Women’s Political Representation in Africa
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0311
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0311
In the early 21st century, African women are world leaders in women’s representation in parliaments, and they are at global averages for women’s representation in cabinets and courts. These are trends that have their origins in the political transitions that swept across the African continent beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s—what some have referred to as Africa’s second independence. Across Africa, political independence was first won beginning in the late 1950s in many countries, but even later, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in other countries. In many countries, single-party rule and military regimes swiftly ensued in the early years of independence, while in those that were not yet independent, armed struggles were often necessary to achieve liberation. While African women had played significant roles in politics in the precolonial and colonial eras across the continent, and in nationalist movements for independence, they had many fewer opportunities in the single-party and military regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But women and their organizations were often at the forefront of the political transitions that beset Africa beginning in the 1990s, and from then onward commenced a renewed representation in formal politics. The research and scholarship followed suit, and there has emerged a significant literature on women’s representation in politics in Africa from the 1990s onward—in legislatures, cabinets, and courts, as well as from women’s movements outside of formal government office. The author would like to thank Amara Galileo for valuable research assistance.
Women’s Political Representation in the Early Years of Independence
Women in Africa have always participated in politics, from long before the imposition of colonial rule (Amadiume 1997). To give just one example, in the then Gold Coast, Yaa Asantewaa (b. 1840–d. 1921) led the last Asante war against the British in the last effort to resist the imposition of colonial rule, a war known in Ghana as the Yaa Asantewaa War, and she was not the only woman at the time to exert such political leadership (Boahen 2000, Brempong 2000). In the waning years of colonial rule, many women and their organizations played pivotal roles in the nationalist movements and liberation struggles that led to independence for most African countries in the early 1960s, including Bibi Titi Mohamed in Tanzania (Geiger 1987), Hannah Kudjoe in Ghana (Allman 2009), and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in Nigeria (Johnson-Odim 2009). And yet, across the continent, women activists’ early contributions to nationalism and independence often “disappeared,” not only from sight, but from historical accounts and records as well, as Allman 2009 and Geiger 1996 demonstrate. The quick turn to single-party or military rule in many African countries after independence often meant that no one was standing for elected office, and, as a rule, no women held leadership positions in militaries at the time. But this is not to say that women were ignored or excluded by single-party and military regimes, as Mama 1998 and Ibrahim 2004 note in their respective descriptions of femocracy and the First Lady Syndrome in Nigeria and Ghana. In other African countries, especially in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, some women were fighting alongside men as combatants in armed liberation struggles or otherwise engaged in exiled movements (Meintjes, et al. 2001). In still other cases, women were embroiled in the civil conflicts and wars that erupted across the continent in the years after independence. While women were often the victims of wars, they were just as likely to be taking on new roles as war and conflict altered patriarchal structures and upended gender relations (Turshen and Twagiramariya 1998). As Hughes and Tripp 2015 (p. 1513) would later show, the end to long-standing civil conflicts in Africa “had large positive impacts on women’s political representation, above what can be explained by electoral institutions and democratization alone.” A number of historians have provided comprehensive overviews of women’s political leadership throughout the ages in Africa, often with the goal of “restoring” women (and their voices) to African history—see, for example, Sheldon 2017; Allman, et al. 2002; and Berger and White 1999.
Allman, Jean. “The disappearing of Hannah Kudjoe: Nationalism, Feminism and the Tyrannies of History.” Journal of Women’s History 21 (2009): 13–35.
Describes the work of Hannah Kudjoe, who served as propaganda secretary and organizer for countless, usually illegal, rallies for the Convention People’s Party before independence, but whose name was nowhere to be found decades later in ceremonies celebrating fifty years of independence.
Allman, Jean Marie, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi, eds. Women in African Colonial Histories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
Focuses on African women and their encounter with European colonialisms, while at the same time undermining “any image of African women as hapless victims,” but rather revealing them to be “historical subjects . . . active in the making of the colonial world” (p. 1).
Amadiume, Ifi. Re-inventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture. London: Zed Books, 1997.
Focuses in particular on the roles of women in precolonial Africa, calling for a new understanding of Africa, one that deconstructs previous colonial histories.
Berger, Iris, and E. Francis White, eds. Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Seeks, as the title suggests, to restore women (and the voices of women) to African history. Seeks also to synthesize two decades of research on African women in African history.
Boahen, Albert Adu. “Yaa Asantewaa in the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900: Military Leader or Symbolic Head?” Ghana Studies 3 (2000): 111–135.
Relies upon Asante oral traditions and some documentary evidence to probe a number of questions about the role of Yaa Asantewaa in the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900.
Brempong, Arhin. “The Role of Nana Yaa Asantewaa in the 1900 Asante War of Resistance.” Ghana Studies 3 (2000): 97–110.
Uses Asante legends (found in songs and praise poems) of Yaa Asantewaa and British written sources to distill her actions during the 1900 war.
Geiger, Susan. “Women in Nationalist Struggle: TANU Activists in Dar es Salaam.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 12.1 (1987):1–26.
Describes the work of Bibi Titi Mohamed and others like her who enrolled thousands of women members for the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in Tanzania, and yet were often neglected in historical accounts of the nationalist movement.
Geiger, Susan. “Tanganyikan Nationalism as ‘Women’s Work’: Life Histories, Collective Biography and Changing Historiography.” Journal of African History 37 (1996): 465–478.
Provides a collective biographical narrative of women activists in TANU that contributes greatly to the understanding of nationalism and nationalist movements in the former Tanganyika.
Hughes, Melanie M., and Aili Mari Tripp. “Civil War and Trajectories of Change in Women’s Political Representation in Africa, 1985–2010.” Social Forces 93.4 (2015): 1513–1540.
Finds that in those countries in Africa that ended long-standing armed conflicts from the 2000s onward, there were large positive impacts on women’s political representation.
Ibrahim, Jibrin. “The First Lady Syndrome and the Marginalisation of Women from Power: Opportunities or Compromises for Gender Equality?” Feminist Africa 3 (2004).
Identifies in Nigeria and Ghana a “First Lady Syndrome,” marked by the emergence of First Lady–led foundations or associations that claimed developmental or emancipatory goals for women and, more importantly, crowded out any other type of independent women’s organizing beyond the First Lady’s—which was clearly in service to the state or regime.
Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “‘For Their Freedoms’: The Anti-imperialist and International Feminist Activity of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in Nigeria.” Women Studies International Forum 32.1 (2009): 51–59.
Celebrates the life and work of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the “mother of women’s movements in Nigeria and an inspiration to those in other parts of Africa.”
Mama, Amina. “Khaki in the Family: Gender Discourses and Militarism in Nigeria.” African Studies Review 41 (1998): 1–18.
Relates how military regimes in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s used gender politics to their own ends, taking advantage of an international concern with women and gender.
Meintjes, Sheila, Anu Pillay, and Meredeth Turshen, eds. The Aftermath: Women in Post-conflict Transformations. London: Zed Books, 2001.
Focuses, in a book of case studies, on women in post-conflict transformations; asks why it was that the gains made by some women during conflicts, such as southern Africa’s liberation wars, were often not sustained after the conflicts ended?
Sheldon, Kathleen. African Women: Early History to the 21st Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
Presents a comprehensive history of Africa “with women as the starting point”; “documents women’s involvement in critical episodes in African history” and shows how women have been central to a history that is often described only from a male perspective (p. xi).
Turshen, Meredeth, and Clotilde Twagiramariya, eds. What Women Do in Wartime: Gender and Conflict in Africa. London: Zed Books, 1998.
Addresses, in a series of case studies, the many roles of women during wartime, but reminds that in situations of war and conflict where gender relations can be upended, women may take on new and significant roles.
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