Great women in Africa went beyond the call of duty and changed people’s perception of female leadership at times when the thought of being a leader for a woman was frowned on. Undermined but highly significant are the roles African women have played in the moulding of African history. African women have influenced the stereotypical structure of power and politics through many events and actions, shedding light on women’s strength and ability. Embedded in history is how African women fought for human rights that they have been deprived of by culture.
This article showcases the extraordinary actions of ten select African women. We can only fully appreciate them if we read with an open mind free of bias or stereotypes. Who, what and how have these women affected history positively? Can our knowledge of them change our views?
Understanding the significant contributions of these women will give you a better understanding of the role that African women play and help you appreciate women in general.
Amina Sukhera was a princess of Zazzau (now known as Zaria) in the northern region of Nigeria. Amina Sukhera was born in 1533 and grew into a vicious warrior. She deprived herself of the experience of marriage to build the financial and economic growth of Zaria, making it a centre for trade and commerce.
Amina introduced the cultivation and marketing of kola nuts in Zaria and expanded its territory. She died around the year 1610. Fierce and stubborn, she didn’t follow conventional standards and norms.
Queen Nzinga was the most significant military strategist that ever confronted the armed forces of Portugal. She was an outstandingly intelligent woman, born around 1582 in Central Africa. Despite culture making her gender an obstacle to rule, she carried out military campaigns. This kept the Portuguese insurgence at a bare minimum under control for more than forty years.
With her powerful army, she had victories and was even able to gain coalitions to control the slave routes. Despite setbacks, Queen Nzinga compromised by having a peace treaty with the Portuguese and refused to pay tribute. She planned on completely ridding Africa of Portuguese capture and enslavement. Nzinga had representatives throughout West and Central Africa whose duty was to bring Africans together to unite against their common enemy, the Portuguese.
She died in 1663 at the age of 81. Her courageous stand against cultural expectations and standards is appreciated and encourages African women.
Queen Nanny of Windward Maroons of Jamaica
Born in Ghana around 1686, Queen Nanny was a Jamaican political leader, a great strategist, and a magician. Queen Nanny led the Windward Maroons, enslaved people who escaped and built societies protected from slavery.
With Queen Nanny leading the war against the British, they won. They acquired lands that the Windward Maroon community was built on. Queen Nanny died in 1733, but her life was immensely significant in the history of power distribution for women.
Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen’s mother of Ejisuhene. She was born in 1840. Yaa Asantewaa was known as the Keeper of the Golden Stool of the Ashanti Confederacy. She had led the war against Britain and opposed the violent British demand for total domination of the Ashanti kingdom.
She also demanded the return of King Ashatehene Prempeh I when others didn’t mind handing over their power to the British colonizers. Although Asantewaa lost the war against the British and was exiled to Seychelles, where she died in 1921, her bravery is a strong example of extraordinary female leadership. She also motivated Ghanaians to fight for their freedom.
Funmilayo was born in 1900 and birthed famous musician and activist Fela Kuti. While alive, she was an African feminist, social activist, tutor, and anti-colonial freedom fighter. Funmilayo is the founder of the Nigerian Women’s Union, which in 1953 became the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies.
In addition, Funmilayo fought against economic policies that negatively affected the female population by implementing tax strikes and standing against colonial rule. Funmilayo was dedicated to justice throughout her lifetime and died in 1978. She is a great inspiration for women globally.
Margaret Ekpo, born in 1914, was a Nigerian women’s rights activist and social mobilizer. She promoted the involvement of women in politics in a hierarchical and male-dominated era. She died in 2006, leaving behind a legacy of unity and encouraging women in business, politics and leadership.
Margaret lived a life of pride for her country and continent. She was a talented and fashionable woman, well-known for combining Western and Nigerian fashion. She led a multicultural lifestyle, a devout Christian who enjoyed fancy ballroom dances and upheld her love for her African roots. She was known to wear traditional clothes and braid her hair during her political campaigns. This representation of her culture was even more impressive because, during her time, most women in the public arena conformed to Western-style.
Giséle Rabesahala was a politician from Madagascar, born in 1929. She was the first Malagasy politician to be elected as a municipal councillor in 1956. In 1958, she was a political party leader and was appointed minister in 1977.
Rabesahala was the inventor of the Imongo Vaovao newspaper and was well-known for her dedication to Madagascar’s independence and the human rights movement. Rabesahala remained an active journalist and political campaigner until she died in 2011.
This well-loved woman, fondly known as Mama Africa, was born in 1932. Miriam Makeba was an activist, an artist, and a great participant in the Anti-Apartheid and Pan-African movement. Her musical content powerfully preached against the Apartheid government of South Africa and racial disenfranchisement. It encouraged listeners to fight injustice.
She pushed the people forward with her music, repeatedly reminding them to fight against injustice. She died in 2006 but will always be celebrated for her excellent work and talent.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
In 2006, Ellen was elected the president of Liberia and automatically became the first female African president. She was born in 1938.
In 2011, President Sirleaf shared a Nobel Peace Prize with other outstanding leaders whose non-violent peace-keeping process was honoured.
She is a Model for African women in politics. Her tenures as the President were debt-free as she strategically developed the economic system of Liberia, so much that THE ECONOMIST called her “unarguably the best President the country has ever had. In 2010, she wrote a book titled, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President. She also holds several positions. In 2016, Forbes named her the 51st most powerful woman globally, and she is known for her political prowess.
Professor Wangari Maathai was a famous environmentalist, women’s rights activist, and Nobel laureate in Kenya, born in 1940. Maathai was well known for improving the lives of many disfranchised groups in society. In 1977, Maathai founded the National Council of Women of Kenya (now known as the Green Belt Movement). This organization comes to the aid of women living in the rural areas of Kenya, responding to their social and economic needs.
Maathai encouraged Kenyan women to plant trees, which aided rainfall and served as a source of food and income. Maathai urged people to make the government accountable for increased poverty and environmental degradation. Maathai imprinted the importance of good environmental conditions in people’s minds and continues to do so even after she died in 2011.
These are fine examples from the numerous inspiring African women who significantly impacted African history. Their bravery, selflessness, and notable accomplishments have been a substantial push in the struggle for African women’s empowerment. They influence the societies view of gender roles in Africa and the world.