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Female Agency in African History: From Solidarity to Innovation Essay

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For many Westerners, Africa is stereotyped as a continent of tribes with primitive social structures and hierarchies. Included in this stereotype is an idea of the African woman as subservient, vulnerable and in need of protection. However, reality shows these notions are incredibly misguided. Although there is no denying that males functioned as the dominant sex in Africa, there are many historical analyses which show that women often had an active social role. One such analysis is “The Iyalode in the Traditional Yoruba Political System,” an essay by Bolanle Awe, which describes the role women played in the governing systems of the Yoruba people of West Africa. In “Rebels or Status Seekers: Women as Spirit Mediums in East Africa,” author Iris Berger details the social role spirit-mediums held in that area, including southern and western Uganda. Moreover, Deborah Gaitskell accounts the impact of Christianity on women in “Devout Domesticity: A Century of African Women’s Christianity in South Africa.” Though there are many other accounts of female agency, these three articles show that many African women have effectively engaged in politics and have innovatively responded to both the social restraints imposed upon them and to the cultural shifts resulting from colonialism. The three situations the authors have detailed provide evidence of women’s active role in African history. By comparing and contrasting the different roles these women played in society—and how colonization affected these roles—I wish to explain and analyze the often neglected contributions women had in African history.
The situations described by these three articles cannot be used to make grand, sweeping statements about women’s roles in all of Africa;...


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...ention any change in female agency. Although other authors have provided details on women’s societal roles, one cannot transfer those experiences onto the women on Niumi; two separate places will always have two distinct histories, particularly on the ethnically varied African continent. It is unfortunate that Wright fails to mention female agency, but given outside evidence it is safe to assume that women probably had an active function in Niumi. Women’s actual function in African culture is hardly relatable to the general conception of their role. The notion of the weak and socially inept woman is quelled by descriptions of female political leaders and communal congregations of hundreds of exuberant, devout women worshipers. Women’s resourcefulness and adaptability in African history demonstrates how active they were in shaping their own identities and cultures.



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