The history of African women has developed into a vital and steadily expanding area of research and study, motivated, as with other areas of women’s history, by the development of the international feminist movement. African women’s history also paralleled the expansion of African history following World War II, as scholars inside and outside of Africa began to focus on historical transformations on the African continent. Below are African female icons that shaped history.
1. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti – The Woman Activist
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.
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’.
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.
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.
Dahia al-Kahina, in what is now Algeria, at the end of the seventh century was especially active in the North African resistance to the Arab invasions of Africa. Around the year 690, she took personal command of the African armies. Under her vigilant direction and leadership, the Arab legions were forced to retreat, regroup and reassess their strategy and tactics for the invasion of North Africa. The Arabs were intent on occupying Africa, however, and as the military situation of the Africans deteriorated, the determed Kahina instituted a scorched earth policy of destruction. Her posture was that she would rather see the destruction of the land rather than cede it to invaders. Sadly, the effects of the devastation can still be seen today in the North African countryside.
8. AMINA SUKHERA
The great African woman called Amina Sukhera was a princess of Zazzau (now Zaria), in what is now northern Nigeria. She was born near the year 1533 and died about the year 1610. The Arabic name Amina means truthful, trustworthy and honest. Amina Sukhera was a fierce warrior. According to tradition, as a child, Amina’s grandmother once caught her holding a dagger. As an adult, Amina refused to marry, and helped Zazzau (Zaria) become a focal point for trade and commercial activity. She also expanded its territory. The introduction of kola nuts into cultivation in the area is attributed to Amina. A statue at Amina at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, Nigeria, honors her, and numerous educational institutions bear her name.
9. LUZIA: THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN
Luzia is the name for the skeleton of a prehistoric woman found in a cave in Brazil, South America. Some archaeologists believe she may have been part of the first wave of immigrants to journey from Africa to South America. Nicknamed Luzia (her name pays homage to the famous African fossil “Lucy,” who lived 3.4 million years ago), the 11,500 year-old skeleton was found in Lapa Vermelha, Brazil, in 1975. The skull itself was buried under more than forty feet of mineral deposits and debris—separated from the rest of the skeleton—but in surprisingly good condition. There were no other human remains at the site. So we can say that the woman dubbed Luzia was an African woman in the Americas long before the advent of enslavement.