7 African female icons that shaped history

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In his book ‘Society must be defended’, written in 1976, Michel Foucault speaks about historical revisionism, hinting to a an earlier statement made by Winston Churchill who said that “History is written by the victors”.

These discussions are still relevant today. A significant amount of historical narrative is still being written by those with the most power. If you walk into any of the world’s most powerful institutions (government, academic or corporate) you will identify that the group that are shaping history are Euro-American men. I’m not saying that this group is intentionally shaping history for the rest of us, or that other groups aren’t contributing in large measures to what future generations will consider history. Rather, I want to highlight that the power of writing one’s own history seems to be what history making is all about. Knowing the sources of stories that shape our lives, helps to combat the danger of the single story.

Africa is again a continent of international interest, which is good, but who is writing the current narrative about Africa, also that which is about ‘rebranding’ the continent? I think the source of the information that we consume, is even more important than the information itself.

On the other hand it’s worth knowing that magazines like FAB magazine, are African owned, managed and produced. As a regular contributor to FAB, I am pleased to be involved in a project that is by Africans for Africans. Another example of home-grown storytelling is Spielworks, a Kenyan media content producer.

Next week I’ll be posting about 7 African male icons but first up are 7 women (out of many more and this is a great resource for women leaders in Africa).

 7 African female icons that shaped history

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

1. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti – The Woman Activist

Years before the second wave of feminism began to take form in the West, there was a woman making activist waves in Nigeria. She was a woman nationalist named Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. Her feminism and democratic socialism lead to the creation of The Abeokuta women’s union (AWU) and later Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), organisations and movements that aided Kuti to promote women’s rights to education, employment and to political participation. When king Alake Ademola of Egbaland wanted to impose taxes on women, Kuti and the AWU clan went to protest using the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. They were not equal members of society and were strongly opposed to paying taxes until the injustices were rectified. As the women protested outside the Alake’s house, they sang in Yoruba:
“Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you
are our husband.
Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”
Their unified actions resulted remarkably in the king’s abdication.
 7 African female icons that shaped history

Yaa Asantewa

2. Yaa Asantewa – The Commander in Chief

No woman is known in the history of the African reactions and responses to European power better than Nana Yaa Asantewa of the Asante state Edweso in Ghana. She was the military leader of what is known as the ‘Yaa Asantewa War’, which was the last war between the Asante and the British, and during which she became referred to by the British as the ‘Joan D’Arc of Africa’. Although she did not enter combat herself, the troops fought in her name and she gave orders and provided the troops with gun powder.

 7 African female icons that shaped history
Winnie Mandela

3. Winnie Mandela – The President’s Wife

Twenty years of separation proved too much even for the Mandelas. The young woman Nelson Mandela knew when he was incarcerated was not the middle-aged woman to whom he returned. And she, now accustomed to the company of young male rebels became uncomfortable in the presence of the old Nelson. When the couple embarked on an international journey after Nelson’s release, crowds flocked to see him, the person they considered the hero of South African anti-apartheid politics. What this crowd was likely not to know was Winnie’s activist work, her leadership and her outspoken opposition to white minority rule played an equal role in the anti-apartheid campaign . There’s a clip here that is historically significant.

 7 African female icons that shaped history
Margaret Ekpo

4. Margaret Ekpo – The Fashionable Feminist

Margaret Ekpo was famous for being a fashionable woman who combined western and Nigerian fashion influences. Perhaps her background as a seamstress enabled her to even better express her ‘Afropolitan’ lifestyle via her clothing. She loved ballroom dancing and was a devout Christian, but  when it came to her political activism, which really is what she was about, she made sure to uphold an image of Africaness, wearing traditional clothes and plaiting hair during political campaigns.

A few women can lay claim to as many legacies for their countrymen as Maragaret Ekpo. At the time of her death she left behind a legacy of ‘One Nigeria’, ‘Women in Politics’, ‘Women in Business and Leadership’ and ‘Emancipation for Women’.

 7 African female icons that shaped history
Miriam Makeba

5. Miriam Makeba – The Mother of Africa

Another prominently outspoken and visible opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime was Miriam Makeba, also known as Mama Africa, and the Empress of African song. Makeba was not only involved in radical activity against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power. In fact, she was married (albeit briefly) to the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who was her fourth husband out of five. She said:

Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can’t do anything about that.

 7 African female icons that shaped history
Queen Nzinga sculpture

6. Queen Nzinga –  The reformist
Also knows as Queen Jinga, she is known to have assigned women to important government offices in present day Angola. Two of her war leaders were reputedly her sisters, her council of advisors contained many women, among others her sisters, Princess Grace Kifunji and Mukumbu, the later Queen Barbara, and women were called to serve in her army. Nzinga organized a powerful guerrilla army, conquered some of her enemies and developed alliances to control the slave routes. She even allied with the Dutch to help her stop the Portuguese advancement. After a series of decisive setbacks, Nzinga had to negotiate a peace treaty with the Portuguese, but still refused to pay tribute to the Portuguese king.

 7 African female icons that shaped history
Lady Ruth Khama

7. Ruth Williams, Lady Khama – The Motswanan

Lady Khama was the wife of Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama. She was born in Blackheath in south-east London and was the daughter of a retired Indian Army officer. Her marriage to the man who would become Botswana’s president was met with disapproval in Botswana, it enraged apartheid South Africa, and embarrassed the British government. Lady Khama was an influential, politically active first lady during her husband’s tenure as president. When Seretse Khama died in 1980, many expected that Ruth Khama would return to London. But instead she became president of the country’s Red Cross. She said:

“I am completely happy here and have no desire to go anywhere else, I have lived here for more than half my life, and my children are here. When I came to this country I became a Motswana.”

A film, A Marriage of Inconvenience, was made in 1990 about the Khamas.

By the way, I am working with an NGO called Arise Nigeria Woman, and we are focusing primarily on getting women involved in nation building, particularly in the upcoming elections in Nigeria. You can help our work by signing up here and also there is a post on the site also about historical African women.

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  • http://www.ashy2classy.net Diggame

    Great post!! Love stuff like this educating the masses on some of our unkown achievements and influences

  • http://vickii-ibakethereforeiam.blogspot.com/ Vickii

    Great post Minna! I hadn’t heard of a lot of these women before today, but this is precisely why I like your blog – you educate me :) I love Chimamanda’s speech on the danger of a single story and hope that we all have a role to play in shaping the story of Africa; a story that is hopefully as multi-faceted, diverse, and different as we all are.

  • Pingback: Seven African Females Who Shaped History | Parlour Magazine

  • http://www.chictherapyonline.blogspot.com chictherapy

    love the list.Can you imagine if these women had folded their arms and accepted the status quo?

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  • myview

    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf?
    Unity Dow?

  • Pingback: Sun Dancing In Honor of Angela Davis’s Birthday & Other Black Women Warriors! « Global Fusion Productions Inc

  • http://aduunyo.com/author/awoowehamza/ Awoowe Hamza

    This reminds me of the African proverb:
    ““until lions have their historians, the hunt will always glorify the hunter”

    I wrote a post about it: http://aduunyo.com/2012/05/the-awoowe-diaries-the-lion-or-the-hunter/ (sorry, don’t mean to advertise, just thought I’d share)

    But great article and keep educating us sister! I wouldn’t say we need more sisters like you, because I believe we already do have them, but what we need is for more of them to speak out like you do! Keep being a good rolemodel :)

    Keep shining and stay a blessing!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment, we indeed need to keep encouraging sisters to speak out. Will check out the link too. Sharing is always welcome here.

  • Arnold

    Very nice update really ve to take this to students in the classroom who dont ve access to this

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks, great!

  • mandizvidza sheunesu

    nice article that give us a little more than we have been fed on since way back.women deserve a special mention in the history of africa.mbuya nehanda?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks! Same to you.

  • eriq gidds ouko

    Changing World requires all

  • http://www.blogtalkradio.com/empresschi National MWM

    Greetings:
    While. we really appreciate this posting, we have a problem with a white woman being placed in the same category as these great incredible (real) African women. Why can we not, still in this day focus on OUR SISTERS. It is very sad and clearly demonstrates how much work there is still ahead to take our rightful places as the “Mother of Civilization” etc. We are so thankful for the Million Woman U Movements

  • https://facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001287005091 Andrew Dalton

    I found this site interesting and as a white, male European I was looking for something to help me explain to my children that history is written by victors from the time of the ancients. However, I am not sure why a white African woman should be criticised for being on the list. It makes no more sense than excluding President Obama, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali or Rosa Parkes from a list of great Americans as none of the above are native Americans. I accept without any argument that black Africans had very much more brutal treatment than white Africans dissidents during the colonial periods of African history but isn’t the impact of actions on a continent of greater import than ethnicity?

  • Richard Kildare

    Good summary of African women leaders, I would suggest more be added, as a Jamaican I challenged my daughters to find and present written reports on influential and or powerful female African women your content was helpful to expand their search. More tribal queens and warrior women of African history can be added.