In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and African History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Review Essays
  • Historiography and Methodology
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Early History with a Gender Focus
  • Early Colonial History, 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries
  • The 19th Century
  • Slavery
  • Colonial History in the 20th Century
  • Nationalism and Anticolonial Resistance
  • Post-Independence History
  • Case Study Monographs

African Studies Women and African History
Kathleen Sheldon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0005


African women’s history embraces a wide variety of societies in more than fifty countries with different geographies, social customs, religions, and historical situations. Despite that range, it is possible to discuss some common threads, beginning with Africa as a predominantly agricultural continent where between 65 and 80 percent of African women are engaged in cultivating food for their families. The centrality of agriculture influences the control of land and of labor by kin groups and clans, usually represented by male political and religious leadership. Africa had a high incidence of matrilineal descent, a social system that placed a woman and her female relations at the center of kinship and family, though male clan leaders influenced the arrangement of families through marriage. Women used a variety of routes to exercise authority—through women’s organizations, as spiritual leaders, and sometimes as queen mothers, advising male rulers and serving as co-rulers or regents. Europeans first arrived at coastal communities in Africa at the end of the 15th century, and their written observations offer some of the earliest documentation concerning African women, though more likely to include information on elite women. Along the West African coast, female market traders acted as arbiters between local societies and European traders. Slaves within Africa were more likely to be women, a reflection of their productive and reproductive contributions to their communities. Women were more vulnerable to enslavement, and women could be integrated into a new society while men were more likely to be traded away or killed as enemies. Women were also slave owners, especially in areas where they had the opportunity to accrue wealth through trading. The presence of European missionaries, traders, and officials increased throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, with many women losing power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops, while continuing their work growing food for their families. Women’s formal political activity was generally ignored and denigrated by colonial authorities, and they lost ground with colonial legal systems. Simultaneously, they found new ways of working and initiated new family forms as Christianity spread and urbanization accelerated. As nationalist movements gained strength in the early 20th century, women’s involvement was essential to the eventual success of those movements, contributing in a variety of ways, including their status as spirit mediums. In areas with more entrenched white settler populations, Africans turned to sometimes protracted armed struggle, and women were centrally involved, though generally not as actual combatants. The 21st century finds women continuing their primary responsibility for agricultural labor and facing ongoing hindrances to gaining education and employment equal to African men. Women still have serious problems in the areas of polygyny, divorce, inheritance, and widowhood. Since the 1980s, the scourge of HIV/AIDS has inflicted untold hardships on women. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been marked by localized wars in more than a dozen countries, with women frequently the victims. Yet the last half of the 20th century also brought expanded opportunities for education, new job possibilities, increased political involvement, and improved family expectations.

General Overviews

Women have been neglected and marginalized in the standard texts of African history, and few books have provided an overview of African women’s history. The materials included here are important introductory narratives about women’s history across the continent. Sheldon 2017 is the most recent and provides a comprehensive overview of essential topics. Berger and White 1999, Coquery-Vidrovitch 1997, and the article Johnson-Odim 2004 provide a narrative history of women in Africa, and together with the readings collected in Hafkin and Bay 1976, are all good introductory sources. Imam, et al. 1997 is an overview of the state of the field rather than a narrative history, and both Meena 1992 and Oyewùmí 1997 offer insight into some of the theoretical considerations of studying the history of African women. Robertson 1988 makes an argument for the value of studying African women’s history.

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

    A narrative guide to women’s history in Africa, divided into two sections, with Berger writing on East and southern Africa and White contributing on West and West Central Africa. This volume is part of the series “Restoring Women to History” and was originally designed to assist professors who wished to be more inclusive of non-Western women in their courses.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. African Women: A Modern History. Translated by Beth Gillian Raps. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.

    Originally published as Les Africaines: Histoire des femmes d’Afrique noire du XIX au XX siècle (Paris: Éditions Desjonquères, 1994). Presents material thematically within broad chronological categories, with chapters on slavery, peasant women, powerful women, prostitution, poverty, factory work, trade, schooling, and other similar topics.

  • Hafkin, Nancy J., and Edna G. Bay, eds. Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.

    One of the earliest publications to address African women’s history. Many of the articles in this collection remain classics of analysis, including those on women entrepreneurs in 18th-century Senegal, the Aba Women’s War, East African spirit mediums, and women’s associations in Mombasa, Kenya.

  • Imam, Ayesha M., Amina Mama, and Fatou Sow, eds. Engendering African Social Sciences. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1997.

    A collection of articles that offers an overview of history, economics, psychology, education, the environment, agriculture, and culture across Africa. Reprinted as Sexe, genre et société: Engendrer les sciences sociales africaines (Paris: Karthala, 2004).

  • Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “Women and Gender in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa.” In Women’s History in Global Perspective. Vol. 3. Edited by Bonnie G. Smith, 9–67. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

    Begins with human origins, and includes the spread of Christianity and Islam, early societies, and colonialism and independence. Johnson-Odim covers a lot of ground in a coherent manner. The article was later issued by the American Historical Association as part of their pamphlet series on Women’s and Gender History in Global Perspective (Washington DC: American Historical Association, 2007).

  • Meena, Ruth, ed. Gender in Southern Africa: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues. Harare, Zimbabwe: SAPES, 1992.

    Edited by a leading Tanzanian scholar, this collection of essays by African women and women based in Africa discusses explicitly theoretical issues related to feminism, economics, sexuality, and women’s studies more generally from a southern African perspective.

  • Oyewùmí, Oyèrónké. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

    A key theoretical contribution to gender analysis in Africa. Oyewùmí, using evidence from the Yoruba in Nigeria, argues that male and female gender divisions taken for granted in the West do not apply to African societies, where ascription to a male or female gender position does not always correlate to biological sexual differences between men and women.

  • Robertson, Claire C. “Never Underestimate the Power of Women: The Transforming Vision of African Women’s History.” Women’s Studies International Forum 11.5 (1988): 439–453.

    DOI: 10.1016/0277-5395(88)90020-9

    Robertson suggests important ways in which African women’s history questions assumptions found in women’s history and in African history, particularly by understanding African experiences of marriage and family, economic production, religion, legal issues, and class formation, including slavery. Though written in the 1980s, her argument continues to have value, in part because of the continuing marginalization of African women’s history.

  • Sheldon, Kathleen. African Women: Early History to the 21st Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt2005v2z

    Sheldon provides a chronological overview of African women’s contributions and involvement in sub-Saharan African history. Beginning with early history and ending with current events, the book covers religion and slavery in the 19th century, continuity and change in women’s work and family life, the impact of colonialism and women’s resistance, and politics after independence.

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