Whilst West Africa was first settled about 12,000 BCE, the 19th century was a crucial time in the history of region. As abolitionist movements spread across Europe, West Africa’s position as the epicenter for the capture of slaves for transport across the Atlantic was compromised. Instead, the early 19th century in West Africa was characterized by the expansion of the illegal slave trade, the growth of legitimate export trade in agricultural produce, and the widespread introduction of Christianity through missionary evangelism. After the abolition of slavery, European nations then sought to control African territories to economic and political ends. Escalating competition among them culminated in the partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884, leading to yet another phase of Euro-African relations in the 19th century, this time comprising of annexation, occupation, and the colonization of previously independent West African territories by England, France, Portugal, and Germany. Although the evolving roles of African men during this period has been extensively researched, it was not until the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1960s that feminist academics sought to dispense with the androcentric discourses predominant in African history and make women visible in the literature. Due to a dearth of sources, however, research on women in 19th-century West Africa remains a small, niche subject matter. Moreover, historians of Africa remain divided about the status of women in the 19th century. Debates have ranged from women’s complete marginalization and subordination to men to feminist discourses of the 1980s and 1990s, which posited that the 19th century was the height of gender equity and gender complementarity in the region, a status that women lost with colonization and imperial influences. Recent literature, however, has taken a conciliatory position citing some areas, such as the economic sphere in which women participated extensively, but identifying that in other areas, such as politics, women’s involvement remained marginal when compared to those of men. This article, therefore, will explore the limited, but important, corpus of works concerning the roles, status, and position of women in 19th-century West Africa and the methodologies and theories that have shaped this discourse.
The study of women in 19th-century West Africa is an emerging field in African studies, and many aspects of women’s lives remain unexplored in the early 21st century. This section lists some introductory works that are key to gaining a preliminary understanding of both the region and women’s roles within it. Ade-Ajayi and Crowder 1974 offers a historical overview of the West African region from prehistoric times to the postcolonial period. Berger and White 1999, Ogunleye 1999, and Falola and Amponsah 2012 offer a more gender-specific analysis of the women’s economic, political, and sociocultural position in precolonial Africa. Sudarkasa 1986 explores the status of women in indigenous African societies, and Mba 1982 is regionally specific as it explores the history of women’s political mobilization in southern Nigeria.
Ade-Ajayi, J. F., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1974.
This edited volume recounts the history of West Africa from early history to the 20th century and includes chapters on “The Prehistory of West Africa” and “The Atlantic Slave Trade.” Although not explicitly about gender, it is a crucial text for gaining a general understanding of West African history.
Berger, Iris, and E. Frances White. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Part of the “Restoring Women to History” series designed to include non-Western women in women’s history studies, this book is an introductory guide to women’s history in Africa. In Part 2, White centers on women in West and West Central Africa and explores, in part, women’s social, economic, and political roles in the precolonial period.
Falola, Toyin, and Nana Akua Amponsah. Women’s Roles in Sub-Saharan Africa. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012.
This volume is part of a book series compiled for the general public rather than specialized academic audiences. The study gives a general overview of the roles of women in African societies from early history and topics discussed include courtship and marriage, family, religion, work, arts and language, government, and education.
Mba, Nina Emma. Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900–1965. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, 1982.
Mba explores women’s political activities and organization in Southern Nigeria. Although the title gives the timeline as 1900 to 1965, chapter 1, “The Position of Women in Southern Nigeria before 1900,” includes important information about women’s political roles in the precolonial era.
Ogunleye, Tolagbe. “Women in Ancient West Africa.” In Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide. Edited by Bella Vivante, 189–218. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
This chapter in this edited volume explores the status of women in West African cultures by investigating their roles in the household, work, religion, and politics.
Sudarkasa, Niara. “‘The Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies.” Feminist Studies 12.1 (1986): 91–103.
A challenge to discourses that consider women as subordinate to men in precolonial Africa. Sudarkasa argues instead that women held prestigious positions in both the political and economic spheres.
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