One of the misconceptions in popular feminist thinking is that the movement started in the Global North and found its way to the Global South.
In traditional Africa, Women play a pivotal role in the organization and maintenance of their communities. They are often the final voice in negotiating disputes and have been the force that nominates men to positions of power. Among the Akan who constitutes about 70% of the Ghanaian population, it is the queen mother in any royal house who designates the next ruler after the death of the incumbent.
panel talk at "Dear White People..." Check Your Privilege! symposium, 11.1.2020
I was born in Ghana, West Africa. My mother Dr. Evelyn Amarteifio, was an activist for women’s
rights and one of the most remarkable organizers in the country. In the 1950s she was a
founding member of the first indigenous Women’s organization in the country. She and her
colleagues established the Federation of Gold Coast Women, later known as the Federation of
Ghana Women. The Federation of Ghana Women challenged customary practices that
impacted negatively on women and their children. It successfully lobbied government to set up
a commission to investigate provisions in customary laws especially for inheritance and
widowhood rites. In the years surrounding the era of Independence the new African political
elite was determined to build the nation as rapidly as possible. Dr. Evelyn Amarteifio and her
organization were among the civil society groups that took an active part in the process. She
and other women activists created a form of internationalism that merged the Pan Africanist
visions of leaders like Kwame Nkrumah with efforts by women’s organizations elsewhere in
Africa and in the Diaspora. Dr. Amarteifio and her group did not fit neatly into the conventional
African national political and economic narrative, which focused principally on taking back
power from the Europeans, and tended to regard the women’s struggle as necessary but for
that moment secondary. This created the basis for future conflicts between the women’s
movement and with national political leaders.
In the 1950s and early sixties I barely understood the feminist paradigms. I assumed that my
mother was working as adults do and women visitors to the house such as Indira Gandhi and
Golda Meir were merely among her collection of friends. I must say however that intuitively I
learnt a lot about advocacy, organizing and the spirit of fighting for ones rights through my
fortunate association as a child with my mother, her friends and her colleagues.
Feminism or Activism became a clearer concept when I went to Germany at age 17 to continue
my education. I was thrown headlong into the social convulsions of European Youth in the
1960s especially Germany. I read books by Simone de Beauvoir and other social thinkers. I was
impressed by her assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. This radical
statement transformed my appreciation for the struggle by my mother and her colleagues. I
learnt about women who challenged the conventional gender roles and advocated the idea
that women’s functions in society were created by social norms rather than being a biological
In a recent interview on the BBC program, Front Row, between the writer Mary Beard and
Margaret Atwood, Ms Beard attempted to elicit a definition of feminism from Margaret
Atwood. Her response is that the term is very complex and probably exists in as many forms as
people whose opinions are solicited. This essay seeks to explore the struggle to define feminism
in Africa. It is very much a work in progress and I seek to illustrate the effort to come to terms
with the experience of being feminine in this complex continent in the 21st century.
Broadly speaking, Feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement
aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women. In patriarchal societies
where men held the leadership positions, the social order was based on their perspectives.
Gender influences the expectations and perceptions of men and women and defines the role
they play at specific times in history. In these societies dominated by patriarchy, Feminism
seeks to advocate and enhance women's emancipation.
African women from the diaspora have a profound history of feminism that reflects the
conditions of slavery. It illustrates their distinct concerns, values and the role they played both
as Africans and women. Their unique status has had an immense impact on two of the most
important social reform movements in America: the struggle for Black rights and women’s
African feminism and Feminists
African feminism is a type of feminism created by women on the African continent that
specifically addresses their unique conditions and needs.
One of the great misconceptions in popular feminist thinking is that the movement started in
the Global North and found its way to the Global South.
In traditional Africa, Women play a pivotal role in the organization and maintenance of their
communities. They are often the final voice in negotiating disputes and have been the force
that nominates men to positions of power. Among the Akan who constitutes about 70% of the
Ghanaian population, it is the queen mother in any royal house who designates the next ruler
after the death of the incumbent.
Dr. Cheikh Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, politician and an advocate for African
federalism observed in his book “The cultural unity of Negro Africa”, written in 1959 and
published in Paris by Presence Africain, that women played a major role in the first African
societies. The woman’s authority was not only located within her family but women played
major roles as nation builders. They governed kingdoms, established cities, led military
expeditions and founded states. This arrangement was complicated and many did not survive
the spread of Islam, Christianity and later colonization.
A few examples will suffice.
Yaa Asantewaa was queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire in the 19th century. She
became the only woman to lead the Asante army during its long protracted struggle against
invading English forces. Queen Amina ruled the Zazzau Kingdom, Zaria in present-day Nigeria,
at the end of the sixteenth century. She expanded the Zazzau territory and ensured political
stability in her state during her 34-year reign. Her period is known as the golden age of the
region. Sarraounia Mangou was the most famous of the Hausa queens. During the 19th century
many chiefs in her region submitted to French power but Sarraounia Mangou led her troops to
battle the invading forces during the Battle of Lougou (present-day Niger) in 1899. The
Dahomey Amazons or Mino, which means "our mothers," was a Fon all-female military
regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the present-day Republic of Benin which lasted until
the end of the 19th century. The Mino took a prominent role in the Grand Council, debating the
policy of the kingdom.
In East Africa, Nzinga Mbandi became queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the
Mbundu people in Angola in 1624. She deliberately appointed women to positions of power in
her kingdom. Nyabingi Priestesses Muhumusa (died 1945) and Kaigirwa (unknown) were
feared leaders of the East African Nyabingi priestesses group that was influential in Rwanda and
Uganda from 1850 to 1950. She became the first in a line of rebel priestesses fighting colonial
domination in the name of Nyabingi, and even after being imprisoned she inspired a vast
Meanwhile in the diaspora, Queen Nanny (c. 1685 – c. 1755) was a Jamaican national hero and
a well-known leader of the Jamaican Maroons in the 18th century. For over 30 years she freed
more than 800 slaves and helped them settle into Maroon communities. Harriet Tubman (1820
– March 10, 1913) was an African-American abolitionist, humanitarian, and Union spy during
the American Civil War. She was famous for her role in the network of antislavery activists and
safe houses known as the Underground Railroad and for the largest liberation of enslaved Black
people in American history. Carlota Lukumí was forced into slavery in the city of Matanzas,
Cuba as a child. In 1843, she and another enslaved woman named Fermina led an organized
rebellion at the Triumvarato sugar plantation. She went on to wage a well-organized armed
uprising against at least five brutal slave plantation operations in the area.
The Nationalist movements
It was observed by Aida Opoku-Mensah in her article, Marching On written in 2001 in the
inaugural issue of the Feminist media Studies, that feminist research is rarely undertaken in
Africa. 20th century feminist literature were often written from elitist, Eurocentric point of view
and the feminist theories project leaders who are predominantly middle class white women
from Western Europe and North America. In many colonial histories and histories of
nationalism, African women are completely absent as historical actors and appear only in
relation to male actors, or occasionally deviants.
Women were in the forefront of the movement for national liberation in Ghana. Between 1948
and 1966, the political party founded by Kwame Nkrumah which became his vehicle to lead the
country to independence in 1956 had many women holding important positions in it. They
were journalists, intelligence operatives, fundraisers and political officials. The involvement of
women in the struggle for national liberation and Pan-Africanism was not confined to Ghana
alone. In Southern Africa and other theaters in the struggle, African, colored, Indian and white
communities fought alongside the liberation forces. Women were indicted under the treason
trials that were held against the revolutionary democratic movement between the years of
In Egypt, women participated fully in the 1919 uprising against British imperialism. They were
equally campaigning for equality of the sexes thereby engaging in a ‘dual struggle’. Egyptian
women were crucial to the partial removal of the British from Egypt in 1922.” (Journal of
Women’s Studies, March 2013, Vol. 14, Article 5)
Women’s participation in the struggle for independence was also notable in Nigeria. In 1929,
thousands of Igbo women organized a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British
colonial administrators in southeastern Nigeria, touching off the most serious challenge to
British rule in the history of the colony. The ‘Women's War’ took months for the government
to suppress and became a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest.
The blow to African Feminism
Culture, tradition, history, habits, beliefs and practices determine feminism in any given society.
During the Suffragette movement, Black feminists discovered that it was not just racist
politicians that stood in the way of their enfranchisement but other white women including
suffragettes who often became their most formidable adversaries. By the late 19th century the
movement which had seen Black and White women engaged in reform for women’s rights,
splintered over the issue of race. Black women formed their own groups to continue their
In Africa, the development of the modern feminist movement and its alliance with the
anticolonial struggle has come under serious academic examination and led to some surprising
Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, politician and advocate for African
federalism has this to say:
“It was not the colonialist who dealt the final blow to the traditional autonomy and power of
African women, however, but the elite that inherited the colonial machinery of oppression and
exploitation, which they have turned against their own people.”
This statement is illuminated by Tawia Adamafio, information minister and one of the most
powerful politicians in Ghana in the Nkrumah regime in the 1960’s.
In 1960 a Conference of the Women of Africa and African Descent was convened. This
conference was planned by the Federation of Ghana Women. It brought together all the leading
female voices on the continent as well as in the diaspora. According to Tawia Adamafio,
Nkrumah saw the opportunity to bring the independent Federation of Ghana Women under the
control of the party by merging it with the Ghana Women’s League which was the women’s
wing of the ruling party. This new association was to be called the National Council of Ghana
Women. He justified the move by the party’s fears that the women were becoming too
powerful and needed to be controlled.
Adamafio stated in his book published in 1982 entitled, “By Nkrumah’s Side: The Labor and the
Wounds”, that he led negotiations for the merger between the Federation and the League.
From Adamafio’s account of the period, the women within the two organizations exercised
significant degrees of independence of thought and action. He says of the discussions among
male members of the party and trade union movement that: “We foresaw a situation where
this NCGW [National Council of Ghana Women] would grow so monolithic and powerful that
the party could lose control of it. When you had its leadership bristling with dynamic women
intellectuals and revolutionaries and the organization had become conscious of its strength, it
could break off in rebellion, form a party by itself and sweep everything before it at the polls.
The ratio of women voters to men then was about three or more to one and the position could
well arise, where Ghana would be ruled by a woman President and an all-woman cabinet and
the principal secretaries and Regional Commissioners were all women and men would be
relegated to the back room! It would be disastrous for Ghana, for, I could see men being ridden
like horses! A male tyrant could be twisted round a woman’s little finger. An Amazonian tyrant
could only probably be subdued by a battery of artillery!”
The foregoing quotation illustrates in a brutal manner the betrayal of the women’s movement
by the male political establishment and the growing power of the patriarchy. NCGW came into
being as the women’s wing of the party. It was created as a means to an end and not an end in
itself. The aim was to bring all sectors of the country under the party and to consolidate the one
party government of Kwame Nkrumah. There was no genuine commitment to enhance the lives
of women. Weakened by their differences, the leaders of the two powerful women’s
organizations were unable to fight against government proposals and were sidelined from all
positions within the newly formed Association and in the political arena.
After independence, women were further sidelined from political life in Africa with a few
exceptions. In Tanzania and in Sierra Leone, male leaders did not honor their electoral promises
and commitments to their female counterparts in the struggle. In most countries where the
women’s organizations were brought under the umbrella of the ruling party, the movements
collapsed when the ruling parties failed to consolidate its authority.
It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders.
This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of
women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role
The case of Winnie Mandela
The most famous contemporary example for the fight for female empowerment was that of
Winnie Mandela. She played a historical role in mobilizing young people against the apartheid
system, openly leading defiance against it. She was arrested several times by the security forces
and faced torture and other forms of violence. When the truth and reconciliation commission
got under way after a peaceful transition in South Africa, Winnie Mandela openly criticized the
process as incapable of bringing true reconciliation. She felt that it lacked a sense of justice. She
was against forgiving some of the crimes committed by apartheid forces. She was doubtful
about the way the ANC was to lead society, and she said so. Winnie Mandela was not a
moderate when it came to transformation and ensuring that black people share the hope of a
new dispensation in South Africa. She also did not have a good relationship with the ANC during
Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. She grew more isolated from the party during Jacob Zuma’s tenure.
In that period, she had the courage to speak out about her belief that the party was pursuing
the wrong course, particularly on corruption.
The death of Winnie Mandel, aged 81, was an opportunity for South Africa to reflect on
whether the ruling African National Congress has done enough in government to honoring the
sacrifices made by the anti-apartheid liberation fighters.
Speaking on state television, President Cyril Ramaphosa praised her as a “tireless advocate for
the dispossessed and the marginalized”, saying she “bore the brunt of the senseless brutality of
the apartheid state with stoicism and fortitude”.
Nothing about us without us
In the last 50 years we have seen huge transformations in our lives and conditions. Today
African women are increasingly exerting leadership from politics to business. As feminists, they
have helped shape global norms regarding women’s rights in multiple arenas. The future of
African feminism is best summarized in a speech made by Winnie Mandela during the 7th Trust
Annual Dialogue on African Women in Politics held in January 2010 at Abuja as Written by
Austine Odo for the Pan-African News wire, Friday, 22 January 2010
The legendary Mrs. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela called on Women to rise up to the challenge of
their marginalization in the male-dominated society by declaring that “Nothing about us
without us”. She encouraged them to swell the ranks of all social and political structures where
the future of Mankind is discussed.
One manifestation of the marginalization of women in African economic life is that in most
African countries the so called informal economy is dominated by women. In Ghana this
encompasses 70% of the working population. However women are not equally represented in
the boardrooms of the mainstream corporations. Mrs. Mandela advised women to move into
this aspect of national economy in order to bring a gender perspective in public policies. She
advocated that African women should extend their engagement to discussions about “the
politics of business” as opposed to “the business of politics.
Mrs. Mandela recognized unity among women on the continent and its regions as a principle
upon which all of this must radiate. She urged women to use a united front to approach their
struggle for liberation and their social, political, cultural and economic development and to
regard failures, when they occur, not as finite moments, but as occasions for a new beginning.
“We can only build an unstoppable wave of collective energies if we are able to reach out to
one another”, she said.
Her vision is for African women to form a new internationalism, which has been key to
women’s movements for emancipation in previous decades. One geared towards building a
new and different reality which she acknowledged, would be their unique contribution to the
This way, the struggle, which like all struggles, have its own detractors, will be won through
these words that have always inspired, which is, a people united shall never be defeated.
When and Where I enter, The Impact of Black women on Race and Sex in America, 1984, Paula
Winnie Mandela and the 1975 Soweto Uprising, the International Journal of African Historical
Studies, Vol 33, Nr3 (2000), Helena Pohlandt McCormick
Marching on: African Feminist Media Studies, vol1, No1, 2001, Aida Opoku Mensah
The Disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe, Nationalism, Feminism and the Tyrannies of History,
Journal of Women’s History, 2009, Vol 21, Nr3, Jean Alman
7th Trust Annual Dialogue on African Women in Politics, Austine Odo for the Pan-African News
wire, Friday, 22 January 2010
Rewriting women into Ghanaian History, 1950-1966, (2012) Adwoa Kwakyewaa Opong,
Revisiting the role of women in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, September 2016, Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, The Pan -African News Wire.
About the author, written by the author
Korkor Amarteifio, starting her career in Canada, introduced the music and art of Africa and the diaspora to Canadian audiences. She assisted in establishing the Equity office at the Canada Council for the Arts. In Ghana, she was Director of Programs and Operations at the National Theatre and worked at the Institute for Music and Development, lobbying a creative sector development plan into Ghana’s Development Agenda for economic growth (GSGDA); implemented the Ghana Denmark Cultural Fund for innovation and excellence in the arts and led the movement for the African Creative City/Cultural Capital project. She was the Chairperson of the Arterial Network, the dynamic pan-African civil society network engaged in the African creative and cultural sectors.