African Studies Feminism
Desiree Lewis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0116


Contemporary forms of feminist activism in Africa originated in women’s participation in nationalist struggles during the 1960s. Women’s experiences of armed struggle and activism encouraged them to take up active positions in public life. Early 20th-century feminist struggles for autonomy and agency were therefore embedded in anticolonial struggles. After independence, the patriarchal and neo-imperialist character of postcolonial governance led radical women to become increasingly disaffected with the state and party politics. Some women’s movements and organizations formed during the anticolonial struggle were incorporated into governing parties and official nation-building; the radical ones developed along increasingly independent lines. Forming movements and organizations in civil society, these were affiliated with influential sites of feminist intellectual activism and knowledge production. In recent years, there have been growing ideological differences among feminists about appropriate action in the postcolonial context. Reformist and liberal organizations have aligned themselves with state feminism and Western donor funding and agendas. Other more radical organizations have struggled to retain their autonomy. The politics of the latter have therefore echoed the perspectives of feminist scholars seeking to define independent strategies for challenging gendered and other social inequalities in the postcolonial period. The institutionalizing of feminist studies in African universities began with the setting up of women’s and gender studies departments from the early 1990s, and drew on Western countries’ donor funding and expertise to establish academic sites. Although several activist networks and research sites had produced work before the setting up of sites in universities, a consolidated tradition of African feminist knowledge production was strengthened through teaching and research. Alongside scholarship produced within Africa, a vibrant tradition of northern-based feminist research on African contexts has complemented work within Africa. Trajectories in the work produced within and beyond Africa can be categorized with reference to the subjects that feminists have focused on. Earlier work concentrates on the exploitation, exclusion, and subordination of women in relation to multiple power relations including patriarchal, colonial, class, and neo-colonial relations. More recent work, especially writing during the last decade, has dealt intricately with social constructions of gender and their wide-ranging effects.

General Overviews

Few insightful book-length studies or anthologies deal solely with feminist activism or feminist theorizing throughout Africa, although many show how feminist activism responds to regional and country-specific challenges or particular fields within the continent’s rapidly changing social, economic, and cultural landscape. In reflecting the tendency of activism and scholarship to deal with specific issues in particular contexts, writers during the 1990s raised the theoretical implications of gendered understandings of areas such as labor, public participation, or access to sites of power, including the state, literary and cultural production, and education. Recent work has sought to deepen analysis of gendered subjectivities, agencies, and resistance in a range of social, political, and cultural spheres. The most useful general overviews are those that explicitly raise the conceptual and epistemological implications of analyzing gender within particular fields and regions. Because they synthesize writings from different disciplines and contexts, anthologies provide illuminating sources both for established researchers and for those new to the field of African gender studies. One very useful anthology is Ampofo and Arnfred 2010, which draws together writing on activism from the start of the new millennium, and demonstrates the value of specific theoretical frameworks for explaining African gender struggles. A wider range of authors from Africa and the North is included in Cornwall 2005, comprising twenty-eight articles that include previously published influential work. Complementing the emphasis on applications of feminist theorizing in these anthologies is Oyewumi 2005, which focuses on the epistemological effects of African feminist scholarship in critiquing Western-centric theorizing. Edited collections such as Ampofo and Arnfred 2010, Cornwall 2005, and Oyewumi 2005 demonstrate the strengths of work that clearly identifies and critiques dominant power relations. More complex and ambiguous identities and power relations are explored in Hodgson and McCurdy 2001 and Cole, et al. 2007. Based on a journal issue, the former book contains essays that interpret identities, behavior, and relationships in ways that transcend their categorization as straightforwardly conservative or progressive. The careful unravelling of gendered identities, relations, and institutions is developed in Cole, et al. 2007, which also concentrates on emerging work on masculinities. While these anthologies reveal the scope and central subjects of feminist work on African contexts, numerous book chapters and articles published since the 1990s have shaped or reflected key trends in feminism. Kuumba 2009 and Sylvester 1995 are especially useful overviews because they outline the central themes and politics of African feminism, and explain their transnational implications. Published more than a decade apart, each explains the particular contexts and political challenges of African feminism.

  • Ampofo, Akosua Adomako, and Signe Arnfred, eds. African Feminist Politics of Knowledge: Tensions, Challenges and Possibilities. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2010.

    Including eight chapters, submissions in this collection address forms of activism, struggles for reproductive rights, and the future of feminist activism and research in the context of neoliberalism and the donor industry. The first three sections have had continued relevance for knowledge production about the distinctive power relations and histories of African contexts: “Transcending the Body of Knowledge”; “Decolonizing Feminism”; and “Reconceptualizing Gender.”

  • Cole, Catherine, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan F. Miescher, eds. Africa After Gender? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

    This volume includes contributions that deal both with general theoretical issues and with particular social or cultural processes in specific contexts. Each contribution demonstrates the pervasive and dynamic impact of gender in African social, cultural, and political life, and explores subjects including the politics of everyday life, masculinities, and popular culture.

  • Cornwall, Andrea, ed. Readings in Gender in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    Contributions in this collection have all been previously published, but are drawn together in this collection to form an insightful chronology for understanding theoretical and political trajectories.

  • Hodgson, Dorothy, and Sheryl McCurdy, eds. “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.

    The seventeen chapters in this book, although focusing on social history, have interdisciplinary relevance. Each explores the ambiguous, uneven, and complex ways in which men and women acquire a sense of self and agency in relation to intersecting discourses and power relations.

  • Kuumba, M. Bahati. “Transgressive African Feminism: The Possibilities of Global Organisation.” In Women’s Activism in South Africa: Working Across Divides. Edited by Hannah Britton, Jennifer Fish, and Sheila Meintjes, 262–284. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.

    Focusing on her location as a black feminist in the United States, the author raises the renewed relevance of theorizing intersections of race, gender, and globalization to contemporary feminist activism.

  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke, ed. African Gender studies: A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

    This volume draws together interdisciplinary work that deals broadly with debates about theorizing gender in African contexts characterized by neo-imperial economic and cultural control.

  • Sylvester, Christine. “African and Western Feminisms: World-Traveling the Tendencies and Possibilities.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 20.4 (1995): 941–969.

    DOI: 10.1086/495027

    Affirming the significance of situated feminisms and identity politics, the author confronts the difficulties of conceptualizing coalition politics. She demonstrates that African feminism offers valuable theoretical guidelines for transnational feminism.

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