Skip to main content

African Women’s Movements in the Twentieth Century: A Hidden History

  • Iris Berger

This article begins by exploring the efforts of African women’s movements from the 1990s onward to end violent civil conflicts and to insist on guarantees of gender equity in newly formed governments. It attempts to explain these recent successes first by examining the complex relationships between international women’s movements and African women’s groups from the Second World War onward, particularly from the era of the U.N. Decade for Women beginning in 1975. The article then turns to a broader problem: exploring the connections between contemporary women’s activism and deeper currents in African history that link the precolonial period with the more recent past. By examining a variety of twentieth-century women’s protests, it argues that cloaked in the language of political, economic, and environmental grievances, these movements also reflect a hidden history of women’s influence as public healers, empowered not only to cure individuals, but also to mend broader relationships in the community.

Cet article commence par explorer les efforts des mouvements des femmes africaines dans les années 1990 pour mettre fin à des conflits civils violents et pour exiger des garanties d'équité entre les sexes dans les gouvernements nouvellement formés. Il tente d'expliquer leurs succès récents en examinant les relations complexes entre les mouvements féminins internationaux et les groupes des femmes africaines depuis la seconde guerre mondiale, en particulier depuis 1975, date ayant marqué le début de la “Décennie des femmes,” initiée par les Nations Unies. L’article se tourne ensuite vers un problème plus large: il explore les liens entre l’activisme des femmes contemporaines et les courants plus profonds de l’histoire africaine qui relient la période précoloniale avec un passé plus récent. En examinant plusieurs types de manifestations menées par des mouvements féminins au XXème siècle, cet article met en relief le fait qu’à travers le langage de leurs revendications politiques, économiques, et environnementales, ces mouvements laissent transparaître l’histoire cachée de l’influence des femmes dans leur rôles de guérisseuses publiques, ayant non seulement le pouvoir de guérir des individus, mais aussi de réparer des relations plus larges au sein de la communauté.

Hide All
Amadiume, Ife. 1987. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Press.
Bastien, Misty L. 2002. “Vultures of the Marketplace”: Southwestern Nigerian Women and the Discourses of the Ogu Umunwaanyi (Women’s War) of 1929.” In Women in African Colonial Histories, edited by Geiger, Susan, Musisi, Nakanyike, and Allman, Jean Marie, 260–81. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bauer, Gretchen, and Britton, Hannah E., eds. 2006. Women in African Parliaments. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner.
Berger, Iris. 1994. “Fertility as Power: Spirit Mediums, Priestesses and the State.” In Revealing Prophets: Prophecy in East African History, edited by Anderson, David and Johnson, Douglas, 6582. London: James Currey.
Berger, Iris. 2012. “Decolonizing Women’s Activism: Africa in the Transformation of International Women’s Movements.” In Women and Social Movements, International, edited by Dublin, Tom and Sklar, Katherine Kish. Alexandria, Va.: Alexander Street Press.
Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. 2013. “Ending Liberia’s Second Civil War: Religious Women as Peacemakers,” Washington, D.C.: Berkley Center, Georgetown University.
Blain, Keisha N. 2008. “‘We Women Are Like Trees Which Bear Fruit’: A Critical Analysis of the 1929 Women’s War.” JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies 12: 2941.
Britton, Hannah E. 2005. Women in the South African Parliament: From Resistance to Governance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Bunch, Charlotte. 1990. “Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Towards a Re-Vision of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 12 (4): 486–98.
Charumbira, Ruramisai. 2008. “Nehanda and Gender Victimhood in the Central Mashonaland 1896–97 Rebellions: Revisiting the Evidence. History in Africa 35: 1331.
Economic Commission for Africa. 1972. “Women: The Neglected Human Resource for African Development.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 6 (2): 359–70.
Edgar, Robert R., and Sapire, Hilary. 1999. African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth Century South African Prophet. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Feierman, Steven. 1999. “Colonizers, Scholars, and the Creation of Invisible Histories.” In Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, edited by Bonnell, Victoria E. and Hunt, Lynn, 182216. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fick, Glenda, Meintes, Sheila, and Simons, Mary, eds. 2002. One Woman, One Vote: The Gender Politics of South African Elections. Johannesburg: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.
Gbowee, Leymah, and Mithers, Carol. 2011. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayers and Sex Changed a Nation. Philadelphia: Beast Books.
Geiger, Susan. 1997. TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanganyikan Natonalism, 1955–1965. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Geisler, Gisela. 2004. Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa. Uppsala: Nordiske Afrikainstituter.
Grant, Nicholas. 2010. “Black History Month: Lilian Masediba Ngoyi (1911–1980).” Women’s History Network Blog, October 17.
Hari, Johann. 2009. “Can One Woman Save Africa?The Independent, September 28.
Hassim, Shireen. 2006. Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia. 1996. Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in Roho Religion in Western Kenya. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kodesh, Neil. 2010. Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Landau, Paul Stuart. 1995. The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender, and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Lodge, Tom. 1983. Black Politics in South Africa since 1945. London: Longman.
Maathai, Wangari Muta. 2007. Unbowed: A Memoir. New York: Anchor Books.
Matera, Mark, Bastian, Misty L., and Kent, Susan Kingsley. 2012. The Women’s War of 1929: Gender and Violence in Colonial Nigeria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Myakayaka-Manzini, Mavivi. 2003. “Political Party Quotas in South Africa.” Paper presented at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)/Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Conference, “The Implementation of Quotas: African Experiences,” Pretoria, November 11–12.
Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónké. 1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Reticker, Gini, dir. 2008. Pray the Devil Back to Hell. New York: Fork Films LLC.
Schoenbrun, David L. 2006. “Conjuring the Modern in Africa: Durability and Rupture in Histories of Public Healing between the Great Lakes of East Africa.” American Historical Review 111 (5): 1403–39.
Sisulu, Elinor. 2003. Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Claremont, S.A.: David Philip.
Snyder, Margaret. 2006. “Unlikely Godmother: The UN and the Global Women’s Movement.” In Global Feminism: Transnational Women’s Activism, Organizing and Women’s Rights, edited by Myra Marx Feree and Aili Marie Tripp, 2450. New York: New York University Press.
Snyder, Margaret, and Tadesse, Mary. 1995. African Women and Development—A History: The Story of the African Training and Research Centre for Women of the United Nations Economic Commission. London: Zed Books.
Tamale, Sylvia. 1999. When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda. Kampala: Fountain Publishers.
Tibbets, A. 1994. “Mamas Fighting for Freedom in Kenya.” Africa Today 41 (4): 2748.
Tripp, , , Aili Marie, et al. 2009. African Women’s Movements: Changing Political Landscapes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turok, Mary. 1991. “The Women’s Quota Debate: Building Non-Sexism.”
Walker, Cherryl. 1995. “Conceptualising Motherhood in Twentieth Century South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 21 (3): 417–37.
Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). 1954. That They May Live: African Women Arise. Berlin: WIDF.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 0002-0206
  • EISSN: 1555-2462
  • URL: /core/journals/african-studies-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed