1. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti – The Woman Activist
Years before the second wave of feminism began to take form in the West, there was a woman making activist waves in Nigeria. She was a woman nationalist named Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. Her feminism and democratic socialism lead to the creation of The Abeokuta women’s union (AWU) and later Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), organisations and movements that aided Kuti to promote women’s rights to education, employment and to political participation. When king Alake Ademola of Egbaland wanted to impose taxes on women, Kuti and the AWU clan went to protest using the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. They were not equal members of society and were strongly opposed to paying taxes until the injustices were rectified. As the women protested outside the Alake’s house, they sang in Yoruba:
“Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you
are our husband.
Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”
Their unified actions resulted remarkably in the king’s abdication.
2. Yaa Asantewa – The Commander in Chief
No woman is known in the history of the African reactions and responses to European power better than Nana Yaa Asantewa of the Asante state Edweso in Ghana. She was the military leader of what is known as the ‘Yaa Asantewa War’, which was the last war between the Asante and the British, and during which she became referred to by the British as the ‘Joan D’Arc of Africa’. Although she did not enter combat herself, the troops fought in her name and she gave orders and provided the troops with gun powder.
3. Winnie Mandela – The President’s Wife
Twenty years of separation proved too much even for the Mandelas. The young woman Nelson Mandela knew when he was incarcerated was not the middle-aged woman to whom he returned. And she, now accustomed to the company of young male rebels became uncomfortable in the presence of the old Nelson. When the couple embarked on an international journey after Nelson’s release, crowds flocked to see him, the person they considered the hero of South African anti-apartheid politics.
What this crowd was likely not to know was Winnie’s activist work, her leadership and her outspoken opposition to white minority rule played an equal role in the anti-apartheid campaign . There’s a clip here that is historically significant.
4. Margaret Ekpo – The Fashionable Feminist
Margaret Ekpo was famous for being a fashionable woman who combined western and Nigerian fashion influences. Perhaps her background as a seamstress enabled her to even better express her ‘Afropolitan’ lifestyle via her clothing. She loved ballroom dancing and was a devout Christian, but when it came to her political activism, which really is what she was about, she made sure to uphold an image of Africaness, wearing traditional clothes and plaiting hair during political campaigns.
A few women can lay claim to as many legacies for their countrymen as Maragaret Ekpo. At the time of her death she left behind a legacy of ‘One Nigeria’, ‘Women in Politics’, ‘Women in Business and Leadership’ and ‘Emancipation for Women’.
5. Miriam Makeba – The Mother of Africa
Another prominently outspoken and visible opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime was Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa, and the Empress of African song. Makeba was not only involved in radical activity against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power. In fact, she was married (albeit briefly) to the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who was her fourth husband out of five. She said:
Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can’t do anything about that.
6. Queen Nzinga – The reformist
Also knows as Queen Jinga, she is known to have assigned women to important government offices in present day Angola. Two of her war leaders were reputedly her sisters, her council of advisors contained many women, among others her sisters, Princess Grace Kifunji and Mukumbu, the later Queen Barbara, and women were called to serve in her army. Nzinga organized a powerful guerrilla army, conquered some of her enemies and developed alliances to control the slave routes. She even allied with the Dutch to help her stop the Portuguese advancement. After a series of decisive setbacks, Nzinga had to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese, but still refused to pay tribute to the Portuguese king.
7. Ruth Williams, Lady Khama – The Motswanan
Lady Khama was the wife of Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama. She was born in Blackheath in south-east London and was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer. Her marriage to the man who would become Botswana’s president was met with disapproval in Botswana, it enraged apartheid South Africa, and embarrassed the British government. Lady Khama was an influential, politically active first lady during her husband’s tenure as president. When Seretse Khama died in 1980, many expected that Ruth Khama would return to London. But instead she became president of the country’s Red Cross. She said:
“I am completely happy here and have no desire to go anywhere else, I have lived here for more than half my life, and my children are here. When I came to this country I became a Motswana.”
A film, A Marriage of Inconvenience, was made in 1990 about the Khamas.
By the way, I am working with an NGO called Arise Nigeria Woman, and we are focusing primarily on getting women involved in nation building, particularly in the upcoming elections in Nigeria. You can help our work by signing up here and also there is a post on the site also about historical African women.