and domestic animals, men controlled the technology of animal husbandry. While iron producers were male, they often depended on women for the raw ore and the clay pipes needed to complete the process of iron smelting. With the advent of iron production, hoes, which are essential to African agriculture, were made of iron instead of stone or wood. For the first time, women farmers had to depend on men for one of their more important tools.

The Family: Clans and Lineages

As crucial as technology has been to the development of African history, so too have been social organizations. The African family was and is the most enduring and crucial form of social institution, since status, responsibility, distribution of resources, and reverence throughout society have been based on one’s family affiliation. African families tend to be organized unilineally, which means identity and inheritance come from either the mothers’—matrilineal—or the fathers’—patrilineal—family. While older women often have a great deal of control in matrilineal societies, women have less authority in their husband’s family in patrilineal communities but more within their own. In both types of social organizations, one’s seniority within in a family is more important than one’s gender.


Matrilineality is defined by anthropologists as a form of social organization in which inheritance and ways of forming identity follow a maternal bloodline, and all children belong to their mother’s lineage. While both the terms matrilineality and patrilineality are used to describe African social institutions by outsiders, they do reflect a social reality that most African societies tend to determine their identity through either their mother or father. This method of establishing inheritance and identity through a single lineage does not contradict the fact that individuals maintained relationships with members of both their maternal and paternal lineages. In the context of this study, these terms will be used with the understanding that they mean either the paternal clans or the maternal clans are dominant within a particular society at a specific historical period.

Recent research has shown that, in fact, matrilineality is more than inheritance or identity and represents particular worldviews within precolonial African societies.15 For example, in matrilineal societies, metaphors of childbirth or motherhood were linked with how lineages were organized politically, socially, and economically, and motherhood-specific terminologies are pervasive in oral traditions and the naming of clans.16 The wide distribution of these matricentric metaphors among modern African communities may well indicate that this was true deep into the past.

Studies over the last forty years have shown that matrilineal societies tend to encourage the unity of clans, lineages, or communities based on a metaphorical womb that represents a well-protected community with the potential to nourish and feed everyone.17 The matrilineage or matriclan comprises a community of people united by blood or specific social ties to a common woman ancestor. The matrilineage establishes an economy based on the philosophical tenets of dispersing or sharing, so that within matrilineal societies individuals rarely accumulate surplus, but distribute surplus widely to both close and distant relatives. While this can be found in patrilineal societies, the tendency towards sharing in a wider orbit of people is more apparent in matrilineal societies. As Africans moved into areas that were less fertile or the weather less predictable, the tenet of wide distribution of any surplus to distant relatives helped ensure their survival. While one area might have a failed crop, distant relatives often had a good crop and would share their good fortune and vice versa.

What appears to be key to the maintenance of matrilineal social institutions has been the sororal group that supervised the dispersal of surplus food and other items widely to distant relatives. The sororal group usually consisted of a grandmother related matrilinealy, their daughters and their children. A major institution in matrilineal in Bantu speaking societies is brideservice or groomservice, in which a young man is required to move to his wife’s family home; work, in recent history, for between five and seven years; father a few children, and show he is capable of being a husband. Marriage is processual as opposed to an event. During this period, the young man must show great deference to his mother-in-law, and in the early period, he is not even allowed to speak to her. The significance of brideservice and mother-in-law avoidance is the extent of economic and social power that the requirement of brideservice would have given the sororal group over young male and female labor. Matrilineality appears to be historically the first form of social organization of settled societies on the African continent.18


Patrilineality is a social institution in which the paternal clan determines one’s identity and inheritance, and the children belong to the father’s lineage. While patrilineal societies certainly favor the father’s family it does not necessarily indicate patriarchy or that women are devalued. African scholars from patrilineal West Africa societies have certainly shown that within their patrilineal societies women were rarely oppressed as women.19

Among Bantu speaking peoples a word for a patrilineage was first used about 3,000 years ago.20 Since matrilineal worldviews were universal among the early Bantu speakers, why would some societies begin to embrace patrilineality? Historically, there are many causes, but there are three main reasons for societies to transition to determining identify through the fathers’ line. The first is encountering patrilineal peoples, such as Nilotic and Southern Cushitic people in East Africa or the KhoiKhoIin Southern Africa. After sustained relationships with patrilineal peoples, some Bantu speakers transitioned to patrilineality, as evidenced by loan words for patrilineal institutions (Historical Linguistics: Loanwords and Borrowing).21 Second, often in societies that were developing more hierarchical power relations and centralizing, the paternal lineage began to dominate, since it tends to encourage individual families or patriclans to accumulate surplus, which they were not compelled to distribute as widely as in most matrilineal societies. And finally, the introduction of cattle as a new economic activity often encouraged moves towards patrilineality, since livestock was a male activity.

Patrilineages are different in structure and worldview. Marriage became more important among patrilineal societies, since marriage, and consequently the production of children, was essential if the patriclan is to survive. Brideprice or bridewealth is the amount of money or goods paid to the bride’s family to reimburse them for raising her and for her productivity and reproductivity for her future husband’s clan. It is important to stress here that this is not the purchase of a wife, because the woman still remains a member of her own clan and has rights and privileges as a daughter of that extended family. But she does produce future members for her husband’s family as well as work the fields of her husband’s clan. Strengthening the marriage institution and sealing it with bridewealth makes it difficult for a young woman to get out of an unhappy marriage since her family would have to pay the bridewealth back. Once she produces enough children, she is able to leave a marriage with little to no cost to her family.

Often polygamy is easier in a patrilineal society, but only for those who have enough surplus to pay for more than one wife. Polygamy can increase both the size of the patriclan and the amount of crops grown. In a matriclan, a new member can only be produced after nine months, but in a patriclan if a member has several wives, theoretically, there could be three or four members produced each year. Also having several wives can increase the amount of land toiled and thus the amount of crops grown. But polygamous patriclans also create smaller matricentric social organizations, as each wife’s children usually have first loyalty to their mother. While some matrilineal societies have forms of bridewealth or brideprice, especially after the arrival of Western influences, most patrilineal societies have an option for marriage that involves working for one’s in-laws instead of paying the bridewealth, though this type of marriage may not be as prestigious in a patrilineal context.

In patrilineal societies, some wealthy women, after menopause, divorce their husbands. Some return to their village of birth, but others remain and start their own lineages by becoming female husbands. This is a tradition found among many Africans including the Ibo, Yoruba of West Africa and the Kikuyu of East Africa. The divorced woman will pay bridewealth for a younger woman who becomes her “wife.” The young wife finds a lover, and any children she bears belongs to the female husband who had paid the bridewealth. In a patrilineal society, this is how women with status become heads of their own lineage (History of Mozambique).22

Endurance of Matrilineality in Africa

There are examples where political centralization did not lead to the decline of matrilineality. For example, in central Africa around 1500, during the creation of the Malawi Empire, the Chewa Phiri clan leadership remained matrilineal, even though their oral tradition and their use of the borrowed Luba word for tribute, musonko, offer evidence that they were influenced by the patrilineal East Luba Empire.23 Yet centralization and pressure from a neighboring empire did not sway them enough to result in change in their matrilineal form of organization.24

The effects of political centralization had another kind of result on families in the Eastern Luba Empire (modern southeast Democratic Republic of Congo DRC). During the centralization process of the Luba, some women lost status and authority.25 However, the references to their matrilineal past can still be seen in Luba naming and conceptualizing of groups of people or ethnicities. For instance, when the Luba refer to any group of people, they employ the title prefix Bena, meaning “people of the mother,” a decidedly matrilineal way to view communities especially for patrilineal people (Kingdoms of South-Central Africa: Sources, Historiography, and History).26 Additionally, symbols of chiefly rule included the use of spears, statues, and bow stands on which there are images of a mother seated in the birthing position with her hands on her breasts or her naval. These chiefly items are suggestive of the centrality of motherhood and matrilineages, within a patrilineal social order. Among the Luba, post-menopausal women from elite clans were major intercessors between the current ruler and the ancestor chiefs, which put them in very powerful positions.27

Women and men’s authority within lineage systems changed under the conditions of political centralization and economic diversification. Social stratification and cattle as an economic and wealth base typically led to a strengthening of the patriclans, which was accompanied by patrilocal settlement, or living among a father’s lineage (The Cameroon Grassfield States in the Broader History of Nigeria and Cameroon).28 But this is not necessarily true within the Bantu Matrilineal Belt (BMB). The Ila of Zambia base their economy on cattle, yet remain matrilineal and decentralized.29 In Namibia, the Herero, a cattle-keeping Bantu speaking people, who have both strong patriclans and matriclans, determine cattle inheritance through the mother’s line and political power through the father’s (Women of Namíbia).30

While there is great diversity in terms of lineage structure among African people today, the evidence indicates that matrilineality was probably the dominant model in the earlier history. It is significant that there are still so many Bantu matrilineal societies today, even in the midst of many patrilineal influences such as Islam, Christianity, colonialism, and modern African nation states, all of which work against matrilineal social institutions. This suggests that Africans have continued to find matrilineal social organization beneficial to their lives.

African Female Authority in the Ancient World

This section highlights the high status of women from such ancient centralized societies as Egypt, Nubia, and Axum, which are documented by written records (Documentary Sources and Methods for Precolonial African History), as well as women from semi-nomadic peoples, the Berbers and the Somalis, whose histories are maintained in oral traditions and within the archeological records. While Egypt is the best-known African Kingdom of the ancient period, it was actually in Nubia where the first centralized societies along the Nile occurred. Around 5,500 years ago, the Sahara Desert was drying up as part of a worldwide weather trend, and the people whose ancestors had lived in the lush region began to move west to West Africa, south to Central Africa, and east to the Nile Valley. Along the Nile River, the African populations settled on the fertile strips along both sides of the river, surrounded by the encroaching desert.

Women’s Status in Ancient Egypt, Nubia, and Axum

Written reports and archeology from outsiders indicate that Ancient Nubian societies were matrilineal and that many of the rulers were queens. In the New Testament of the Bible, Acts 8:26–27 refers to a Nubian queen/queen mother of a later Nubian society.31 The word for female ruler is from the Afro-Asiatic/Cushitic word K(d)ke, which means both “queen mother” and “queen.”32 The modern English name, Candace is derived from this term for a Nubian female ruler (Women and Politics in Africa).

Since the written languages of ancient Nubia are not well understood, scholars need to rely on the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman records, as well as images of the queens carved in stone on walls in Ancient Nubia and archeological evidence. In Napata, an important Nubian state (900–300 bce), written and archeological data re-affirm that descent was matrilineal. A later Nubian queen, Kdke Shanakdakheto, is represented in a Bas-relief dressed in armor and wielding a spear in battle. This wall carving can be dated to about 170 BCE. In 25 bce, according to Roman records, Kdke Amanirenas attacked Syene (modern Aswan in Egypt). From the current evidence it appears that there were many queens in Nubia who led troops against their enemies and that access to political office, identity, and inheritance was calculated through the mothers’ family.

Further north in Ancient Egypt, many of the Queens were Nubian. Nefertari, a Nubian woman, was named the queen of peace, and married Rameses II in 1225 bce. Often the Nubian queens of Egypt were represented in statues and tomb art as the same size as the Pharaoh—which in the Egyptian worldview indicated that they were equal in status.

The ancient Egyptian script has been translated into modern languages, and as a result, scholars have access to many papyrus scrolls found in important tombs as well as writings on the tomb walls. In the Old Kingdom, there was a queen from the 4th Dynasty called Queen Khentkawes, translated as “She-who-unites the two Lords.” She was the mother of the first two kings of 5th dynasty and had a huge tomb. There were between four and seven female Pharaohs who ruled on their own according to Egyptian records, but this does not necessarily indicate the actual status of Egyptian women. Many documents show that Ancient Egyptian society was matrilineal since a man identified himself as the son of a particular mother, and property was inherited matrilineally.33 Thus, the right to become a pharaoh was carried through the mother’s line.

Land was inherited matrilineally, and women obviously controlled land in their own name. The Wilbour Papyrus, from 1143 bce (New Kingdom), shows that women owned at least 50 percent of the land discussed in the document. Other legal documents recorded on papyrus show that women were active participants in civil litigation including divorce. There is another document, which recorded a case where the wife sued her husband over a loan. It appears from these documents that women, married or not, had independent control of their finances.

There is other evidence of the key role that women played in the economy. In the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom, women were the weavers. In the New Kingdom, men became the weavers, but women often owned the looms and the raw cotton. Woven cloth was a key element of the economy since Egypt was the major manufacturing power in the ancient world.

There are many Greek accounts of powerful Egyptian women during the post-dynastic period. For example, Herodotus, considered the first European historian, was shocked at the freedom of Egyptian women and wrote “The Egyptians, in their manners and customs, seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving.” In addition to Herodotus’ comments, various other Greek writers warned their countrymen not to bring their wives or daughters to Egypt, because they would be “corrupted” by the gender equality.34

As the powers of both Nubia and Ancient Egypt waned, Axum, which was located in modern Ethiopia, began to dominate the Red Sea and the Nubian Nile area around 100 ce, filling in the vacuum left by the decline of the Roman Empire. The people of Axum believed in the old Eastern Cushitic religion, but in early 400 ce, around the same time as Europe, Axum’s elites became Christian. The Ethiopian elites were Semitic ancestors of the modern Amharic speakers who have for over a thousand years dominated the Eastern Cushitic majority. The Eastern Cushites in Ethiopia were the Agaw, and these people refused to accept Christianity. In 950 ce, Queen Gudit led the Agaw in a rebellion and conquered Axum. Axum was already a weakened power, but this queen’s actions finally destroyed the empire. Her religious origins are unknown. She is called by various names depending on the text—Esther, Yodi, Judith, and Esato. She destroyed churches and Christian monuments. It is reported by Office of the Patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic Church, that she killed thousands of Christians and secured the throne of Axum.35 Archeologists have found her burial place, which is marked by tall stone steles, symbolic of the East Cushitic religion.36 Based on the style of her tomb, it appears that Queen Gudit still practiced an early Eastern Cushitic religion, but the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews, also claim her as a Jewish queen.

Queen Gudit destroyed the ruling families of Axum, but later some of the remaining elite families were reconstituted as the Solomonic Dynasties of the Amharic speakers in Ethiopia at least a thousand years ago. In the Kebra Nagast [Glory of the Kings], the religious and political book of the Amharic Christian population, the son of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and King Solomon started the Solomonic dynasties. The country of the Queen of Sheba’s origin is unknown, probably Ethiopia or Yemen, but historians agree that she lived around 1000 bce. The story of her role in creating new dynasties is written in the Kebra Nagast, which dates around 1300 ce, over twenty-three hundred years after her life, and was written in the Ethiopian script, Geez. It tells the story of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon who were real people, but also with some embellishments to support the claim for Solomonic origins of the ruling Amharic. The Amharic Christians believe that they were first Jews and were entrusted with the Arc of the Covenant by King Solomon, and only later became Christians. According to the story in the Kebra Nagast, a Queen named Makeda (Queen of Sheba) visited King Solomon. That night King Solomon seduced her and her handmaiden. Conveniently, they both got pregnant and produced sons who would create the two branches of the Solomonic dynasties.37 The Solomonic dynasties ended only after Haile Selassie was overthrown in the 1970’s (Women and Politics in Africa).

Women in Semi-Nomadic Societies: Berber and Somali

There are written records of female rulers of centralized states along the Nile River and in Ethiopia, but evidence of women leaders among the Berbers (or Amazigh as they call themselves) of North Africa and the Somalis of the Horn of Africa is found in oral traditions and archeology. In what is today Hoggar, Algeria, there is a large burial site, dating to around 300 ce, of a tall woman, who was lame and had never given birth. Her body is facing east and she was buried with a great deal of gold and other valuables.38 In Tuareq Berber, her name, “Tin Hinan” means “Mother of Tents,” and she is believed to be the original ancestress of all the Tuareq. She is mentioned in Arabic sources by Ibn Khaldun, the famous Arab historian of the 1300s, who wrote about a crippled Queen Tiski of the Berbers. The fact that Tin Hinan probably did not physically give birth, but was considered the “mother” of the Tuareq is an example of social motherhood, a practice that allowed women to become mothers even if they had not actually given birth throughout Africa. She may be part of the origin myth of the Tuareq, but she also clearly exists in the archeological and written records and is used by the Tuareq today to justify matrilineal descent.

A more recent Berber queen is Kahina who around 680 ce led the Berbers against the new Muslim armies of the Arabs.39 She has been claimed as a heroine by various peoples of North Africa. The Jews claim that she was a Jew and fought against the arrival of Muslims. Muslims see her as an eventual hero because , toward the end of her life, she had her two sons convert to Islam and fight against the non-believers. The French colonialists, in the 19th and 20th centuries, tried to use Queen Kahina as a symbol of the continuing Berber struggle against Arabs. To the East, in the semi-arid lands of what is today Somalia, women were rulers and had a great deal of authority according to the many oral traditions and folktales.40 Probably the most popular of these stories are about Queen Arraweelo. She was almost certainly a historical person, since there are archeological ruins found in the place reported to be her grave, and she is assumed to be a contemporary of the Queen of Sheba living around 1000 bce. According to oral traditions, she was extremely overweight and needed four servants to place her in a bathtub. At some point during her rule, she got tired of male misbehavior so she castrated most of them, but spared her grandson. Some other men avoided castration by running to the forests. Eventually her grandson led the men from the forest to overthrow Queen Arraweelo. Whatever the moral lesson is of Queen Arraweelo’s stories, in recent times, Somali women put flowers on her grave, and men throw stones at it.41

Women with a great deal of authority seem to be the hallmark of ancient African societies. Women in both the centralized and decentralized polities were able to be rulers, lead armies, and generally have an equal status within their communities. In these societies there were usually more male rulers than female, yet most women enjoyed varying forms of equity within their societies and this contrasts with the centralized societies developing around the same time in other parts of the world.

Bantu Migration, 3500 bce to 1000 ce

While there are many written documents that name queens of the ancient African world, in this section on the Bantu speaking peoples, the evidence of their social history primarily comes from linguistic analysis, archeological evidence, oral traditions, genetic data, and comparative ethnography. The use of these methodological tools to recapture African history may not tell “the name of a historical figure, or what they did on such-and-such a date,” but it can reveal the deeper ideological understandings as well as the transformations of these ideas over time. The Bantu are an ethnolinguistic group of people who are linguistically a sub-sub set of the Niger-Congo language family. The word “Bantu” is taken from the common word used by these people to designate humans (The Bantu Expansion).

At the time that Egypt was centralizing in the Nile Valley, about 5500 years ago, Bantu-speaking people began to migrate out of West Africa and proceeded to populate East, Central, and Southern Africa. It was among the greatest movement of people since the populating of the Americas around 35,000 years ago. In the forested areas of what is today Cameroon and Gabon, a group of people moved through the rain forests and in the next four-thousand years became the dominant ethnolinguistic groups in two-thirds of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Though labor was often divided by gender, male jobs were not given more importance than female jobs. In Bantu-speaking societies of two-thousand years ago it appears that women controlled the technology of agriculture, pottery, house building, and food preparation, while men herded the animals, carved wood, smelted iron, wove raffia, and were responsible for protection.42

Until around 1000 ce, most Bantu-speaking peoples lived in matrilineal subsistence-based economies.43 The latest linguistic and genetic studies show that Bantu-speaking peoples, as they migrated, were organized into matrilineal clans and practiced male circumcision and both male and female initiation at puberty.44 Since the Bantu speakers were both matrilineal and de-centralized, each village was probably the residence of one matrilineage.45

Today the majority of remaining matrilineal societies on the continent are Bantu-speaking and form what is called the Bantu Matrilineal Belt (BMB), a region that stretches from the post-colonial countries of Tanzania and Mozambique in the east; to Malawi, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the center; to Angola in the west. Thus, in addition to linguistic and genetic evidence, there is comparative ethnographic and oral tradition data that scholars employ to understand how matrilineal societies worked. In these matrilineal societies, women controlled the production, distribution, and preparation of food at least for the last 2500 years and probably earlier. Since only women could produce new members of the community, matrilineal societies have been particularly interested in the education of young women and their preparation for motherhood. Therefore, matrilineal communities created long and complex female initiation ceremonies.

The linguistic evidence for female political leadership is not conclusive, yet the complexities suggest that power and authority were very much both male and female purviews. Among Bantu-speaking peoples, terms for leadership positions are rarely marked for gender. Both proper and common nouns do not usually indicate gender; thus, to convey gender, one must choose to add a female or male marker. Unlike the distinct English words for male and female rulers—king and queen, for example—titles for leaders typically were not inherently gendered in Bantu languages, at least not until communities began to centralize (Historical Linguistics: Words and Things).

Bantu-speaking peoples moved into areas where there was an abundance of land, some of which was useable and some of marginal fertility. Low population density and a constant shortage of laborers made motherhood, like in other parts of Africa, a most powerful social institution. Infant mortality was high; therefore, the need both to reproduce and to protect the newborn babies became essential to the survival of these people. Matrilineal social organizing was centered on mothers and grandmothers and this was apparently the best situation for infant survival, thus re-enforcing matrilineality.

Bantu Family and Motherhood

While marriage was considered important for the raising of children, the social category of wife was relatively unimportant, and this was probably true five-thousand years ago since historical linguists can reconstruct a proto-Bantu root, *-yadi, to mean a life stage for young women from puberty to her first successful pregnancy.46 The significance of this was that a young woman entered puberty, attended the first part of initiation schools, then married, but was still considered a “yadi” until the birth of her first child, when she became a mother. Marriage was not the transformative event in a young woman’s life, motherhood was. Men too had to wait to be considered grown until they had fathered a child.47

The importance of motherhood over wifehood, can be best understood in the context of the multiple female initiation ceremonies. Female initiation was probably the most important religious, political, and cultural event within the community. And these initiation ceremonies were presided over by important older women from sororal groups. The original term for this office remains unknown, but among the earliest Eastern Bantu speaking peoples of three thousand to twenty-five hundred years ago, the word was *-nyamkungui.48 In more recent times the first initiation ceremony could last as long as several months and probably was even longer in earlier times. The female initiation ceremonies marked key events in a young woman’s life. The first ceremony was celebrated after the young woman’s first menstrual period. The whole village would come out, celebrate with music and dance, rejoicing in the fact that she now could potentially become a mother. Then the elderly women of the village, often led by a knowledgeable and well-respected woman, would seclude the young woman and start her formal education. The comparative ethnographic and linguistic evidence demonstrates that at least 2000 years ago, in most Bantu-speaking communities, female initiation comprised at least two sets of observances: the first at puberty and the last at the first successful pregnancy.49 Even today, in rural areas of the Bantu Matrilineal Belt, these initiation ceremonies are still celebrated, though sometimes in secret.50

A major feature of female initiation among Bantu-speaking societies was their use of figurines of various materials and types as pedagogical tools to introduce the girl to her history, gender concepts, and behaviors considered essential for the transition to female adulthood. Another element of female initiation that appears to be quite old is the painting of schematic symbols . These designs were drawn on rocks, caves, and overhangs away from villages by female elders as teaching devices, and they are similar to schematic rock art designs done by Batwa people found in rock shelters that spread as far as Angola, the Great Lakes region, East-Central Africa, and northern South Africa (The Archaeology of Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa). The integration of Batwa symbols into the most important religious ceremony of the Bantu speaking peoples shows the respect Bantu speaking shown towards Batwa gatherers and hunters as the first comers to the land.51

From 500 ce, many Bantu-speaking cattle-keeping peoples in Southern Africa changed to patrilineality. In the 19th century, cattle raising societies such as the Ngoni and Zulu, chiefs manipulated the cost of bridewealth. They were able to command younger male support by inflating the number of cattle needed for bridewealth and therefore postponing marriage for men. While some patrilineal communities allowed the amount to be paid over time, among the southern African Bantu, the only way men could get the requisite amount of cattle was by working or fighting for the chief for fifteen to twenty years. Women could marry young, but men couldn’t not marry until much later.

Bantu-speaking peoples in the Nyanza area of the Great Lakes (modern Uganda) by 1000 ce had also become patrilineal and were socially organized to the extent of having a king or central ruler. Previously women’s production of bananas had been the main sources of food and surplus, but once cattle became the status form of agriculture, patrilineages became dominant. They were in the process of creating two African states, Baganda and Bunyoro. Among the Baganda, where the population was fairly homogenous, biological motherhood was favored over social motherhood. During the beginnings of the Bunyoro state, the population was quite heterogeneous, thus social motherhood was especially honored. Social motherhood in this instance included the development of a new verb, wereka, which meant “to foster a child.” Social motherhood was a crucial institution for integrating outside people with no clan affiliation into the new state (Early African Past: Sources, Interpretations and Meanings).52

African Women and Islam, 700 ce to 1800 ce

The religion of Islam and the trading of gold from Africa to the broad Islamic Trading Networks transformed some women’s status, centralized the societies monopolizing the trade, and created ruling or royal lineages. Both in West Africa on the borders of the Sahara Desert, and along the East African Coast, African societies were integrated into the Islamic Trading Networks. Africa was certainly involved in international trade prior to arrival of Islamic armies and traders, but, once the Islamic trading networks were established, Africa continued as a major player in the old-world economy. In the 21st century, between 45 and 50 percent of Africans are Muslim, and one third of the world’s Muslims live in Africa.53 Islam is both a religion and a way of life. Thus, the rules of Islam, such as prayer times, prayer direction, and business mores were observed by Muslims throughout the continent as early as the 8th century ce.

There was also a long-term Islamic trade in enslaved people across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean. From 869 to 883 ce, East African slaves, Zanj, led a successful slave rebellion against plantation slavery in the Muslim World.54 As a result of the Zanj Revolt the Islamic trading network began to prefer women for domestic slavery. While Islam allowed slavery, there are passages in the Quran in which people will be forgiven their sins, if they free slaves. Unlike the Americas, there is no large, clearly ascertainably African Diaspora in the Islamic world, because under Islamic law, any child whose father is free is born free. Usually the mother is set free too, and if she remains a slave, she cannot be separated from her child or sold.55

Islam in West and North Africa

Around the middle of the 7th century, the call “Allah Akhbar” was heard in North Africa. Previously, North Africa had a large Christian population and was part of the Byzantine Empire, but by 705 ce, North Africa had become an important region of the Islamic Empire centered in Damascus, Syria. In addition to the end of Christianity in the region, a new language, Arabic, began to dominate even though Berber language remained and is still spoken in the 21st century by millions of North Africans.

In the large section of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, Islam arrived with merchants, traders, and religious teachers (Islamic Historical Sources: Manuscript and Online). Since Islam arrived in West Africa through trade and education, most people maintained their languages and culture with the addition of a new religious belief. But since Islam is more than just a religion—it is also a practical code of conduct—each African Muslim society had to accommodate both Islamic laws and their cultural traditions. The Islamic code of conduct set up rules for trade that extended from West Africa all the way to China.

Unfortunately, there are few oral or written records describing how most women lived in these empires. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan who in the early 14th century traveled the entire Islamic trading region from China to West Africa, wrote a travel journal. His writings survived and offer one of the few views of Islam in West Africa during this era. He did not write much about East African Muslim women, but in Ancient Mali of West Africa, he gave us a great deal of insight into the life of West African Muslim women. Ibn Battuta was probably a Moroccan, heavily influenced by Arab culture; thus as a result, he was shocked when he learned that the people of Mali were matrilineal and that the queen mother was extremely powerful. Battuta also wrote that both boys and girls were educated in Koranic schools, the only formal education of that period. He complimented the Muslims of Mali on their honesty and noted that women could wear their gold and never had to fear thieves.56 But possibly his most significant observations involved his disapproval of the way the women of Mali behaved. He walked in on his host’s wife and a male friend, who was not related to her, speaking freely together. He complained to the host and the host responded, “Women’s companionship with men in our country is hono[u]rable, there is no suspicion about it. They are not like the women in your country.”57 Battuta’s writings clearly tell us that the Muslim African women of Ancient Mali were not secluded and that they were well educated.

By 1100 ce, in the area around what is today Northern Nigeria, several Muslim city-states of the Hausa became important in the Trans-Saharan Trade. The Kano Chronicles, a written history of the Hausa city-state of Kano, claims that all the Hausa were Muslim by 1473 (West African Manuscripts in Arabic and African Languages and Digital Preservation). One of the best remembered leaders, according to the Kano Chronicles, in Islamic Hausa history was a woman, Queen Amina of Zazzau, who died in 1610. She was the daughter of a powerful queen Bakwa Turunku.58 She ruled for over thirty-four years and all the Hausa city states west of Zazzau (modern Zaria) paid her tribute. It is reported that she led twenty thousand foot soldiers and one thousand cavalry. Today in the city of Zaria, the ancient surrounding wall is referred to as “the wall of Amina” (African Urban History and Historiography).59

Islam and East Africa

For over two thousand years, East Africans had traded with peoples of the Mediterranean and Asians via the Indian Ocean. From around 700 ce, Swahili city-states became important trading centers in the Indian Ocean, and according to oral traditions and the written histories, the first rulers were women.60 Some of earliest evidence of women converting to Islam in East Africa was found in Mogadishu, Somalia, where there are the remains of two graves dating to 749 ce with the names of two Muslim women.61 This is significant because when Muslim traders arrived along the East African coast they did not bring women from their own societies, so whenever there is evidence of Muslim women, they almost always represent indigenous Africans. Interestingly, the Swahili city-state rulers, some of whom were women, welcomed Muslims and encouraged the adoption of Islam (The Swahili in the African and Indian Ocean Worlds to c. 1500).

Why did African women embrace Islam? Since there were no Islamic armies south of the Sahara Desert, the reasons for acceptance of Islam were varied and rarely involved force. African women, like African men, saw conversion to Islam as a way to gain status and become part of major international trading networks. In addition to economic status, there were also spiritual reasons. Islam was not radically different from their local religions since most were monotheistic. Over time, some women in patrilineal societies may have thought that Islamic laws would give them an advantage within their societies. The Islamic dowry, which is part of the marriage contract, requires that the money, jewelry, or other items specified must be given to the bride prior to consummating the marriage. This dowry is strictly for the wife, which she can share with her family or keep for herself, while non-Islamic brideprice is distributed among the bride’s family and is rarely given to the bride. In recent times, this dowry has been gold jewelry, and these golden assets can be found adorning most African Muslim women. Both East and West African Muslim women use their jewelry as a portable savings accounts.62 In the early to mid-1990s, there were several famines in Somalia, Somali women who usually have a great deal of gold jewelry, wore no gold, because they had sold it all to feed their children.63

Muslim women did not have to share with their husbands any income they made on their own. Under Islamic law, the man must support the entire family; consequently, her earnings were her own. She was also able to inherit, own property, and own businesses in her name. During the early colonial period in Kenya, the British “Native Courts” removed women’s access to land and other freedoms that were part of their cultural tradition. As a result, many non-Muslim women migrated to the Swahili coast and became Muslim so that they could start businesses, own their own property, inherit, and divorce.64

Women and the Slave Trade, 1500 ce to 1880 ce

From 1500 to 1880, more than twenty million Africans died in the slave raids, in the slave forts along the coast, or on the ships, or they were enslaved in the Americas. Women’s positions within West African societies were about to be challenged and transformed. This started a new era primarily for West Africa in particular, but also for all of the continent (Central Africa and the Atlantic World). From 1640 to the mid-1800s, Europe dominated Africa’s external trade, and this trade in West Africa was the slave trade. The Middle Passage was the voyage that brought Africans to slavery in the Americas. The trip on the ship could last from thirty to ninety days, and the ships were extremely overcrowded (Atlantic Slavery and the Slave Trade: History and Historiography).65 African women arrived in the Americas traumatized and sometimes pregnant. In the early stages of the slave trade, especially in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, slaves were simply worked to death.66 As slaves became more expensive, plantation owners decided to allow slaves to reproduce themselves, and this led to giving women more time to rest than men. Also, this is the only time in Western history that matrilineality was encouraged. Slave owners and other men in charge often raped African slave women, and since slavery was a permanent condition in the Americas, the children’s status was inherited matrilineally.67 Matrilineality in the Americas was for slave women just another way to continue the permanence of slavery.

The gender ratio in the Atlantic Slave Trade was two men for every one woman.68 The difference reflected Western beliefs that men worked harder than women and had the knowledge of tropical agriculture. Finally, in the late 1700s, American plantation owners realized that they needed African women’s understanding of tropical agriculture, specifically Mende women, to set up rice cultivation in South Carolina.69

African women in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil, have maintained African culture and worldviews in syncretic religions such as Candoble, Voodoo, and several others. In these religions, the clergy are women of African descent, and the rituals contain African rhythms, dances, and religious concepts merged with aspects of Christianity. But these female African traditions are found in other aspects of Latin American societies. For example, a group of dances found primarily in Brazil, are called the Samba, and the very same word, samba, is used in Bantu-speaking Africa to designate dances or clothing worn during the dances performed at female initiation (Historical Linguistics: Loan Words).70

The Atlantic Slave Trade had a major impact on gender dynamics in West Africa by 1640. The slave trade created a great deal of insecurity in most West African societies, and many African societies were traumatized. As a result of the slave trade, many African communities that had been based on varying forms of gender equilibrium transformed into warrior societies. While some women were warriors, mostly men were involved in raiding or repelling raids. There was a new division of labor, men became part of the military force, and women had to do both men and women’s agricultural work. Women’s work was devalued, and the matrilineal worldview came under attack in some areas.

Men were desired for the Atlantic Slave Trade, but in the internal West African slave trade, women and girls were wanted, both because of their productive and reproductive abilities. Lineages that were able to purchase or capture women slaves could increase their prestige. So, women without protection were often captured and forced into this internal slave trade. During this period, women who could buy a few slaves could increase their agricultural production because of the labor of these slave women. Women who could not afford slaves could not produce the same amount of agricultural goods; thus was created a new division based on economics among women in West Africa, elite women with slaves, common women with no slaves, and of course, slave women themselves.

The Kingdom of the Kongo became the first in Africa to be seriously affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade. The turmoil in this part of Africa helped to launch the career of Queen Njinga, the best known woman ruler of this region. As the Kingdom of the Kongo was declining, the Portuguese were turning to the new slave trading states of Ndongo. Njinga, born in 1583, eventually became an important ruler in the region. In 1622, Njinga arrived for a negotiations with the Portuguese. She was very conscious of her regal presence and had refused to wear Portuguese clothing as many other elite African women did at the time. Instead, she made a majestic entry, according to Portuguese sources, wearing Mbundu-style costume, which included various types of cloth, colorful feathers, and precious jewels. She also was able to thwart the arrogance of the Portuguese, who had a habit of forcing any subordinate Africans to sit on floor while the Portuguese delegation sat on chairs. When Njinga entered the room, she realized that the Portuguese expected her to sit on the floor. Immediately, she signaled a woman attendant to get on her hands and knees, and Njinga sat on the woman’s back during the entire negotiations. She then was able to look eye-to-eye with the delegation, and proceeded to negotiate a very good treaty for Ndongo. The Portuguese were extremely impressed with her, which was exactly the impact she planned to have at these negotiations. This incident shows that, in addition to her military proficiency, she was also a shrewd diplomat. She became ruler after her brother committed suicide and had a forty-year military career. She was expert at playing various sides against each other. Her military prowess is celebrated by the use of her name for an important move in Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts brought to Brazil by enslaved Angolans.71

While the effects of the slave trade were beneficial to some Africans and detrimental to many others, there was a group of women who absolutely benefited from the Atlantic Slave Trade. Most, but not all, were located in the Senegambia region of West Africa, where women had held high office and controlled much of the commerce prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade. These women were often referred to as Signares. In West African societies, women were the major traders, while in Western societies it was almost exclusively men. Thus, the union of a European man and an African woman could be beneficial to trade. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European men often married African women to have access to African commerce. Their daughters were comfortable in the ways of African commerce as well as understanding European trading. It was these Euro-African daughters who became successful intermediaries, entrepreneurs, and power brokers. In the late 1600s, there were three dominant Signares. Senhora Catti was the agent for the slave trade in the Senegalese state of Cayor in 1685. The other two were Bibiana Vaz, who in the 1670s had an extensive trading network between the Gambia and Sierra Leone rivers, and even established her own state for a few years; and Senhora Philippa, who in the 1630s controlled the slave trade in Western Senegal.72

West African Women, 1700–1900

As slave raiding and the Atlantic Slave Trade were beginning to wane in West Africa, Muslim and non-Muslim African women faced new challenges in this era prior to colonialism. The internal slave trade of women in West Africa continued and so did the intensification of economic differentiation among African women. It was documented that, in the Senegambia in the early 19th century, enslaved women worked for their owners five days per week from sunrise until two o’clock in the afternoon, after which they could grow in their own gardens.73 Often female slaves would sell enough produce from their gardens to purchase their freedom.

In the forested regions of West Africa, the decentralized Igbo were prospering in the fertile areas of Nigeria in spite of the impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Even though the Igbo were patrilineal, women played key roles within their society. During this period, more and more women became traders and their wealth increased, as the large number of female husbands indicates.74 The Igbo women had several women’s organizations that transcended family alliances. One was a women’s council called Inuom Nnobi, and these women had a powerful weapon they used to keep men in line called “sitting on a man.” If men did something that the women thought was inappropriate, such as hitting a pregnant woman, these women would come together, sing obscene songs, force the offender on the ground, and sit on him. The humiliation was extreme, and men rarely would commit the offence again. Later, under British colonialism Igbo women used their organization and the tactic of “sitting on a man” to fight the attempt to tax women in the colony of Nigeria (Women’s War of 1929).75

Asante of the Akan people came to dominance in the 1700s, as European powers began to reduce the trade across the Sahara Desert, and the Asante were situated in a position to benefit from both the slave trade with the West and the gold trade with the Muslim world. Women played a key role in commerce in the past, and they still do in the modern Asante capital, Kumasi, Ghana (African Market Women, Market Queens and Queen Merchants).76 The Asantehene and the Asantehemmaa were, respectively, the male and female leaders of the Asante people. Each local polity had a chief and a queen mother who were in charge of the day-to-day operations. The queen mother embodied the virtues of motherhood and was considered the mother of the nation or of a town.77 Her primary role was in the resolution of conflict, especially cases involving women, domestic affairs, or issues of commerce. The Asanthemmaa also had many ritual duties, but one of the most important was the recognition of a young woman’s puberty and her officiating at initiation ceremonies. Prior to colonialism, the Asante were a very powerful and rich empire, but at the core of their society, they were and still are, matrilineal clans.

In 1804, the Fulani under the leadership of Usman Don Fodio participated in a jihad, to change the Hausa states’ lax religious practices and their enslavement of fellow Muslims. Don Fodio was a very contradictory leader, especially in his approach to the role of women. He thought women should be secluded at home, yet he also preached that all women should be well educated. He was so supportive of the education of women that he encouraged wives to disobey their husbands if they refused to allow them to be educated.78 A long-lasting result of this jihad was that there have been over five generations of important female Islamic scholars in West Africa, some descended from his family. As in other parts of Africa, Islam as practiced by Africans had a more African-centered view of women within the religion (Nana Asma’u).

Women in East and Central Africa, 1700–1900

East Africa had supplied slaves to the Islamic world for a long period of time, but the majority were women for domestic roles. In the early 19th century, there was a much greater need for slaves, both female and male to work the clove plantations on Zanzibar and to grow food to feed the Persian Gulf region from the fertile lands of Somalia between the Juba and Shebelle River. An increase in slave raiding in East Africa created a very insecure environment for those in areas where there were raids, much like the Atlantic Slave Trade had in West Africa. Some matrilineal people like the Yao, from southeast Africa, participated in the transport of slaves to the East Coast. The Yao remained matrilineal, but some Yao men married enslaved women to create a patrilineal family within a matrilineal community. Since the enslaved wife would not have family, no one could demand brideservice. This meant that any children of the union between a Yao man and an enslaved woman would belong to their fathers’ matriclan. At the end of the slave trade, Yao went back to cultivating their lands, brideservice, and matrilineal worldviews.79

Saarjie Baartman and the New View of African Women

In South Africa, there have been white settlers since the early 16th century, and they had considerably impact on the KhoiKhoi communities. Often there was fighting between white settlers and the KhoiKhoi, which seriously affected KhoiKhoi communities. One young woman, Saarjie Baartman, who had lost her husband and son to such fighting, would become famous in the Western world as a symbol of female African sexuality and otherness. In 1810, Baartman went to England with her employer, thinking she was traveling for a good job. However, once she arrived, she found herself in various exhibitions where she was viewed as a spectacle and an example of African womanhood (African Intellectual History and Historiography). In 1814, she was sold to an animal trainer and moved to Paris. There the conditions were even worse for her, and she died in 1815 at the age of twenty-five. Her body was considered different because of large buttocks. Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Man in Paris, dissected her corpse and placed her body parts in jars for display. He believed she represented the missing link between humans and animals. Her body parts were on display in the Museum until 2002 when the newly free South Africa demanded the return of her body, and she was given a proper KhoiKhoi burial.80 The distorted view of Baartman as hypersexual and sub-human became one of the dominant images of African women for the next hundred and fifty years to many in the West.

Discussion of the Literature

The historical status and authority of African women, especially during the long period prior to the arrival of Europeans, has been a highly contested subject. In the late 20th century, scholars, primarily from Africa, began challenging the idea that patriarchy was present in the longue durée of African history.

While most ethnographers saw African tradition and culture as patriarchal and oppressive to women, an African anthropologist, Ifi Amadiume disagreed. As a result, she wrote Male Daughters, Female Husbands about her own community, the Nnobi of Eastern Nigeria.81 In her sociological/anthropological groundbreaking study, she was able to write about how socially constructed gender was very flexible and did not always agree with biology. In the late 1990s, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, a sociologist, proceeded to deconstruct Western feminist theory and challenge the idea that patriarchy was ever a part of African culture. She boldly declared that there is no gender in Africa and that motherhood is the most important social institution. She challenged Western feminist discourse and how it was particular to Western culture. The Western epistemology, which considered that all that is Western is universal, was clearly and carefully dismantled by Oyěwùmí. She based her arguments on her own Yoruba society and her Western education.82 The work of these two West African scholars “produced epistemic ruptures in the global discourses around the sociological understanding of gender relations and how we understand gender.”

In 2006, Nikiru Nzegwu wrote Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture, in which she documented how, in Igbo society after the Igbo Women’s War in 1929, there was a concerted and successful effort to legalize patriarchal values and consciously institutionalize them as “traditional Igbo culture.”83 Her work has succinctly exposed how the claims of development agencies and African leaders, about the problems with “traditional African culture,” are actually just echoing the tactics used under colonialism to control African populations in general and women in the particular.

But it was not just the questioning of colonial constructions of tradition and creating new research categories that allowed historians to begin to recapture worldviews and social institutions, including gender, from the past. Christopher Ehret pioneered the use of historical linguistic data coupled with archeological evidence, comparative ethnographic resources, and oral traditions to write early histories of Bantu-speaking peoples.84 While these methodological tools do not usually give the names of actors or exact dates of historical events, they instead allow historians to understand certain transformations as well as continuing concepts that open a window into how earlier peoples viewed their world and in what manner they interacted with it. The ability to recapture earlier history coupled with scholars from the continent insisting on using African centered categories for research, has allowed historians to revise previous historical assumptions about the role of gender and women in African history.

The use of a multi-method approach to understand historical periods prior to colonialism is exampled in Onaiwu Ogbomo’s history of the Owan people, which was the first study based on oral tradition to feature a society where historically—starting in the 14th century—gender equity between men and women was common. Additionally the historical methodological tools including historical linguistics were used by Rhonda Gonzales and Christine Saidi to recapture early social history among matrilineal peoples of East and Central Africa. In 2015, Rhiannon Stephens used historical linguistics and oral traditions to show how the concept of motherhood was transformed as the Nyoro and Baganda societies incorporated new peoples and transitioned these polities into centralized societies.85 These historical studies have shown that gender relations and gender dynamics can be recaptured from early history by weaving various types of evidence into a clearer picture of African social institutions from the precolonial past.

Further Reading

  • Achebe, Nwando. Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 1900–1960. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.
  • Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in An African Society. London: Zed Press, 1987.
  • Berger, Iris, and E. Frances White. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Ehret, Christopher. An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History: 1000 BC to AD 400. Oxford: James Currey, 1998.
  • Ehret, Christopher. Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.
  • Ehret, Christopher. “Writing African History from Linguistic Evidence.” In Writing African History, edited by John Edward Philips, 86–111. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.
  • Fourshey, Catherine C., Rhonda Gonzales, and Christine Saidi. Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Gonzales, Rhonda M. Societies, Religion, and History: Central-East Tanzanians and the World They Created, C. 200 BCE to 1800 CE. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  • Kaplan, Flora Edouwaye S. Queens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses, and Power: Cases Studies in African Gender. Washington, DC: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Kent, Susan, ed. Gender in African Prehistory. New York: Altamira Press, 1998.
  • Nzegwu, Nkiru Uwechia. Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture. New York: SUNY Publications, 2006.
  • Ogbomo, Onaiwu. When Men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations Among the Owan of Nigeria. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. 1st ed. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. Epistemologies in Africa: Gendering Traditions, Spaces, Social Institutions, and Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. What Gender Is Motherhood?: Changing Yorùbá Ideals of Power, Procreation, and Identity in the Age of Modernity. Gender and Cultural Studies in Africa and the Diaspora. New York: Macmillan Palgrave, 2015
  • Poewe, Karla O. Matrilineal Ideology: Male-Female Dynamics in Luapula, Zambia. London: International African Institute, 1981.
  • Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen Roberts. Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History. New York: Prestel for the Museum for African Art, 1996.
  • Sacks, Karen. Sisters and Wives: The Past and Future of Sexual Equality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Saidi, Christine. Women’s Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa. Rochester, NY: University Rochester Press, 2010.
  • Smythe, Kathleen. Africa’s Past, Our Future. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.
  • Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. “African Diasporas: Toward a Global History.” African Studies Review 53, no. 1 (2010), 1–19.


  • 1. Christine Saidi, Cymone Fourshey, and Rhonda Gonzales. Family Before Gender (London, UK: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, Fall, 2021).

  • 2. Christine Saidi, Cymone Fourshey, and Rhonda Gonzales, “Gender, Authority, and Identity in African History” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Women’s Studies, eds. Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso and Toyin Falola (New York: Palgrave, 2019).

  • 3. Also see James F. O’Connell, Kristen Hawkes, and N. G. Blurton Jones, “Grandmothering and the Evolution of Homo Erectus,” Journal of Human Evolution 36 (1999): 461–485; Ruth Mace and Clare Holden, “Evolutionary Ecology and Cross-Cultural Comparison: The Case of Matrilineal Descent in Sub-Saharan Africa,” in Comparative Primate Socioecology, ed. Phyllis C. Lee (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 387–405; and Gail E. Kennedy, “Paleolithic Grandmothers? Life History Theory and Early Homo,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9, no. 3 (2003): 549–572.

  • 4. Kristen O. Hawkes, James F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton Jones, “Hunting Income Patterns among the Hadza: Big Game, Common Goods, Foraging Goals, and the Evolution of the Human Diet,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Series B: Biological Sciences 334, no. 1270 (1991): 243–251; Kristen O. Hawkes, James F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton Jones, “Hadza Women’s Time Allocation, Offspring Production, and the Evolution of Long Postmenopausal Life Spans,” Current Anthropology 38 (1997): 551–577; and James F. O’Connell, Kristen Hawkes, and N. G. Blurton Jones, “Hadza Scavenging: Implications for Plio-Pleistocene Hominid Subsistence,” Current Anthropology 29 (1988): 356–363.

  • 5. Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History: 1000 BC to AD 400 (Oxford: James Currey, 1998), 3.

  • 6. George P. Murdock and Caterina Provost, “Factors in the Division of Labor by Sex: A Cross Cultural Analysis,” Ethnology 12, no. 2 (1973): 203. See also George P. Murdock, Social Structure (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 204.

  • 7. Marla C. Berns, “Art, History, and Gender: Women and Clay in West Africa,” African Anthropological Review 11 (1993): 130.

  • 8. This alternative name for God was Nakabumba [na-mother/female prefix; ka-a prefix to show honor, and –bumba, a potter). See Christine Saidi, “Nakabumba: God Creates Humanity as a Potter Creates a Pot,” in Gender Epistemologies in Africa, ed. Oyeronke Oyewumi (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 205.

  • 9. Eugenia Herbert, Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies (Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press, 1994), 121.

  • 10. Christine Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa (Rochester, NY: University Rochester Press, 2010), 129–130, for descriptions of the common rituals.

  • 11. Peter Schmidt, “Reading Gender in the Ancient Iron Technology of Africa,” in Gender in African Prehistory, ed. Susan Kent (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998), 141.

  • 12. Michael S. Bisson, “Prehistoric Copper Mining in North-Western Zambia,” Archaeology 27, no. 4 (1974): 244.

  • 13. Herbert, Iron, Gender, and Power, 59–75.

  • 14. Herbert, Iron, Gender, and Power, 59–75.

  • 15. Poewe, Karla O., Matrilineal Ideology: Male and Female Dynamics in Luapula, Zambia (London: International African Institute, 1981).

  • 16. The word for matrilineage often has a reference to mothering in several Bantu languages spoken in Luapula Province, Zambia. The simile is quite obvious, a mother feeds the child in her womb, as the matrilineage cares for those within the community, in Karla Poewe, “Matriliny in the Throes of Change: Kinship, Descent, and Marriage in Luapula,” Africa Journal of the International African Institute 48, no. 3 (1978): 208.

  • 17. Poewe, Matrilineal Ideology, 18.

  • 18. Christopher Ehret, “Reconstructing Ancient Kinship in Africa,” in Early Human Kinship: From Sex to Social Reproduction, eds. Nicholas J. Allen, Hilary Callan, Robin Dunbar, and Wendy James (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 200–231, 259–269.

  • 19. See Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí., Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); and Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in An African Society (London: Zed Press, 1987).

  • 20. Catherine C. Fourshey, Rhonda Gonzales, and Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 64.

  • 21. Fourshey, Gonzales, and Saidi, Bantu Africa, 66.

  • 22. Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands, 163.

  • 23. Christopher Ehret, “Linguistic Evidence and Its Correlation with Archaeology,” World Archaeology 8 (1976): 11.

  • 24. Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society, 88.

  • 25. See Mary N. Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, eds. Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York: Museum for African Art, Prestel, 1996).

  • 26. Harry Johnston, Comparative Study of Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1919), 19.

  • 27. Roberts and Roberts, Memory—Luba Art, 41, 76, cat. 26; 151, cat. 6A, 41, 76.

  • 28. Roberts and Roberts, Memory—Luba Art, 199–201.

  • 29. Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society, 85.

  • 30. Gordon D. Gibson, “Double Descent and Its Correlates among the Herero of Ngamiland,” American Anthropologist 58, No. 1 (1956), 109–139.

  • 31. “. . . now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury,” Acts 8:26–39 (Authorized King James version).

  • 32. Iris Berger and E. Frances White, Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 13.

  • 33. Berger and White, Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, 13.

  • 34. Barbara Watterson, Women in Ancient Egypt (Stroud, UK: Amberley, 2013), 23–24, 31, 148.

  • 35. Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State in Ethiopia (Los Angeles: Tsehai Publishers, 2009), 40f.

  • 36. Ehret, An African Classical Age, 213.

  • 37. Joseph E. Harris, Pillars in Ethiopian History (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974), 36–37.

  • 38. E. F. Gautier, “The Monument of Tin Hinan in the Ahaggar,” Geographical Review, 24, no. 3 (1934): 439–443.

  • 39. Abdelmajid Hannoum, “Historiography, Mythology, and Memory in Modern North Africa: The Story of Kahina,” Studia Islamica, 85 (1997): 85.

  • 40. Christine Choi Ahmed, “Finely Etched Chattel: The Invention of a Somali Woman,” in The Invention of Somalia, ed. Ali Jimale Ahmed (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995), 175.

  • 41. Ahmed Artan Hanghe, Sheckoxariirooyin Soomaaliyeed (Folktales from Somalia) (Uppsala, Sweden: Somali Academy of Science and Arts, Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988), 132.

  • 42. Fourshey, Bantu Africa, chapter 2.

  • 43. See G. Destro-Bisol et al., “Variation of Female and Male Lineages in Sub-Saharan African Populations: The Importance of Sociocultural Factors,” Molecular Biology and Evolution 21 (2004): 1673–1682; Jeff Marck and Koen Bostoen, “Proto-Bantu Descent Groups,” in Kinship, Language, and Prehistory: Per Hage and the Renaissance in Kinship Studies, eds. Doug Jones and Bojka Milicic (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010); Jeff Marck and Koen Bostoen, “Proto-Oceanic Society (Austronesian) and Proto-East Bantu Society (Niger-Congo),” in Kinship, Language, and Prehistory: Per Hage and the Renaissance in Kinship Studies, eds. Doug Jones and Bojka Milicic (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010).

  • 44. See Kairn Klieman, The Pygmies Were Our Compass (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003); also, Ehret, An African Classical Age, chapter 5.

  • 45. Christopher Ehret, i: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 118.

  • 46. Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society, 63.

  • 47. T. J. A. Yates, “Bantu Marriage and the Birth of the First Child,” Man 32 (1932): 136.

  • 48. The term is preserved separately in the geographically widely separated Ruvu and Nyasa subgroups, one a Kaskazi subgroup and the other Kusi, of Mashariki, with fully regular sound correspondences. It is a noun derivative of a much older Bantu root word, *-kunk- ~ *-kung-, for undertaking rites of passage, also found outside the Eastern Savanna Bantu branch in languages of the Njila (Western Savanna) branch. See Ehret, An African Classical Age, chapter 5.

  • 49. Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society, 31, 62.

  • 50. In 2010 Mbala, Zambia, the author met the women from the “older women’s choir” in the United Church of Zambia. They invited her to a choir practice, secretly and away from church leadership. Instead of practicing hymns, the women were practicing the older songs of female initiation. They also had unique clothing in red, black, and white, which are the colors of female initiation in the region.

  • 51. Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society, 103.

  • 52. See Rhiannon Stephens, A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700–1900 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 53. 2003 Britannica Book of the Year (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003), 306.

  • 54. See Alexandre Popovic, The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq (Princeton: Marcus Wiener Press, 1999).

  • 55. Slavery in Islam.” BBC Religions.

  • 56. Saidi Hamdun and Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (Princeton: Marcus Weiner Press, 1994), 58.

  • 57. Hamdun and King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, 39.

  • 58. Bonnie G. Smith, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History (Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 59. Berger, Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, 67.

  • 60. Per interview with Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Swahili Cultural Centre, Mombasa, Kenya, July, 2010.

  • 61. Ali Abdirahman Hersi, “The Arab Factor in Somali History (PhD diss., UCLA, 1980), 113.

  • 62. Christine Ahmed (Saidi), “Finely Etched Chattel: The Invention of the Somali Woman,” in The Invention of Somalia, ed. Ali Jimale Ahmed (New York: Red Sea Press, 1996), 163–164.

  • 63. Observation by author in Baidoa, Somalia during the famine of 1992.

  • 64. See Margaret Strobel, Muslim Women in Mombasa, 1890–1975 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  • 65. Claire Robertson, “Africa into the Americas: Slavery and Women, the Family, and the Gender Division of Labor,” in More than Chattel, eds. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

  • 66. Herbert Klein, “The Atlantic Slave Trade to 1650,” in Tropical Babylon: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004).

  • 67. Barbara Bush. “African Caribbean Slave Mothers and Children: Traumas of Dislocation and Enslavement Across the Atlantic World,” Caribbean Quarterly, 56, no. 1-2 (2010): 79.

  • 68. Herbert Klein, “African Women in the Atlantic Slave Trade,” in Tropical Babylon: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680, eds. Claire Robertson and Herbert Klein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 29–38.

  • 69. Judy Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 90.

  • 70. Bruce Gilman, “The Politics of Samba,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 2, no. 2 (2001): 67–72.

  • 71. See Linda M. Heywoo, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

  • 72. See Bruce Mouser, “Women Slavers of Guinea-Conakry,” in Women and Slavery in Africa, eds. Claire Robertson and Martin Klein (New York: Heinemann, 1997).

  • 73. Klein, Martin A., “Servitude among the Wolof and Sereer of Senegambia,” in Slavery in Africa, eds. Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1977).

  • 74. See Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands.

  • 75. Susan G. Rogers, “Anti-Colonial Protest in Africa: A Female Strategy Reconsidered,” Heresies 3, no. 1 (1980): 22.

  • 76. Claudia Milne, dir., Asante Market Women (Dover, UK: Granada Films, 1982).

  • 77. See Lynda R. Day, “Long Live the Queen!: The Yaa Asantewaa Centenary and the Politics of History,” JENDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies 3, no. 1 (2000): 153–166.

  • 78. See David O. Ogungbile, “Religious Experience and Women Leadership in Nigeria Islam,” JENDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies Journal 6 (2004): 1–20.

  • 79. See Edward Alpers, Ivory and Slaves: Changing Patterns of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

  • 80. See Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and The Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

  • 81. Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husband: Gender and Sex in An African Society (London: Zed Press, 1987).

  • 82. Jìmí Adésinà and Olujimi Adesina, “Re-appropriating Matrifocality: Endogeneity and African Gender Scholarship,” African Sociological Review/Revue Africaine de Sociologie 14, no. 1 (2010): 2–19.

  • 83. Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu, Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture (New York: SUNY Publications, 2006).

  • 84. Christopher Ehret, An African Classical Age; and Ehret, “Writing African History from Linguistic Evidence,” in Writing African History, ed.John Edward Philips, 86–111 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005).

  • 85. Onaiwu Ogbomo, When Men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations Among the Owan of Nigeria (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997); Rhonda M. Gonzales, Societies, Religion, and History: Central-East Tanzanians and the World They Created, C. 200 BCE to 1800 CE (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Christine Saidi, Women’s Authority and Society; and Stephens, A History of African Motherhood.