Interventions from Black African Feminists
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White feminism has typically constructed Black sub-Saharan African women as passive recipients of aid unable to solve our own problems, many of which were brought on by white Europeans.
African feminists such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Akosua Ampofo Adomako, and Awino Okech have all claimed space within African feminism and have worked to disrupt feminist campaigns to “save” African women from African men and other ideas shrouded in colonial, and now, neocolonial rhetoric that suggests that patriarchy and misogyny are inherent to or even synonymous with Africa.
According to Aidoo (1998), the “docile, mendicant, African woman of today is a media creation” (p. 42; see also Gassama, 2019). As with Indigenous women, these distortions are far from true, though this is not to say that patriarchy and misogyny are not issues African women contend with. Aidoo (1998) identified three historical factors that have shaped the idea that contemporary African women are weak, submissive, not-feminist-enough, or anti-feminism.
They include: (a) Indigenous African societal patterns, for example, traditional gender roles rooted in heteronormativity that said that women had to marry men and reproduce babies; (b) the conquest of Africa by Europe (read: “the scramble for Africa,” colonization, and imperialism); and (c) the lack of vision, courage, and leadership of African leaders in the postcolonial period (for example, corrupt African government officials seduced by white European ways of being and dominating; p. 42).
Speaking on the submissive African woman Aidoo wrote, “if she does exist, she is the result of the traumas of the last five hundred years’ encounter with the West, the last one hundred years of colonial repression, and the current neocolonial disillusionment” (1998, p. 42; see also Gassama, 2019). These three factors work together to shape the idea that African women are not only submissive but that they are against the idea of feminism, seeing it as a Western by-product and un-African.
To be clear, African women who deny and reject feminism do exist. But in many cases, it is not that these African women are against the idea of feminism per se or opposed to gender equality. Like the Asian feminists discussed in the previous blog, they instead reject the idea of white feminism in favour of broader articulations of gender equality that are attentive to cultural nuances, such as the fight for nationalism and independence.
In The African Woman Today, Aidoo (1998) gave examples of African women who fought for liberation from various European colonizers well before North American first-wave feminism formally existed. For example, Aidoo directs our attention to ancient Benin circa the 1600s where “all-female battalions of Dahomey women protected their empire from being invaded.” During the seventeenth century, Queen Njinga Mbandi “fought [with] uncompromising viciousness to prevent the Portuguese from overrunning Angola” (1998, p. 42; see also Gassama, 2019). In Ghana, known then as the Asante Empire/Kingdom, Queen Mother and soldier Yaa Asantewaa led an uprising against the British during the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Asante-British War of 1900 (Aidoo, 1998, p. 42; see also Edgerton, 1995; Gassama, 2019). In Nigeria, Igbo women in the East “harassed the British colonial administration in 1920” to the point that they had to move their headquarters from Calabar to Lagos (Aidoo, 1998, pp. 40–1). In Zimbabwe, Mbuya Nehanda was hanged for an insurgency against the British. And in Kenya, General Muthoni was a guerrilla leader during the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British.
Aidoo also names the powerful African women of more recent times who have stepped into leadership roles, such as Winnie Mandela, Sibongile Mkhabela, Albertina Sisulu, and Zodwa Sobukwe. These examples of African women pushing back against patriarchy vis-à-vis struggles for nationalism and independence get erased and overlooked as women’s work.
While these earlier narratives cannot be said to be examples of feminism proper, based on Western definitions of feminism, because it was not Black patriarchs these women opposed, we cannot separate patriarchal oppression from colonial oppression. Intersectional analysis is needed here. While it was not the African man that these women warriors were fighting against at the time, it was colonial patriarchy all the same. The battles they took on were against white colonial men and in the name of equality. They fought not only on behalf of women but also children and men.
Rarely does African feminism leave men and children behind (Adomako, 2009). These were prime examples of women’s liberation, even when African women fought for more than just women alone.
But what white feminists have done is claim the word feminism and define it as something that Black, Indigenous, and other feminists of colour have taken issue with. This has led to non-white feminists distancing themselves from the term feminism, even if they also provided templates of what we currently envision as feminism. While some African women have always been doing and advocating for women’s work and gender equality, white feminism has hijacked and claimed ownership over these types of work and erased different articulations only to then turn around and claim these histories are not feminist enough because patriarchy, as white women know it, was not centered in these histories.
While Africa is the origin of so much of what has come to be co-opted and appropriated, African women (and Africa in general), have been etched into the collective consciousness as obsolete, an afterthought, and to use Mohanty (2003), as mimicry. Despite these challenges, African feminists have resisted and continue to do so. These feminists exist and have existed and they continue to engage in revolutionary work. This trailblazing spirit of African feminists can be found throughout the continent and extends to those in the diaspora.
Interventions From Black Feminists and Black Feminist Theory
In the Americas, Black women born during the era of slavery, such as Black revolutionary leader Sojourner Truth, were actively engaged in feminist organizing as early as 1851 (Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Jones, 2019; Springer, 2002). In Third Wave Black Feminism? Kimberly Springer (2002) brought our attention to Black feminist figures who were already actively resisting sexism, slavery, and anti-Black racism as far back as the antebellum period. Notably, Springer (2002, p. 1062) highlights contributions from Angela Davis (1995), Deborah Gray White (1985), and Harriet Jacobs (1987), whose research on slave narratives sheds light on how enslaved women fought back against rape, forced pregnancy, and separation from their children and families.
These forms of feminist rebellion predate first-wave feminism. As with much of mainstream feminism, the erasure of Black women (and Blackness in general) meant that these accounts were minimized, if not erased entirely (see also Hobbs & Rice, 2013; Jones, 2019). For this reason, Black American women have had to carve out their own place within the feminist movement.
Black Americans such as Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks have advocated for Black feminisms. Alice Walker created new vocabularies like womanism and womanists to replace feminism for Black women who envisioned and lived the fight for gender equality differently than white feminists (see Blay, 2008).
Black feminism was a direct response to second-wave white feminism and its anti-Black exclusionary practices. It emerged in the late 1960s thanks to Black second-wave thinkers and activists who took issue with white feminism’s inability to address Black women who stepped into the movement as both gendered and racialized beings (Hill Collins, 2000a, 2000b; Jones, 2019; Springer, 2002; Tripp, 2013).
Black feminist theory gained popularity by the 1970s and was well-positioned as a theoretical framework due in large part to the Combahee River Collective founded in 1973. The Combahee River Collective is best known for its role in the creation of Black feminist theorizing and Black feminism. The Collective originated in the United States, born out of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).
According to Black feminist writer Becky Thompson (2003, p. 400), the Collective was named after a river in South Carolina where Black revolutionary Harriet Tubman led a resistance movement that resulted in 750 slaves becoming free (see also Jones, 2019). The Collective was formed out of resistance to challenge white supremacy within mainstream feminism (Combahee River Collective, 2015; Jones, 2019; Springer, 2002; Thompson, 2003). They took issue with white feminism’s inability to hold space for issues of anti-Black racism, diverse sexual orientations, gender variance, disability, and class as inseparable from one’s gender. Black activists, organizers, artists, scholars, and other professional and everyday feminists argued that while they were able to organize on behalf of a vast majority of women, not just Black women, white feminism struggled to mobilize on behalf of Black and other women of colour (Collins, 1996; Jones, 2019; Springer, 2002).
It is out of this genealogy that Black feminist theory was born. While Black queer and trans women worked toward a truly universal vision of freedom and liberation for more women, including those that were poor and low-income and those located outside of the United States, white feminism was given the credit for being universal.
Meanwhile, Black women were told that they were divisive and polarizing (Jones, 2019). This rupture resulted in separation and division. Take the words of Indigenous poet Chrystos (2015), who explained, “I left the women’s movement utterly drained. I have no interest in returning....Perhaps white women are so rarely loyal because they do not have to be” (pp. 66–67). These are the ways tensions, conflict, and negative experiences within feminist movements are felt and have an impact.
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Until next time, in solidarity.